By Naomi Tajitsu
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - When Trent Kandler and Paul McCarthy decided to get engaged, they knew they would probably have to tie the knot outside their native Australia, where same-sex unions are not yet legal.
Two years later, wearing matching three-piece suits and pink ties, the couple marched down the isle at Wellington's Te Papa national museum, 2,200 km (1,370 miles) from home, as a law to legalise gay marriage in New Zealand went into force on Monday.
"Our relationship is validated in front of our family and friends," McCarthy told Radio New Zealand after the ceremony. "I'm a very proud man."
Kandler and McCarthy were in the spotlight after winning a contest by the tourism board to invite a gay Australian couple to wed in New Zealand, the 13th country to allow homosexuals to marry. More than 300 Australian couples applied.
New Zealanders Lynley Bendall and Ally Wanikau were among about 30 same-sex couples to say "I do" on Monday, exchanging vows on board an Air New Zealand <AIR. NZ> flight to Auckland from the ski resort town of Queenstown on the country's South Island.
"To be married at 30,000 feet beneath strings of fairy lights with our children, friends and family as witnesses makes an already memorable day that much more special," Bendall said after an in-flight ceremony with a choir serenading the newlyweds with a traditional Maori love song.
New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs said late last week that roughly 1,000 marriage applications were downloaded in the week since same-sex applications became available, around three times the average number.
Around 170 were from overseas, mainly from Australia but also from Hong Kong, Russia and the United States.
"WE'RE BEING VIEWED AS EQUAL"
McCarthy said many of his friends in Australia were looking to travel to New Zealand to marry, given its proximity and shared culture and customs, even though their unions would not be recognised back home.
"Being able to marry here as an equal citizen, even though we're not citizens of this country, means we're being viewed as equal - and that's all we really want," he told Reuters.
The government of New Zealand, a tiny country of 4.4 million people predominantly of British and Christian heritage, in April passed the Marriage Amendment Act that enables couples to marry regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
Established Christian churches were uneasy about the new law, with Roman Catholics opposed outright and Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists split.
In Australia, opinion polls show widespread support for gay marriage but recent attempts to change the law have stalled.
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard opposed gay marriage, but new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd supports it. Rudd will allow a parliamentary vote if he wins the September 7 elections, although the proposal is unlikely to pass.
Tourism New Zealand said it had seen a rise in the number of Australians interested in visiting since the marriage law was passed in April. Australia is already New Zealand's biggest inbound tourism market, accounting for around 17 percent of the $7.8 billion industry.
The legalisation of gay marriage adds another notch to New Zealand's liberal record. It was the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893 and it has declared itself to be nuclear-free since 1984.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan; Editing by Ron Popeski)