As ownership of cars became common, it was no longer so important for accommodation to be located in town and city centres, or near railway stations. The first motel (‘motor-hotel’) opened in the United States in 1926. In New Zealand, the 1920s motor vehicle boom stimulated the development of motor camps, but motels did not arrive until the second car boom in the 1950s. The first one to open was the Picton Motel in the South Island at the end of 1952, followed by Meadowcourt in Papatoetoe, South Auckland in 1953 and Motel Rochester in Newmarket, Auckland, in 1954.
Motels had major benefits for the New Zealand holidaymaker and business traveller. Because they provided no meals and few other services, low staffing requirements kept prices down. This was particularly important during post-war labour shortages.
Cooking up a controversy
Though a kitchen is a normal feature of a motel room, what is cooked can sometimes cause conflict. In 2003 a Morrinsville motel hit the headlines after refusing to accommodate an Indian family in case they cooked curry. Earlier, in 1991, two families had taken a motelier to the Human Rights Commission for similar treatment.
However motel amenities were luxurious by New Zealand standards. Each unit had its own bathroom and (unlike American motels) often a basic kitchen and dining table – at a time when hotel rooms frequently lacked even a handbasin. Self-catering facilities became a distinctive feature of New Zealand motels, making them affordable for informal family holidays. Guests could park outside their unit, so transport of food and luggage was easy.
Because they were low-rise or single-storey, motels blended well with suburban and small-town environments.
Competition with hotels
Motels spread rapidly. Their popularity further increased once six o’clock closing ended, as the Licensing Control Commission commented in 1968: ‘Travellers simply prefer the privacy, spaciousness and amenities of a motel room and are becoming more and more disinclined to take a room in a hotel, particularly since ten o’clock closing, when they may have to put up with the hubbub from the bars below or nearby.’1 Competition from motels contributed to a significant drop in hotel numbers after 1967. Motor lodges, which provided dining and bar facilities, also opened.
As well as providing overnight lodgings for families and businesspeople, motels also have a reputation for accommodating shorter-term guests. One of New Zealand’s earliest motels, Motel Rochester, became a favoured spot for prostitutes to bring clients, and was referred to by locals as the ‘Happy Hooker Inn’. Advertisements for the motel in accommodation guides stated ‘dayrooms available’.2 and occupancy rates were high because rooms were used many times over each day.
By 2008 motels were the country’s most popular form of accommodation, making up a third of total guest nights. There were 1,838 of them, outnumbering hotels by three to one. However motels tended to be small in scale.
Motels are generally located on or near main transport routes in and out of towns and cities. Clusters often develop on these routes, particularly in holiday destinations such as Rotorua, Taupō and Queenstown, and individual motels vie with one another to attract guests by erecting large neon signs and advertising attractive features such as Sky TV and spa pools.