WELLINGTON (AFP)

Dozens of same-sex couples said "I do" in New Zealand on Monday, taking to the skies and horse-drawn carriages to exchange their vows as the nation became only the 14th in the world to celebrate gay weddings.

Nuptials were held in venues ranging from an airliner flying at 30,000 feet (9,150 metres) to a historic bath house in the hot springs resort of Rotorua, as gay men and women took advantage of the changed law, in a first for the Asia-Pacific region.

The Campaign For Marriage Equality said it ended an historical injustice and meant the love of all people was recognised as equal in the eyes of the law.

"A massive congratulations to the happy couples tying the knot today. Marriage equality has finally arrived in New Zealand," spokesman Conrad Reyners said.

The amendment to the Marriage Act was passed by parliament in April but did not come into effect until Monday. Since April, France has approved gay marriage, and Britain has changed the law for England and Wales although weddings have yet to start there.

Air New Zealand staged a special flight for Lynley Bendall and Ally Wanikau to tie the knot in the air after 14 years together, with American gay rights campaigner and TV actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson in attendance.

"I'm very honoured to be here witnessing this historic day for New Zealand and for you as well," the "Modern Family" star said aboard the flight between the resort town of Queenstown and Auckland.

"It is so apparent to me when I see you together, that no law or legislation was ever going to diminish the love you have. But it is so wonderful that we can say that you are married legally."

Two radio stations competed to host New Zealand's first same-sex wedding, with the ceremonies broadcast live during their breakfast programmes.

In the end the nuptials took place around the same time, at 8:30 am Monday (2030 GMT Sunday), after the government offices that issue marriage licences had opened.

Reverend Matt Tittle from Auckland's Unitarian Church married one of the couples, Tash Vitali, 37, and Mel Ray, 29, who arrived at the ceremony in a horse-drawn carriage trailing a rainbow banner.

"It's history in the making," Tittle said. "Hopefully it will help other countries to do the same and help New Zealanders to realise that everyone has worth and dignity no matter who they love."

However, conservative lobby group Family First said changing the Marriage Act was "an arrogant act of cultural vandalism" that politicians had pushed through without a public mandate.

"Social engineers including politicians and activists are expecting marriage supporters to drop their deeply held convictions because of the misguided decisions of politicians," said national director Bob McCoskrie.

The Anglican Church has also asked its ministers not to conduct same-sex weddings pending a report to its general synod next year.

New Zealand decriminalised homosexuality in 1986 and has allowed same-sex civil unions since 2005.

At least 31 same-sex couples planned to marry Monday, while enquiries about staging same-sex weddings in New Zealand had been received from as far afield as Singapore, Guyana and Belgium.

Among the first to be married were Australian couple Paul McCarthy and Trent Kandler, who beat 300 other pairs to win a Tourism New Zealand competition.

Their wedding will not be legally recognised at home but McCarthy said he hoped that day would come, and the ceremony at Wellington's Te Papa museum showed "we don't have two horns, we're not freaks (and) that there's nothing to fear from marriage equality".

The town of Rotorua, famous for its boiling mud pools, hosted a double marriage of two brides, and two grooms, attended by a "flower guy" resplendent in a red cocktail dress as he scattered petals down the aisle.

Tourism New Zealand said the scenic country -- which has profited from its association with "The Lord of the Rings" films -- would also market itself as a gay-friendly destination.

"New Zealanders are incredibly tolerant of people with different lifestyles, so I'm very confident the industry will embrace this opportunity," the tourism agency's chief executive Kevin Bowler told TV3.

Agence France-Presse

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