From 1881 Parliament passed a series of laws which led to the domination of the hotel industry by liquor interests for the next century.
Lawmakers believed that accommodation on its own was not profitable. To ensure lodgings were available on New Zealand’s developing transport routes, an 1881 law required public houses selling liquor to provide meals and at least six bedrooms for travellers.
Between 1894 and 1911 seven national polls enabled voters to delicense hotels in their electorate. When the town of Invercargill voted ‘dry’ in 1905, 16 hotels lost their liquor licence – only four remained open. Nationwide nearly 500 hotels lost their licences. Most closed.
By 1910 it was extremely difficult to open a new licensed hotel, other than by rebuilding on the site of an old one. In this climate licensed hotels (increasingly owned by breweries) were lucrative businesses shielded from competition.
For much of the 20th century, New Zealand hotel bars were a man’s world. Women were banned from serving in bars in 1910. Women who held a liquor licence or were closely related to a licence-holder were exempt, and so were existing barmaids, though they all now had to register with the Secretary of Labour. The ban was limited to women under 25 in 1961, and finally removed altogether in 1976.
In some places there was an excess of hotel rooms. As early as 1893 a politician commented on hotel rooms lying ‘empty and unused’.1 Proprietors were unconcerned as most were in the business to sell alcohol. In rapidly growing districts there was a chronic shortage of rooms. Most hotels without a liquor licence operated as boarding houses, because long-term residents provided more certain revenue than overnight or short-stay visitors.
Licensing Control Commission
The Royal Commission on Licensing in 1945 heard evidence of chronic hotel shortages in some areas, and hotels without guests for years in others. The commission criticised the quality of hotels. A few grand hotels had been erected in the 1920s and 1930s, but most hotels were older, with cramped rooms and minimal facilities. To improve standards, the government set up the Licensing Control Commission (LCC) in 1949.
Desecration and restoration
Few of New Zealand’s surviving older hotels retain much of their original interior layout and fittings. Restricted drinking hours meant that hotel bars were crammed with drinkers for a relatively short period of time, making space a valued commodity. From the 1960s industry watchdog the Licensing Control Commission had the power to make hotel owners modernise or ‘improve’ their buildings. Sitting-, dining- and bedrooms were removed from many hotels, particularly those in the cities, and huge open-plan bars installed in their place. When closing time was extended to 10 o’clock in 1967 this trend continued, though some hotels were renovated and restored to make them more family friendly.
In the 1960s the LCC was given greater powers and a bigger budget, and was able to inspect every hotel. It could demand improvements.
In 1969 it reported that half the hotels in the country played ‘an insignificant part or no part at all in the accommodation of travellers’.2 Thousands of hotel rooms were still never used.
A 1963 law allowing hotels to convert to accommodation-free ‘taverns’ had attracted little interest. Pretending to have guests helped publicans to get around the ‘six-o’clock-closing’ laws – which banned the sale of alcohol in bars after six p.m. – and they disliked the tax imposed on taverns.
Early closing ended in 1967, and hotel numbers dived by 22% within a decade.
In 1989, Parliament reformed liquor laws, and removed most remaining legislative barriers to creating new licensed hotels. The link between liquor and accommodation was broken and taxes on taverns were abolished. New bars and cafés sprang up, and increased competition caused many traditional hotels to close. One-third of all pubs had shut down by 2001. New hotels that were purpose-built for accommodation rather than drinking opened. Liquor-industry domination of the hotel sector had ended.