Māori used caves sometimes for shelter, but mainly as burial grounds. For this reason many were sacred sites.
The earliest European explorer of limestone caves was probably Arthur S. Thomson. In 1849 and 1852 he collected moa bones from caves near Waitomo in the King Country. On 28 December 1887, Tāne Tinorau and Fred Mace floated down a stream into the Waitomo glow-worm cave on a raft of flax flower stalks, using burning brands to light their way.
Waitomo soon developed a tourist industry around the caves, with local Māori such as Tāne Tinorau acting as guides. It has been the centre of commercial caving since around 1900.
The government purchased the land in 1904 and in 1905 the Tourist Department took over the management of the caves. In the 1920s female cavers embarked on tours bedecked in smocks, bloomers and boots, and carrying lanterns. Small boats floated visitors into the Waitomo glow-worm cave, and walking tours took people into dry areas of caves. In 1981 the Waitomo Museum of Caves opened.
Black-water rafting – wearing a wetsuit and floating through a cave on a rubber tube – began at Ruakuri cave in Waitomo in 1987, offering tourists more than just a sedate walk through part of a cave. Tourism Holdings bought the rafting company in 2004. Ruakuri, which had been closed for 16 years for walk-through tours, was promoted as a spiritual experience, focusing on its Māori history. As the original entrance was considered tapu (sacred), a new entrance was built for guided walkers to enter the cave. In 2004 the Waitomo caves attracted around 400,000 visitors, including around 30,000 rafters.
Te Anau and Nelson
In 1948 Europeans discovered the Te Ana-au caves, on the western shoreline of Lake Te Anau in Fiordland. The site has been developed into a tourist venture, with guided launch trips operating from Te Anau.
On top of Tākaka hill in Nelson, Ngārua Cave is open for guided tours.
Some purist cavers view the development of caves for tourism as exploitative. Most cavers have a strong sense of responsibility, carrying out all waste and not taking any souvenirs.