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Hotels and motels

by Paul Christoffel

In pioneer times hotels on major road and rail routes let weary travellers break their journeys. But many hotels were merely drinking institutions where men imbibed as much as they could. Later, increasing numbers of cars and the boom in international tourism added new accommodation choices.

Hotels in New Zealand

A hotel is an establishment that provides accommodation and food for tourists and travellers. Throughout the 19th century and for much of the 20th century hotels dominated New Zealand’s accommodation sector.

In 1894 there were 1,719 hotels, or one for every 420 people in the country, but by the end of 2008 their number had declined to 584, or one for every 7,000 people. In the early 2000s hotels accounted for less than a third of the country’s travel accommodation business. The decline in hotel numbers is partly due to the popularity of other forms of accommodation, particularly motels.

Inn the hotel

When James McNeish wrote a book on New Zealand drinking establishments in the 1950s, he deliberately used the word ‘inn’ instead of ‘hotel’ to try to encourage its revival. He preferred its ‘homely ring’ and historic associations. However McNeish had to admit defeat because hotel was ‘now above every publican’s door’.1

The sale of liquor

New Zealand’s hotels have ranged from tiny hovels to grand edifices, but one thing almost all have had in common is a liquor licence. In both New Zealand and Australia, the word ‘hotel’ also means public house, or ‘pub’.

Until the 1960s, places with a licence to sell alcohol on the premises were also required to provide accommodation for travellers. Over time, hotels became inextricably linked with the consumption of alcohol. In 2008 the Ministry of Tourism defined hotels as ‘establishments that provide the public with lodging, meals and refreshments, and in particular have liquor licences to serve alcohol to people on the premises’.2

  1. James McNeish, Tavern in the town. Wellington: Reed, 1957, pp. 10–11. Back
  2. Ministry of Tourism, ‘Accommodation sector profiles’, (last accessed 20 November 2008). Back

Hotels in the 19th century

Early hotels

The earliest New Zealand hotels were established in Northland. One of the first was opened in the 1830s at Hōreke on the Hokianga Harbour – various hotels have provided accommodation on the same spot to the present day.

By 1838 there were 20 hotels in Kororāreka (now Russell), although most probably operated as little more than grog shops. In 1840, eight Kororāreka hotels were granted liquor licences. The country’s first licence went to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel. The ‘Duke’ was burnt down during the northern war of 1845, and replacement hotels twice succumbed to accidental fires.

Fire hazard

Before gas and electric lighting became the norm, hotels were often damaged or destroyed by fire. Wooden hotels were major fire hazards because they were often crowded, lit with candles and oil lamps, and patrons could be drunk. Five Dunedin hotels were razed by fire in the first six months of 1865 alone. Hotel advertisements often stressed the presence of fire escapes.

Auckland’s first hotel was the Royal, whose brief life from 1841 to 1847 shows the important and varied role hotels often played in colonial times. The Royal hosted an extravagant dinner for Governor William Hobson, became a temporary barracks for troops during the war in the north, acted as a transport centre for the weekly coach service to Manukau, and hosted political meetings. In 1843 the hotel was the venue for Auckland’s first theatrical performance – at that time hotels were the favoured venue for touring entertainments.


Most 19th-century hotels were located in colonial settlements or on transport routes.

An unusual attraction

The Spa Hotel complex in Taupō contains the only privately-owned historic wharenui (meeting house) in the country, Te Tiki o Tamamutu. Built by Te Arawa carver Wero Tāroi, the house was purchased by hotelier John Joshua, who assembled it in the grounds of the hotel in the late 1880s. It was converted to a dining room by another owner, breaking the tapu which forbids consumption of food inside wharenui. Cleared of all dining paraphernalia, it now functions primarily as a tourist attraction.

The arrival of New Zealand Company settlers in 1840 was followed by a spate of hotel building in Wellington. Trader and whaler Dicky Barrett established the first hotel, using a converted pre-fabricated cottage brought out from England by a passenger on the Adelaide.

In the South Island hotels flourished during the gold rushes of the 1860s. Hundreds of hotels opened throughout Otago, Nelson and the West Coast. Dunedin had five hotels in 1861; four years later it had 81. Many hotels closed once gold fever subsided.

Hotels soon developed on the country’s main transport routes. These were vital due to the poor state of the roads – lack of bridges and frequent floods often left travellers stranded overnight. Hotels acted as setting-off and arrival points for coach services and ferries.

The development of the railway network from the 1870s led to the construction of new hotels. Soon many towns and cities had a ‘Railway’ hotel.

Hotel keepers

Hotel keeping was commonly a pursuit of the middle classes, or those aspiring to join them. Barrett’s hotel in Wellington was taken over by Charles Suisted, a Swedish sea captain who remained in the hotel business for many years. The best-known early Dunedin hotelier was Shadrach Jones, an English doctor, but his hotel operations came to a halt in 1864 when he went bankrupt after promoting an all-England cricket tour of New Zealand.

By the latter decades of the 19th century, women were increasingly taking on the hotel-keeping role, sometimes after the death of their husbands. Some women started their own hotel businesses.

Types of early hotels

Hotel buildings

Hotels often occupied prominent street-corner locations. Typical mid-19th century hotels were two-storey timber buildings with a verandah and sometimes a first-floor balcony. A few were English village-inn style with no verandahs. Later hotels were constructed from brick and stone and were larger and more elaborate in style.

Hotels had many different types of rooms.

  • Small hotels had bars and dining areas on the ground floor with bedrooms upstairs.
  • In large hotels, dining rooms, public bars and private bars were usually on the ground floor, and sitting rooms were on the ground and first floors – sometimes they were located between bedrooms on the quieter upper floors.
  • Larger hotels often had rooms for smoking, reading and playing billiards, and some had sample rooms for travelling salesmen to display their wares.
  • Bathrooms were usually communal.

Grand hotels

Most 19th-century New Zealand hotels were modest enterprises. But some grand establishments were erected as cities grew larger, often financed by brewery profits. In the heyday of the gold rushes, Hokitika’s hotels were admired for their luxury. The town is now a quiet backwater.

Making do

Matthew Vaughan ran a hotel in a hollowed-out kauri log, near Pūriri in the Thames–Coromandel district during the 1870s. He stabled his horse at one end, cooked for his guests on an oven in the middle, and served food on the tree-stump outside. Where his guests actually slept is unknown!

Perhaps the grandest hotel of all was Warners Hotel in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, ‘one of the finest hotels in the Australasian colonies’. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1901, and boasted over 120 rooms, including ‘one of the largest and handsomest [dining rooms] in the colony’ with private and public bars ‘fitted with handsome cedar fittings and bevelled plate glass mirrors … furnished with numerous luxurious couches, upholstered in crimson velvet … and well supplied with … choice wines, liquors and cigars.’1

Private hotels and boarding houses

Private hotels and boarding houses supplied accommodation and dining – without liquor – for short- and long-term guests. Some went a step further and identified themselves as temperance hotels, attracting guests for whom abstinence from alcohol was a way of life. The Salvation Army opened three liquor-free People’s Palaces in Auckland (1903), Wellington (1908) and Christchurch (1912).

Most purpose-built private hotels were much the same as their licensed counterparts, containing public and private dining rooms, sitting, drawing and reading rooms, and communal bathrooms.

Boarding houses were typically converted private residences and are still a common form of accommodation, though these days they tend to attract long-term residents rather than visitors.

  1. Cyclopedia of New Zealand, V. 3. Wellington: Cyclopedia Co., 1902, pp. 309–10. Back

Hotels and liquor laws

Law changes

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.

Barmaid ban 

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 fell by 22% within a decade.

Law reform

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.

    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1893, V. 80, p. 388. Back
    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1969, H.3, p. 5. Back

Government and tourist hotels

Government takeover

From the late 19th century the government took control of tourist sites such as Rotorua’s thermal pools and the Milford Track, in the hope of boosting overseas tourist numbers. In 1895 the government also took over the Hermitage Hotel near Mt Cook, and soon after built or purchased accommodation houses near Rotorua, Lake Waikaremoana, Waitomo, Lake Pūkaki and Te Anau. The Department of Tourist and Health Resorts was established in 1901, in part to operate these hotels. These early investments produced disappointing results and attracted few overseas visitors. By 1920 Waitomo was the only resort to consistently return a profit.

Private partnerships

To reduce its losses, the Department formed partnerships with entrepreneurs. One was with Rodolph Wigley, who leased the Hermitage, and was later chosen to develop the Chateau in Tongariro National Park.

The economic depression and war further delayed hopes of a tourism boom. The Chateau went broke in 1931 and was taken over by the government. It had been built in haste and required extensive improvements. During the 1940s the government took over four failing tourist hotels, and by 1949 it owned nine.

Strange bedfellows

Hotel standards were basic well into the 20th century. In 1950, Queenstown had only four licensed hotels, and visitors were often expected to share twin rooms – or even double beds – with strangers. Food was unvaryingly dull. Diners at plush hotels such as Wellington’s Waterloo were made to rush through their dinner by 7 p.m. to keep down staff costs.

In 1950, the government hosted a conference at the Chateau to promote private-sector tourist accommodation. The conference identified a plethora of barriers, including restrictive liquor and employment laws, high wages, government price controls, and the fact that most hotels were owned by breweries interested in selling alcohol rather than providing accommodation. The often terrible standard of food, service and facilities in New Zealand hotels was also noted by delegates.

Tourist Hotel Corporation

One government response to tourist accommodation shortages was to expand the number of tourist-hotel licences available. These had been introduced in 1948 to enable some hotels to sell liquor to their guests (but not to the general public). In 1955 the government established the Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) to manage its growing hotel portfolio and encourage industry growth. In the 1960s the THC expanded its hotel network to areas such as the Bay of Islands and Wānaka.

Second career for All Blacks

Hotel management did not always require training in the industry. In the past, hotel managers were sometimes retired All Blacks or other sportsmen who fostered a ‘matey culture of rugby, racing and beer’.1 A public profile was qualification enough to run the place.

A tourist accommodation development scheme introduced in 1963 gave substantial government assistance to new hotels. This resulted in international chains opening large hotels in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin.

The jet age finally brought the overseas tourists that the government had dreamed of. By 2006, the majority of hotel guests and over a quarter of motel guests were overseas visitors. The government gradually withdrew from direct involvement in accommodation. The THC was sold to another hotel chain in 1990.

    • Margaret McClure, The wonder country: making New Zealand tourism. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004, p. 177. Back


Motels arrive

As ownership of cars became common, it was no longer so important for accommodation to be located in town and city centres, or near railway stations. The first motel (‘motor-hotel’) opened in the United States in 1926. In New Zealand, the 1920s motor vehicle boom stimulated the development of motor camps, but motels did not arrive until the second car boom in the 1950s. The first one to open was the Picton Motel in the South Island at the end of 1952, followed by Meadowcourt in Papatoetoe, South Auckland in 1953 and Motel Rochester in Newmarket, Auckland, in 1954.

Motels had major benefits for the New Zealand holidaymaker and business traveller. Because they provided no meals and few other services, low staffing requirements kept prices down. This was particularly important during post-war labour shortages.

Cooking up a controversy

Though a kitchen is a normal feature of a motel room, what is cooked can sometimes cause conflict. In 2003 a Morrinsville motel hit the headlines after refusing to accommodate an Indian family in case they cooked curry. Earlier, in 1991, two families had taken a motelier to the Human Rights Commission for similar treatment.

However motel amenities were luxurious by New Zealand standards. Each unit had its own bathroom and (unlike American motels) often a basic kitchen and dining table – at a time when hotel rooms frequently lacked even a handbasin. Self-catering facilities became a distinctive feature of New Zealand motels, making them affordable for informal family holidays. Guests could park outside their unit, so transport of food and luggage was easy.

Because they were low-rise or single-storey, motels blended well with suburban and small-town environments.

Competition with hotels

Motels spread rapidly. Their popularity further increased once six o’clock closing ended, as the Licensing Control Commission commented in 1968: ‘Travellers simply prefer the privacy, spaciousness and amenities of a motel room and are becoming more and more disinclined to take a room in a hotel, particularly since ten o’clock closing, when they may have to put up with the hubbub from the bars below or nearby.’1 Competition from motels contributed to a significant drop in hotel numbers after 1967. Motor lodges, which provided dining and bar facilities, also opened.

Dayrooms available

As well as providing overnight lodgings for families and businesspeople, motels also have a reputation for accommodating shorter-term guests. One of New Zealand’s earliest motels, Motel Rochester, became a favoured spot for prostitutes to bring clients, and was referred to by locals as the ‘Happy Hooker Inn’. Advertisements for the motel in accommodation guides stated ‘dayrooms available’.2 and occupancy rates were high because rooms were used many times over each day.

By 2008 motels were the country’s most popular form of accommodation, making up a third of total guest nights. There were 1,838 of them, outnumbering hotels by three to one. However motels tended to be small in scale.


Motels are generally located on or near main transport routes in and out of towns and cities. Clusters often develop on these routes, particularly in holiday destinations such as Rotorua, Taupō and Queenstown, and individual motels vie with one another to attract guests by erecting large neon signs and advertising attractive features such as Sky TV and spa pools.

  1. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1968, H.3, pp. 3–4. Back
  2. Peter Allison, ‘Walls that talk’, Metro, March 1990, p. 92. Back

Hotels and motels in the 2000s


Hotels and motels thrived after 1970 thanks to growing numbers of international and domestic tourists. Both faced increasing competition from alternative forms of accommodation, such as camper vans and holiday-park cabins.

An increasing number of international budget tourists stimulated the growth of backpacker hostels, often with similar facilities to hotels. The earliest such hostel to open in New Zealand belonged to the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) in 1932. There were 316 backpackers’ hostels by 2001, and 466 by 2008.

Living history

Heritage New Zealand, the country’s main historic heritage agency, has 150 hotels and two motels listed on its register of historic places. Some of the hotels are still used as accommodation. The motels are actually converted houses, and the fact that they are motels is not relevant to their registration. Perhaps not enough time has elapsed for purpose-built motels to be seen as treasured heritage buildings.

Serviced apartments were available from the early 1990s. They provide accommodation and kitchen facilities in apartment buildings, and some offer the option of hotel services such as in-house dining. Serviced apartments also function as a form of property investment, with units owned by investors and managed by accommodation firms.

Changes in the hotel sector

In the 1990s, large modern hotels, almost invariably bearing the names of international hotel chains, opened in every city, primarily thanks to liquor-law reform. Many traditional ‘drinking hole’ hotels closed down. Many hotels, including Wellington’s once-grand Waterloo, were converted to backpackers’ hostels.

Ministry of Tourism figures show that the trend for larger hotels continued after 2000. Despite a slight fall in the numbers of hotels between 2001 and 2006, they provided over 4,000 extra rooms between them.

Best country hotel

Since 2000 the Hospitality Association of New Zealand has run a competition to find the best country hotel in New Zealand. Winners have included The Honest Lawyer Country Pub in Nelson (2000), the Highwayman Hotel in Dunback (2003), and the Awakino Hotel in Mōkau (2007).

Survival of the small hotel

The traditional small hotel is far from dead, particularly outside the major cities. In 2006, hotels with fewer than 20 rooms outnumbered those with 100 or more rooms by two to one. Some, such as the Martinborough Hotel in the Wairarapa, have been converted into luxury boutique hotels, but many have stayed as they were, providing simple overnight accommodation for travellers.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Christoffel, 'Hotels and motels', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Paul Christoffel, published 11 March 2010