Politicians as well as businessmen seized on the idea of exploiting New Zealand’s thermal resources. In the summer of 1874 politician William Fox toured the central North Island thermal regions. He was so struck by their potential that he wrote to Premier Julius Vogel, recommending their development. Fox claimed that the pools would attract both invalids and tourists. Either way, they could in his opinion become a source of great wealth to the country.
Fox’s suggestion eventually bore fruit. In 1880 the government tried to purchase land at Rotorua from the Ngāti Whakaue people. They would not sell without testing the market, but did gift 20 hectares at Sulphur Point on Lake Rotorua to the Crown. However, under the Thermal-Springs Districts Act 1881, an area could be declared a thermal springs district where only the government could purchase land. Private ventures – including those run by Māori – were encouraged, but public interests took priority.
The fashionable spa
The government’s vision was of a colonial version of European spas. These health resorts at natural springs were extremely popular in the 19th century. Spas offered cures for a range of ailments, as well as outdoor pursuits, and diversions ranging from theatre and gambling to clandestine lovers’ meetings. In competing with Europe’s spas, New Zealand’s advantage was its magnificent scenery and unspoilt environment.
An employment opportunity
In 1902 the position of government balneologist was created. The appointee was expected to have a knowledge of medicine, chemistry, engineering and landscape gardening. Visiting the major thermal areas, the balneologist analysed the mineral content of the water and reported on its likely medical benefits. He also assessed the tourist potential and development needs of each area.
Early spa development
Starting in 1881 the government obtained about 2,000 hectares around Lake Rotorua, including all the best springs. Rotorua was declared a township and its development as a health resort and tourist centre began. At Sulphur Point (later known as the Government Gardens) a cluster of bathhouses were built from 1882. At Te Aroha, north-east of Hamilton, eight hectares had been gifted to the Crown by the Marutūahu chief Te Mōkena Hou in 1880, on condition that Māori could continue to use the waters. From 1883 the government built bathhouses, and by 1885 more people were visiting Te Aroha than Rotorua, because of the rail link to Auckland. Only after 1894, when the railway reached Rotorua, was Te Aroha’s popularity eclipsed. In the South Island, the government constructed swimming pools and bathhouses at Hanmer Springs, North Canterbury, in 1883.
Rotorua, Te Aroha and Hanmer were the three main government spas, but in the later 19th and early 20th centuries public money developed springs at Maruia on the West Coast, Mōrere and Te Puia on the east coast of the North Island, Parakai near Kaipara Harbour, and the Armed Constabulary Baths near Taupō.
In 1901 the new Department of Tourist and Health Resorts began making improvements in a concerted effort to attract more visitors. At Te Aroha some bathhouses were replaced and the domain grounds upgraded. Hanmer gained a massage facility, tiled pump room and cold swimming bath. And at Rotorua, a grand Tudor-style bathhouse with elaborate fittings was opened in 1908. This symbolised the government’s ambition to create a great spa in the southern hemisphere.