Story: Tourist industry

Page 2. Māori entrepreneurs in Rotorua

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The Pink and White Terraces

Until 1886 the climax of a visit to New Zealand was a tour of the stunning Pink and White Terraces beside Lake Rotomahana. The Tūhourangi people were at the forefront of tourist development here. They protected the terraces against vandalism, and provided guides, canoes, meals, accommodation and entertainment for visitors. Guides Sophia Hinerangi and Kate Middlemass became famous and prepared the way for Māori women guides in the 20th century.

Manipulating geysers


Māori guides began the tradition of ‘soaping’ geysers (putting soap in them to make them bubble) to improve the display for visitors. After the government outlawed this practice, female tourists hid soap in the folds of their voluminous Victorian dresses. When the great Waimangu geyser died away altogether in 1903, the Tourist Department tried to get workmen to clear debris from its mouth in the hope of getting its spectacular eruptions going again. The men soon refused to undertake such dangerous work.


After the eruption of Mt Tarawera destroyed or submerged the Pink and White Terraces in 1886, Tūhourangi people continued to provide services in the thermal springs area around Rotorua. Soon Pākehā entrepreneurs recognised the opportunities and built grand hotels in the town. The government employed engineer Camille Malfroy to investigate geyser activity and if possible control its erratic nature. He developed mechanical systems to make geysers perform more spectacularly, and succeeded in stimulating the great Pōhutu geyser to erupt to a height of 18–24 metres twice daily.

Government control

To control commerce and make the charms of nature available to everyone, the government had passed the Thermal-Springs Districts Act 1881. This enabled an area to be declared a thermal springs district within which only the government could purchase, lease or develop land. The government bought land beside Lake Rotorua from Ngāti Whakaue in 1890, and most of Whakarewarewa village in 1893. It was now the owner of New Zealand’s prime resort.

Māori culture

Rotorua’s role as a tourist resort brought continued conflict. Government controls cramped Māori initiatives and their freedom to levy charges. European visitors expected Māori to live in a romantic past, rather than succeed in business. From 1903 to 1909 the government built a model village to cater to tourist expectations and show a ‘primitive’ Māori lifestyle. Māori had little interest in becoming a tourist spectacle, and the ‘living village’ remained sterile and empty. Guiding visitors, however, remained an important avenue of work for Māori.

The development of spas

The 19th-century European enthusiasm for visiting spas inspired the government’s development of Rotorua as a tourist resort. The town needed to provide a range of medical cures and the chance to enjoy civilised pleasures. From 1882 the government built several bathhouses and made the surroundings more sophisticated – constructing promenades, a small zoo, a band rotunda, a tea-house and 80 hectares of gardens.

Rotorua’s potential as a resort encouraged the government to take further control of the tourist industry. In 1901 it founded the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, the first government tourist office in the world. Thomas Donne, its superintendent, became a dynamic leader of the developing industry.

Taking the cure


Built in the style of European spas, the Rotorua Bath House provided inhalation rooms, mud baths, sun baths, electric treatment and needle douches, along with other treatments. These were claimed to cure almost everything from skin infections to gout and ‘brain fag’.


The Department employed Dr Arthur Wohlmann, a balneologist (an expert on medicinal springs) from England, to take charge of the spa facilities in New Zealand. After touring smaller thermal regions such as Te Aroha (near Thames), and Hanmer Springs in north Canterbury, Wohlmann decided that the government should focus its investment on developing Rotorua as a first-class spa for international visitors. He designed the expensive new Rotorua Baths, which opened in 1908 to treat 1,000 visitors a day. People could choose from a range of scientific treatments that were claimed to cure a number of diseases.

The popularity of spas waned, and ‘taking the waters’ went out of fashion for most of the 20th century. In the 1990s the baths at Hanmer Springs were modernised to cater for a revival of interest in spas.

How to cite this page:

Margaret McClure, 'Tourist industry - Māori entrepreneurs in Rotorua', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Margaret McClure, published 11 Mar 2010