Kauri Lounge: The secret airport lounge for VIPs there are no official photos of

The Government department that operates a private lounge for VIPs in Auckland International Airport can't release any official photographs of it - because it doesn't have any.

The Kauri Lounge is shrouded in mystery; a mostly hidden part of the airport reserved for Royal Family members, Prime Ministers - including ours, and other high-ranking dignitaries.

It is a small, private area by the airport's gate 4 fitting about 15-20 people where VIPs can go before they embark on a flight or after arriving in New Zealand. In some cases, the guests can bypass security checks. 

"It is important that the arriving guests have space, calm and privacy after what will often have been a long flight and that New Zealand border agencies are able to efficiently provide the relevant clearances for the party," the DIA website says.

While taxpayers fund the lounge - to the tune of nearly $400,000 a year - there are no pictures of it online that Newshub can find. 

Newshub sent an Official Information Act request to the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) asking for all photographs and concept art it has of the area. DIA's Visits and Ceremonial Office (VCO) manages the lounge and leases it from the airport.

But the department refused the request on the basis that it doesn't hold the information and doesn't believe any other department does.

In a statement, a DIA spokesperson said: "The Department has no specific reason for holding stock photos of the lounge in terms of discharging our functions, in this case VCO facilitating international arrival and departure formalities". 

It said this was also the case with other premises it operates. 

"Should opportunities arise in conjunction with future visits, the Department may take photographs of the lounge and make them publicly available. But these would need to be in accordance with maintaining the safety and security requirements of entitled users."

Border closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic mean lounge usage has dropped significantly over the past two years. In the 2021/22 financial year, 178 people went through the lounge, compared to 1152 in 2019/20 and 2285 in 2018/19. In the 2020/21 year, just 65 people used it.

"Due to the removal of COVID-19 border control measures and lifting of travel restrictions by the New Zealand government and governments overseas, usage of the Kauri Lounge increased in 2021/22, and will continue over this financial year."

Prior to the pandemic, the most frequent users of the lounge were Pacific Heads of Government, guests of the Government, and ministers. Ministers and guests of the Government have been the most frequent users since.

Newshub asked for a list of Kauri Lounge users and when they visited the lounge, but this was refused on a number of grounds, including that it would likely prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or its international relations, that it might prejudice the entrusting of information between governments, and for privacy reasons. 

DIA said guests are able to "avail themselves, at no cost, of modest beverage and catering services, bathroom facilities and to use the lounge to conduct business or meetings prior to or immediately following their arrival/departure".

While the number of people using the lounge has dropped in recent years, the annual operating cost hasn't. DIA said the bulk of operating expenses are the fixed costs of rent, rates, and salaries.

In the 2021/22 financial year, it cost about $392,000 to operate the lounge. Pre-pandemic in 2017/18, it cost $367,000 and in 2018/19, $398,000.

Due to the pandemic, three staff members who were based in the lounge were redeployed.

Many of the guests who use the lounge are exempt from aviation security screening when departing on flights, including Heads of State, Royalty, the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, and the Foreign Minister. However, airlines still have final discretion as to who to allow onboard.