Story: Tourist industry

Page 2. Māori entrepreneurs in Rotorua

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The Pink and White Terraces

Before 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 for their work and set a precedent 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, 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 out the debris from its mouth in order to get its spectacular eruptions going again. The workers soon refused to work in such dangerous territory.

After the eruption of Mt Tarawera destroyed the Pink and White Terraces in 1886, Tūhourangi people continued to provide services in the area of thermal springs around Rotorua. Soon Pākehā entrepreneurs saw the tourist opportunities and built grand hotels in the town. The government employed engineer Camille Malfroy to control geyser activity and investigate 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 where only the government could purchase, lease and develop land. In 1890 the government bought land from Ngāti Whakaue on the border of Lake Rotorua, and in 1893 added most of Whakarewarewa village. This made it 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 fashion for visiting spas became the model for 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 – with 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. They 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 like Te Aroha (near Thames), and Hanmer Springs in the South Island, Wohlmann decided that the government’s investment should focus on developing Rotorua as a first-class spa for international visitors. He designed the new Rotorua Baths, which were built at huge expense, and 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. The baths at Hanmer Springs were modernised to suit the revival of interest in spas in the 1990s.

How to cite this page:

Margaret McClure, 'Tourist industry - Māori entrepreneurs in Rotorua', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 February 2020)

Story by Margaret McClure, published 11 Mar 2010