The profit motive
In 1971 the government relinquished responsibility for thermal resorts – the final step in a long withdrawal. The main reason was that the spas had never been as profitable as hoped. Rotorua was losing money by 1905, and Hanmer by 1909. There was not sufficient revenue to offset expenditure, which peaked before the First World War. Retrenchment during the war and the 1920s hastened the decline, interrupted only by a final burst of spending in the 1930s.
A growing liability
Maintenance was extremely costly. For instance, the materials used in Rotorua’s elaborate bathhouse proved unsuitable for the steamy, acidic atmosphere within. Even before the building opened, the white furniture began to turn black as lead in the paint reacted with hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere. In 1910 plaster began to come away from the walls in several rooms, and when it began to fall from the ceilings there were concerns about safety. By the 1940s the building was extremely run down, and remained so until it was handed over to the Rotorua City Council in 1966. The maintenance nightmare recurred on a smaller scale at other places.
Both Hanmer and Te Aroha experienced problems with their supply of thermal water. At Hanmer a dowser was engaged in 1911 to locate more water; further bores were drilled that year and in 1936. At Te Aroha the search for more warm water continued until 1956, and bathhouses were progressively closed down.
Only skin deep?
There has always been debate about the medical benefits of thermal baths. For years it was widely believed that the minerals in the water could be absorbed into the body. This was refuted by scientists as early as 1890. Recent Japanese research has shown that some minerals can penetrate the skin, but it is not clear whether this has any therapeutic effect.
Questioning the health benefits
Changing attitudes contributed to the decline. The Health Department’s annual report in 1949 suggested that the spa concept was old-fashioned, and commented that ‘[promoting] the mineral waters of Rotorua as miraculous cure-alls could not be condoned’. 1 Although Rotorua’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital still offered thermal treatments for rheumatic patients, it was generally accepted that relief came from the heat of the water rather than its mineral content.