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Te tāpoi Māori – Māori tourism

by Paul Diamond

Early tourism in New Zealand was based around the geothermal features of Rotorua, where Māori ran the tourist industry and Māori women guides became household names. But after the eruption of Mt Tarawera destroyed or submerged the Pink and White Terraces, the government gained control of thermal attractions.

19th-century Māori tourism

Māori have been a constant presence in New Zealand tourism, but the nature of their involvement has changed over time.

Geothermal region

Hot springs were used by Māori for treating illness, cooking, heating and bathing. They were also the early focus of tourism in New Zealand.

The hot springs in the central North Island are within the tribal area of Te Arawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa. Traditions about this geothermal region trace its origin to Ngātoroirangi, a tohunga (priest) on Te Arawa canoe. He was freezing on Mt Tongariro and called out to his sisters to bring fire to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the ancestral homeland. They did, and this is said to be the origin of the geothermal areas.

Tūwharetoa and tourism

The Tūwharetoa people had a peripheral role in tourism from its beginning. After the New Zealand wars in the 1860s, Taupō developed as a tourist destination, but businesses were controlled by former Pākehā soldiers rather than the local iwi.

In 1887 Tūwharetoa paramount chief Horonuku Te Heuheu made an agreement with the government about Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu mountains. They became the basis of Tongariro National Park, established in 1894. The Tourist Department developed the park as a visitor destination. Iwi involvement in park management was limited, and diminished after 1914 when the park was transferred from the founding trust board to the Tourist Department. Repeated requests for iwi recognition were refused, and it was many years before a copy of Horonuku’s deed was displayed in the park.


Tūhourangi people controlled access to the Pink and White Terraces. From the 1850s a sign at Te Wairoa displayed the set fees for guides and transport to the terraces. The wealth generated by Tūhourangi’s success in tourism saw pāua-shell eyes on carvings replaced by gold sovereigns.

Te Arawa and tourism

During the mid-19th century Pākehā tourists began visiting the hot springs near Rotorua, the home of Te Arawa. Income from tourists gave Māori economic independence, and made up for difficulties in sustaining agriculture in thermal areas. In Rotorua, Māori retained control over all major geothermal areas. As word spread about the thermal attractions, and access to the area improved, visitor numbers increased. The village of Ōhinemutu on Lake Rotorua’s shore developed as a stopover on the way to Te Wairoa and the premier visitor attraction – the Pink and White Terraces (in Māori, Te Ōtūkapuarangi and Te Tarata) beside Lake Rotomahana. Access to the terraces was controlled by the Tūhourangi people, who earned substantial income from tourism.

Land purchase

In 1874 colonial politician William Fox recommended that the government purchase lands with geothermal areas and develop a world-class sanatorium. The Thermal-Springs Districts Act 1881 meant that only the Crown could purchase land in this area, with Māori to receive rental income. The government took control of the leasing of Māori land to Europeans. It did not provide as much income as anticipated.

Tarawera eruption

In 1886 the Pink and White Terraces were obliterated or submerged when Mt Tarawera erupted. Many Tūhourangi moved to Whakarewarewa thermal village, which became a popular visitor destination. The eruption disrupted tourism and caused economic hardship for Tūhourangi and other iwi. Instead of providing aid, the government took advantage of the disaster to continue purchasing Māori land. By the end of the century the Crown owned most of the land in the Rotorua and Taupō districts which contained thermal springs.

20th-century Māori tourism

Crown control

At the start of the 20th century visitor numbers to Rotorua had recovered from the 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption. The government controlled most of the lands containing thermal springs in the Rotorua and Taupō districts. In 1901 these came under the auspices of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, headed by the energetic T. E. Donne. The department controlled the presentation of Māori culture at Rotorua, and Donne attempted to recreate a romantic Māori past at Whakarewarewa. Māori were sidelined from the tourist economy, becoming employees or cultural exhibits.

Shift in power

In 1903 the department inaugurated the Waimangu round trip, which traversed the scenes of the eruption. It became very popular with tourists, especially while the spectacular Waimangu geysers were active. Guide Alfred Warbrick was from Ngāti Rangitihi, not from Tūhourangi, who had previously controlled tourism in the area. Power had shifted from the tribe to the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. Tūhourangi had gone from being independent operators to subsistence farmers, reliant on state aid when emergencies arose.

Rotorua guides

In the 19th century visitors hired Māori tour guides. Two of them, Sophia Hinerangi (Grey) and Kate Middlemass, became well-known. This tradition continued in the 20th century and some of the newer guides became household names, including Mākereti Papakura (Guide Maggie), her half-sister Bella Papakura, and Rangitīaria Dennan (Guide Rangi).

From real to false


The Tourist Department under T. E. Donne attempted to build a model on the site of Rotowhio, a centuries-old fighting pā on a hill adjacent to the geyser valley at Whakarewarewa. The real pā was destroyed to build the model pā, and local Māori (as well as Pākehā soldier Gilbert Mair) questioned its authenticity, some calling it a ‘paraka hōia’ (soldiers’ barracks).



In the early 20th century the Māori presence at Ōhinemutu and Whakarewarewa was still highly valued as a tourist drawcard, but the government and the town board invested little in the infrastructure of either village. Housing was dilapidated and, unlike the rest of Rotorua, Whakarewarewa had no sewerage system. In 1902 Donne had proposed a model pā, which was dogged by controversy over its design. It finally opened in 1910.

Over time the pā deteriorated and became deserted. Living conditions at both villages became a national issue, more because of the impact on Rotorua as a tourist destination than concern for the welfare of the inhabitants. A formal government inquiry was initiated in 1926. The inquiry recommended assistance to upgrade housing, this was not forthcoming and the villages continued to deteriorate, leading to complaints from visitors and bad publicity.

Tourism fluctuation

Alongside Rotorua and the ‘hot lakes’, attention was directed at the ‘cold lakes’ and other scenic attractions of the South Island. Māori land ownership in the South Island had been almost entirely extinguished by the 1860s, so Māori had little involvement with tourism there.

With the advent of jet travel to New Zealand in the 1960s, visitor numbers increased dramatically. When the Tourist Department dubbed 1966 ‘Haere-mai [welcome] Year’, there were criticisms from some Māori, who argued there should have been consultation with Māori before the campaign was launched.

Māori control of tourism

An act of Parliament in 1963 established the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute at Whakarewarewa. Beyond the Institute, Māori had limited roles in owning and managing tourist businesses. However, Māori culture still played a key role in the promotion of New Zealand to prospective visitors.

A handful of tourism businesses in the Rotorua area remained in Māori ownership. Ngāti Rangiteaorere continued to control the thermal reserve at Tikitere. Mokoia Island was managed by the Mokoia Island Trust, controlled by Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Rangiteaorere, Ngāti Rangiwewehi and Ngāti Uenukukōpako. At the end of the 20th century, Māori cultural tourism was still centred on Rotorua – mainly in the Tamaki Māori Village (a replica early Māori village), Whakarewarewa village and Te Puia, which incorporated the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.

Preserving culture

Māori art and performance have been key features of the Māori tourist industry – so tourism has played a role in the retention of Māori culture and language, especially around Rotorua.


Many tourists who travelled to thermal areas wanted an ‘authentic experience’, which meant having carved buildings as a backdrop for Māori ‘at home’. Te Arawa, particularly Ngāti Tarāwhai, were renowned carvers. A number of meeting houses were carved specifically for the tourist market.

From 1902 the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts employed prominent carvers, including Tene Waitere and Ānaha Te Rāhui, at £5 a week to carve the new model in Rotorua.

In 1927 a carving school was established in Rotorua under the Maori Arts and Crafts Act 1926, championed by the MP Apirana Ngata.

Maori Arts and Crafts Institute

The New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute was established by a 1963 act of Parliament on the site of the model pā. Run by a board rather than the government or private enterprise, the institute’s relationship with the adjacent Whakarewarewa village was not always smooth. A carving school was added in 1967, led by master carver Hōne Taiapa. Visitors were able to see carvers in action and buy examples of their work. The school also trained weavers.

Cultural maintenance

On the effects of tourism, Tainui leader Robert Mahuta commented: ‘Perhaps one might say that what isolation did for Tuhoe and Kingitanga did for Tainui, tourism did for Te Arawa. That is to say, it helped maintain language and culture because tourists wanted the differences demonstrated.’1


From the early 1900s kapa haka concert parties – including those led by Guide Maggie Papakura – began touring overseas.

The first national kapa haka competitions were held in 1972 in Rotorua. In the early 2000s two of the top national kapa haka teams, Ngāti Rangiwewehi and Te Matarae i O Rehu, were from Te Arawa. Kapa haka continued to be performed for tourists at venues such as Te Puia in Rotorua and Wairākei Terraces near Taupō, as well as Ko Tāne in Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, Christchurch.


While tourism helped foster Māori arts and crafts, it also raised issues of authenticity. Plastic tiki, Māori dolls in traditional costume and Māori-themed tablecloths and tea towels are all examples of ‘Maoriana’ sold to tourists. Māori carvings and weaving have been mass-produced for the tourist market. A 1994 meeting of the Aotearoa Maori Tourism Federation raised concerns about the machine mass-production of tiki and tekoteko (carved figures) – some were culturally offensive and all appropriated Māori cultural property.

    • R. T. Mahuta, Tourism and culture: the Maaori case. Hamilton: Centre for Maaori Studies and Research, 1987, p. 5. Back

Resurgence of the Māori tourist industry


In the early 2000s scenery was the big drawcard for overseas visitors, but interest in Māori culture was growing, part of a worldwide expansion in cultural tourism.

While Rotorua remained the centre of ethnic tourism, Māori tourism businesses had emerged in other parts of the country. Not all focused on cultural tourism.

Pigeonholing culture

There has been debate over the place of Māori culture in tourism. Māori cultural tourism has often been pigeonholed in Rotorua. In 1996 the president of the Inbound Tour Operators Council argued that ‘[s]ome Māori culture is fine but visitors don’t want it pushed down their throat every other day while they are touring New Zealand ... Visitors get a Māori experience in Rotorua. When they have done that, let’s let them get on with the rest of the country.’1

Nonetheless, Māori have developed successful businesses offering kapa haka concerts and hāngī (feasts cooked in an earth oven) at New Zealand’s main tourist destinations.

Māori tourism operators

In the early 2000s many Māori tourism operators were smaller-scale, family-based operations which often departed from the traditional hāngī and concert-party experience. The hugely successful Whale Watch Kaikōura started when people from Ngāti Kurī mortgaged their house to fund a whale-watching business.

Brothers Mike and Doug Tamaki established Tamaki Tours in 1990, funding it by selling a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Tamaki Tours reinvented the familiar concert and hāngī typically offered in hotels by taking visitors to a replica Māori village south of Rotorua.

Other operators were based around Māori land-management trusts and incorporations. One example was the Wakatū incorporation, a joint owner of Abel Tasman Kayaks. Others, such as Ngāi Tahu Tourism, were funded from Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

Running their own show


In 1987 Robert Mahuta wrote, ‘Maaori people are also very interested in autonomy and want to run their own show, not just be the last three seats on the bus, the optional extra, the clip-on, add-on, tear-off-the-coupon sideline event. We do not want to provide [a] tacked-on tacky plastic Maaori experience in … facilities belonging to others.’2


A different experience

Tourism operator Mike Tamaki has noted that it is important to have more than just a ‘feed and a dance’.3 Ropata Taylor of the Wakatū Incorporation has commented that ‘[h]angi and haka are not my people’s strengths. Sauvignon blanc, lobsters and mussels – those are our strengths, and that is the experience we give on our marae.’4 In the early 2000s Potiki Adventures in Auckland offered an urban Māori experience. In the South Island, Ngāi Tahu Tourism included kayaking, jet boating and glacier guides amongst its businesses.

Māori tourism in the 2000s

In the 2000s Māori tourism was represented by the New Zealand Māori Tourism Council, made up of a number of Māori regional tourism organisations. In 2008 the council noted that there were more than 350 Māori tourism businesses operating in New Zealand. Of these, 37% were guided tours, 15% were accommodation, 15% were arts and crafts, 12% were attractions, 11% were retail, 7% were eating out, 5% were transport, 5% were concerts and hāngī, and 1% were marae stays. A large proportion were small operators; 65% were self-employed and had no employees.

The Ministry of Tourism estimated that in 2006, 567,200 tourists (80% international and 20% domestic tourists) experienced Māori cultural activities in New Zealand.

British guidebook publishers Rough Guides produced The rough guide to Māori New Zealand in 2004, and a number of Māori tourism ventures were featured in Lonely Planet tourism guidebooks.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Diamond, 'Te tāpoi Māori – Māori tourism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2023)

Story by Paul Diamond, published 11 Mar 2010