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Prince William heads Down Under

WELLINGTON, Jan 15 – Britain\’s Prince William arrives in New Zealand Sunday for a visit Down Under during which he will be mixing with All Black rugby players, young Aborigines and bushfire victims.

As well as carrying out some ceremonial duties on behalf of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, in New Zealand, the second-in-line to the throne will travel to Australia on Tuesday for a more informal three-day visit.

Tabloid coverage in Britain of the 27-year-old son of Prince Charles has been dominated by speculation about whether he is likely to propose to long-term girlfriend Kate Middleton.

But officials say she is not expected to join him on this trip.

Many visits by Britain\’s royal family members to the former colonies tend to be relatively low key affairs but the young prince has some of the allure that made his late mother Princess Diana such a popular figure.

"I think what we have seen previously with royal visits here is there are those people who get very excited about it and Prince William is obviously someone that certainly has that global pull," New South Wales Tourism Minister Jodi McKay told reporters on Wednesday.

"I think that we will see some prince mania, but that\’s a good thing."

The personal popularity of the prince is likely to ensure there will be little focus on growing republican sentiments in both countries, which recognise Queen Elizabeth as their head of state.

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William will be making his third visit to New Zealand, the first was with his parents as a nine-month-old baby in 1983.

He returned in 2005, representing the Queen at World War II commemorations and also taking time out to follow the fortunes of the touring British and Irish Lions.

"I am immensely looking forward to returning to New Zealand following my incredibly enjoyable visit in 2005," William said last month when details of the visit were released.

"New Zealand and New Zealanders utterly captivated me on that visit and, since then, New Zealand has become a very special place for me."

William\’s interest in rugby will take centre stage at the start of the visit with a visit Sunday to Eden Park rugby stadium in Auckland when he will meet some All Blacks and hear about plans for next year\’s rugby World Cup.

He will later go sailing on Auckland Harbour in a New Zealand America\’s Cup yacht and have a traditional indigenous Maori "hangi" meal cooked in a pit in the ground.

The official centrepiece of the visit in the capital Wellington the next day, will be the opening of the new Supreme Court building and a public walkabout after which Prime Minister John Key will host a barbecue.

During two days in Sydney, his itinerary includes visits to an Aboriginal community centre and an Australian army base.

On the tour\’s last day in Melbourne on Thursday, the prince will be visiting nearby rural areas devastated by fire in February last year in Australia\’s worst natural disaster of modern times.

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On "Black Saturday", the raging bushfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

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