21 Mar 2018

Obama watch: Former US president's convoy moves out

9:55 am on 21 March 2018

Former US president Barack Obama's visit could put New Zealand in the global spotlight if he takes to social media, former US ambassador to New Zealand Mark Gilbert says.

Barack Obama has left his hotel on Auckland's waterfront flanked by police and personal security staff.

There was a heavy police presence outside the entrance this morning and a black helicopter circling overhead.

Police stopped traffic to allow Mr Obama to leave the building at around 8.45am.

He is travelling in a silver car with darkened windows, and is expected to helicopter to Northland this morning, to play golf with Sir John Key.

Former US president Barack Obama's convoy leaves his hotel.

Former US president Barack Obama's convoy leaves his hotel. Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett

Mr Obama will be officially welcomed in Auckland tomorrow, talk privately to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and speak at a New Zealand US Council event that night.

Discussions with young leaders were also on the agenda, Mr Gilbert said, who was ambassador from 2014 to 2017 during Mr Obama's presidency, said.

"He is an avid golfer and I know that he will enjoy the opportunity to play some of New Zealand's absolutely beautiful courses," he said.

Mr Gilbert, who was ambassador from 2014 to 2017 during Mr Obama's presidency and is now the vice chairman for UBS Private Wealth in the US, is also in the country with his wife Nancy for the trip.

The police presence outside Mr Obama's hotel.

The police presence outside Mr Obama's hotel. Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett

He had tried to organise a trip to New Zealand for Mr Obama while he was president but his final year in office became too busy, Mr Gilbert said.

"This is something that he had always wanted to do.

"Hopefully he'll get to meet the wonderful people and see the beautiful country."

The Pacific region was important to the US and Mr Obama could boost New Zealand's profile if he posted about his trip to his more than 100 million social media followers, Mr Gilbert said.

"Anyone who has that many followers has an impact any time they talk about what they are doing."

Mr Obama talking about New Zealand could be "very positive" for New Zealand and US relationship, he said.

The former president will also meet with members of the Wāhine Toa Network of Māori women leaders on Friday - a project set up by Ms Gilbert during their time in New Zealand.

"They are truly the next generation of young Māori women leaders," he said.

Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon told Morning Report Mr Obama's visit would pay off for New Zealand "tremendously well".

He would not say how much the airline had spent on the visit, but that there was no new route to Chicago being announced, and no safety video with him being made.

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