In 1906 the Volcanic Plateau had a Māori population of about 2,000, and a non-Māori population of about 3,100. In 2013 the region’s population was 98,187 – an almost twentyfold increase. New Zealand’s population increased fivefold in the same period.
1900s to 1960s
In the first decades of the 20th century, the population grew fastest in Rotorua town – from just under 1,000 in 1896 to 2,000 in 1906 and 4,700 in 1926.
From then until the 1950s, growth was greatest in the farming districts between Rotorua and Taupō. By 1956 they had 2,561 inhabitants – up from 500, 30 years earlier.
Once farms had been established, rural areas grew more slowly and towns faster. Rotorua’s population almost quadrupled between 1956 and 1976, from 12,302 to 46,650. Taupō’s increased more than fourfold, from 2,849 to 12,898.
Māori remained a significant part of the total population – around 25% in 1956, compared with about 30% in 1926.
1970s to 2000s
From the mid-1970s, the population grew more slowly. This was due to a number of factors – the completion of hydroelectricity projects, forestry job losses, periods of recession, and the concentration of economic growth in Auckland. Rotorua district’s population barely increased between 1996 and 2013 – from 64,500 to just under 65,300. Taupō district’s population grew from 30,700 to 32,900.
The rise and fall of timber, hydroelectric and resort towns has produced marked variations in their relative populations.
- In 1926 the sawmilling township of Mamaku had a population of 650, Mangakino none, and Taupō around 350.
- By 1956 Mamaku had 760 people, the hydroelectric town of Mangakino more than 4,000, and Taupō 2,900.
- In 1996 Mamaku had a population of 600, Mangakino had fallen to 1,500, and the resort town of Taupō had reached 20,000.
Both Rotorua and Taupō districts have a large proportion of Māori residents, compared with New Zealand as a whole. In 2013, 37.5% of Rotorua’s population and 29.0% of Taupō’s was Māori, compared with a national figure of 14.9%. Rotorua’s Pacific and Asian populations (5.0% Pacific, 6.3% Asian) were higher than Taupō’s (2.7% and 3.5%), but were still below the national average.
The three pillars of the regional economy remain tourism, timber and farming. Tourism provides most jobs. The biggest employers, however, are government entities – the two district councils, the two public hospitals, Waiaraki Institute of Technology and SCION, a Crown research institute.
The advent of gaming machines in Rotorua, along with the large number of motels and hotels, prompted the coining of the name ‘Rotovegas’. It is a humorous and/or derogatory term, but can also draw attention to the lawlessness which often makes local headlines.
Better off, worse off
In 2013 the farming settlement of Reporoa (population 453) had a median income of $32,100, compared with $26,900 for the Rotorua district and $28,200 for Taupō. The former hydroelectric town of Mangakino (population 744) had a median income of only $17,000. Half of its population had no school qualifications, and 12.9% were unemployed.
Both Taupō and Rotorua are geographically divided by socio-economic indicators. In Taupō, Rifle Range Road divides a poorer northern and western zone from a wealthier eastern and southern one. Areas with lake views or easy lake access tend to be better off than those without either.
Rotorua’s most deprived areas are on the flat. Elevated neighbourhoods away from the lake – towards Tihiōtonga and the other lakes – tend to be wealthier. The city’s social and racial divisions were captured in Alan Duff’s 1990 novel Once were warriors and Craig Marriner’s Stonedogs (2001).