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CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters Life!) - The devastation caused by last month's earthquake in New Zealand's second-biggest city, Christchurch, took Prince William by surprise on Thursday.
The second in line to the British throne toured the central area of the city, which is still closed to all but rescue workers, to see at first hand the impact of the magnitude 6.3 quake which struck on Feb 22, killing at least 166 people.
"The scale of it is unbelievable, it really does bring it home to you to see a building like that, it's just so sad," the prince said looking at the 26-storey Hotel Grand Chancellor, which is teetering at a dangerous angle after part of its foundations slumped.
Media and officials outnumbered members of the public as the casually dressed prince was briefed at the disaster relief headquarters before touring the central business district.
The visit was seen as a morale boost for the city of around 400,000, smashed by two massive quakes in five months, the last of which killed at least 166 people.
"He's our prince, he didn't have to come here but he did and the fact that he did means a great deal to us," said local mayor Bob Parker.
The prince had been applauded as he walked through the airport terminal after arriving, with one woman heard to call out "thank you so much for coming to Christchurch".
Christchurch promotes its English roots, from the immigrants who settled there in the mid-nineteenth century through to the names of its streets and river -- the Avon -- classical stone and masonry architecture and plush gardens.
The prince's grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, is New Zealand's nominal head of state, and although the idea of the country becoming a republic has been raised, there is neither any impetus nor popular support for such a move.
The prince was due to fly later on Thursday to the small town of Greymouth, around 250 km (160 miles) west of Christchurch to meet families of the 29 miners killed in the Pike River coal mine explosion last November.
He will attend a memorial service for victims of the earthquake in Christchurch on Friday, before he leaves on Saturday for Australia where he will tour flood-damaged areas in Queensland.
Writing by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Ed Davies