New Zealand passports are not for sale, Prime Minister Bill English said on Thursday, after it emerged US tech titan Peter Thiel gained citizenship in the South Pacific nation despite not meeting official criteria.
The dispute over Thiel's citizenship follows reports that mega-wealthy Americans are eyeing the remote South Pacific nation as a "bolthole" should Donald Trump's presidency go disastrously wrong.
The government confirmed this week that German-born billionaire Thiel was granted citizenship in June 2011, just two months after donating NZ$1.0 million (US$730,000) to an official Christchurch quake disaster fund.
English acknowledged Thiel did not meet the usual requirements - living at least 70 percent of the previous five years in New Zealand - but said he was granted citizenship due to exceptional circumstances.
"New Zealand is a better place with Mr Thiel as a citizen," English told reporters.
He declined to detail the exceptional circumstances and dismissed as "ridiculous" suggestions New Zealand had sold citizenship to Thiel, who Forbes estimates is worth US$2.7 billion.
"It's not a case of whether wealthy people can jump the queue," English said.
"It's whether people have particular skills, particular contributions that don't quite meet the criteria."
The opposition Labour Party's immigration spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway said the case raised questions about whether the rich were receiving special treatment.
"I don't think that fits very well with New Zealand's egalitarian values," he said.
- 'Escape hatch' -
Thiel, who has reportedly retained his US citizenship, co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook.
The 49-year-old made headlines last year when he acknowledged secretly funding a lawsuit against gossip website Gawker, which years earlier had outed him as gay.
He bucked the trend in Silicon Valley by supporting Trump and is part of the president's transition team.
The New York Times said that after Thiel strongly supported Trump's America-first rhetoric, adopting a "backup country" appeared a typically contrarian move by the tech investor.
"Perhaps Mr. Thiel's interest in New Zealand is indeed a way of hedging his bets on a biological catastrophe or an economic meltdown," it said.
The New Yorker magazine this week reported that many wealthy Americans were taking a similar view.
It cited a recent conversation between tech investor Justin Kan and an unnamed hedge fund manager who advised him to buy land in New Zealand.
"He's like: 'What's the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it's low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high'."
Immigration officials reported a spike in inquiries about moving to New Zealand after Trump's election and the Brexit vote.
English said the country's strong economy and political stability made it attractive in an uncertain global climate.
"Around the world now there's quite a lot of anxiety because there's so much uncertainty, whether it's in Europe or the UK or the US," he said.
"So I'd expect there would be demand for people to come to New Zealand. That's a measure of success."