Kaikoura became the first local authority to reach the Green Globe tourism certification standard.
According to the 2006 census, the permanent resident population is 2,172, a 2.03% decrease since the 1996 census. The town is the governmental seat of the territorial authority of the Kaikoura District, which is geographically a part of the Canterbury Region. The District has a land area of 2,046.41 km² (790.12 sq mi) and a 2006 census population of 3,621 inhabitants.
The Kaikoura Peninsula extends into the sea south of the town, and the resulting upwelling currents bring an abundance of marine life from the depths of the nearby Hikurangi Trench. The town owes its origin to this effect, since it developed as a centre for the whaling industry. The name 'Kaikoura' translates to 'meal of crayfish' ('kai'- food/meal, 'koura' - crayfish) and the crayfish industry still plays a role in the economy of the region. However Kaikoura has now become a popular tourist destination, mainly for whale watching (the Sperm Whale watching is perhaps the best and most developed in the world) and swimming with or near dolphins. There is also a large and readily observed colony of Southern Fur Seals at the eastern edge of the town. At low tide, better viewing of the seals can be had as the ocean gives way to a rocky base which is easily navigable by foot for quite some distance.
The town has a strikingly beautiful setting, as the Seaward Kaikoura mountains, a branch of the Southern Alps come nearly to the sea at this point on the coast. Because of this, there are many walking tracks up and through the mountains. A common one for tourists is the Mt. Fyffe track, which winds up Mt. Fyffe, and gives a panoramic view of the Kaikoura peninsula from the summit. Mt. Fyffe owes its name to the first family to settle in Kaikoura, the Fyffe family. The cottage that they lived in, built in 1842, still stands, and is now a tourist attraction operated by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The construction of the cottage is unusual in that the supporting foundations of the house are made of whalebone.
Kaikoura is served by the TranzCoastal long-distance passenger train, which connects the town with Christchurch to the south, and Picton and the Cook Strait ferries to the north. Kaikoura Station was the last station in New Zealand to have a refreshment room for passengers, which closed in 1988 when the Coastal Pacific Express (former name for the TranzCoastal) introduced on-board refresments.
Freight trains also pass through the town, mainly carrying freight between the marshalling yards at Middleton in Christchurch, and the Interislander rail ferries at Picton.