In the early 20th century most New Zealanders could afford only one or two day excursions a year. The Railways Department aggressively promoted weekend excursions in the 1920s. They drew crowds of people on trips to places like Caroline Bay in Timaru, Arthur’s Pass, Rotorua, Te Aroha, Waitomo Caves and Waihī Beach. In the 1930s, when New Zealand had become one of the most motorised countries in the world, families explored further afield – from South Island lakes to far north beaches.
The Second World War brought fuel cuts and severe travel restrictions. Hotels in remote areas were hard hit by the loss of traffic. The post-war years saw domestic travel booming again.
Tourism in the 1950s
Although advances in aviation during the Second World War brought optimism to the tourist industry, many difficulties confronted tourist development. At heart New Zealand remained an agricultural country. Although the 1940s Labour government fostered manufacturing, in the 1950s Treasury scorned the idea that tourism could make a valuable contribution to the economy. It based its forecasts on the history of tourism growth in New Zealand and considered the country to be too far from the rest of the world.
Dining out in the fifties
While tourists today enjoy fine wines and seafood, there was only one trained chef in the country in the 1950s and New Zealand meals were a shock to sophisticated visitors. Americans looked in vain for coffee, iced water, salads and steak at dinner-time. In one city hotel visitors were offered a choice of two soups – thick, or thin.
Ordinary New Zealanders remained suspicious of the ‘frivolous’ industry of tourism. Accustomed to bach (holiday hut) and caravan holidays, they tended to resent wealthy outsiders and preferred to keep New Zealand to themselves. Politicians and the public underestimated the funding required for hotels and access to remote areas, and the need for sophisticated pleasures for tourists who wearied of gazing at nature. Young people’s preference for factory work rather than a service industry led to severe staff shortages in hotels. The local taste for simple meals made food a national disaster for the tourist trade. Hotels were unprofitable unless they focused on selling large quantities of beer to locals.
In 1950 New Zealand was a tight society. Imported goods were severely restricted and preference given to agriculture and manufacturing − this meant equipment for milking sheds rather than carpet for hotels. International hotel chains were deterred by the cost of labour and New Zealand’s restricted working hours. Regulations against licensed restaurants, Sunday shopping and cinemas limited the country’s appeal to visitors – the whole country seemed to be closed at weekends.
The lack of interest from the private sector led the government to set up the Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) in 1955 to include business expertise and expand government hotels. By 1973 modern THC resorts stretched from Waitangi to Milford Sound, but they remained unprofitable until the mid-1980s. The only advance was the introduction of formal staff training and elegant meals to THC hotels, by general manager Eric Colbeck. This set standards for the rest of the industry to follow.