Net cast wide to catch right romance
Trevor Phillips had been wooing a young woman from the Philippines online for more than a year before they met face to face.
And even then, as she stood in front of him at Wellington Airport, he struggled to recognise her.
"She was a very young-looking girl who seemed to know where she was going. I thought she must live here."
But she didn't. Instead, Arnila Pintor had flown to a strange new country to start a relationship with a man she had never met.
"I approached him and said, 'Trevor Phillips?' and he said, ‘Yes'."
Six years later the couple are still happily together, living in a purple weatherboard house in Porirua.
Ms Pintor works at a KiwiSaver provider and Mr Phillips is retired, spending most of his time working on his purple yacht.
The couple are part of what is believed to be a growing interest among New Zealand men in seeking love abroad over the internet.
Little is known about the phenomenon in New Zealand but a Victoria University study in 2011 suggests that, aided by the internet, Kiwi men are increasingly turning their eyes overseas for women.
Figures show a disproportionate number of women from countries associated with "mail-order brides", such as Russia and the Philippines, are migrating to New Zealand and pairing up with Pakeha or Maori men.
The study said the Western men generally believed they had better chance of finding a suitable partner overseas, particularly if they wanted a more "traditional" relationship.
The women often cited better opportunities overseas and dissatisfaction with relationships at home as luring them to the West, often towards older men.
Transnational online coupling has copped a fair amount of flak, depicted as lecherous older Western men preying on younger vulnerable women looking for a way out of poverty or abuse.
So-called romance tours, where Western men go on organised trips to eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, have even sparked protests, with critics labelling it sex tourism.
Love tourism grabbed New Zealand headlines in 2010, when West Auckland winemaker Greg Morgan won Rock FM's controversial "Win a Wife" competition.
As his prize, he took a romance tour to the Ukraine with New Zealand agency Endless Love to find a partner. There he met and fell in love with Irena.
After only 12 days together in Ukraine, she agreed to come to New Zealand for a few months to test out a new life with Mr Morgan.
After she went home, the pair kept in contact over Skype and in August last year she came back to New Zealand to live. She now has her New Zealand residency and the pair are still together.
"She thinks New Zealand is pretty good," he says. "She has some work with a bridal fashion designer, she is making the most of opportunities here."
Mr Morgan says love tours may not be a conventional way of finding a partner but it has worked for him, and Irena. In other respects, their relationship is pretty normal, with its up and downs.
"It was 125 per cent success. As far as finding a soulmate and my other half, it has been a pretty good way to go about it."
Back in Titahi Bay, Wellington, Ms Pintor and Mr Phillips talk over each other about how they met.
At first glance, they make an unusual pair. At 69, Mr Phillips is 18 years older, and has no children. Part of the left side of his body is paralysed from a stroke 13 years ago.
Ms Pintor has just turned 51 and has three grown children back in the Philippines, where she had successful career as a banker.
However, both had come out of difficult and painful marriages and were looking for something different this time round.
Ms Pintor says that for Filipino women, particularly those who have come out of another relationship, looking overseas for love is common.
One of her friends also met a New Zealand man over the internet and the pair now live in Churton Park.
Mr Phillips signed up to Filipina Hearts in 2005 and started trawling through the girls, many of them barely out of school, looking for a woman a little closer to his age.
"I hadn't had much luck with New Zealand girls and Filipino girls are the prettiest, so I looked there."
Meanwhile in Philippines, Ms Pintor had already been separated for five years and was thinking about the next step in her life.
"My friends advised me that, with my kids getting older, I would be left alone."
At the time, she didn't have an internet connection and her daughter had to help set up her computer and profile on Filipina Hearts.
Both eventually whittled down a gaggle of potential suitors to one another.Mr Phillips is cagey about why he picked Ms Pintor, although he says, at only 18 years his junior, she was among the oldest on the site.
"They were all a bit too young, I wasn't sure whether I could keep up."
Ms Pintor says Mr Phillips was simply persistent and honest. He contacted her every day without fail, and spoke openly about his stroke, his age and his lifelong obsession with his yacht.
"I thought, 'I like this guy, he is an honest guy'."
It also helped that Ms Pintor had already been eyeing up New Zealand and had even gone as far as getting a residency visa in 2001.
After communicating for a year online, she finally came to New Zealand to stay for a few months to try out life with Mr Phillips.
She spent the first months wrapped up in gloves and beanie and desperately missing rice. But, despite having to make some adjustments, she says she enjoys living with Mr Phillips and exploring the country.
"I arrived in March 2007 and, in April, he told me not to go home, not to leave him."
So Ms Pintor stayed, and settled into New Zealand life. She has been back to the Philippines only once.
"I do miss my family but, when I went home in 2009, I found it hard. I missed New Zealand, I missed this guy."
The Dominion Post