Nelson has never been heavily populated. In 2013 just 2.2% of New Zealand’s population (93,591) lived in the region. The Māori population before Pākehā settlement was probably only ever in the thousands. Nelson city’s early situation was much like Wellington’s – both were surrounded by hills, and in the mid-1860s both had populations of around 4,700. While Wellington boomed after becoming the capital and gaining road and rail access to the large hinterland of the lower North Island, Nelson stagnated. In 1906 the city’s population was 8,164. It remained below 12,000 until 1936, and grew markedly only after the Second World War.
The 1990s and 2000s saw no growth in small rural towns such as Murchison, Tapawera and Tākaka, but rapid growth along the coast in areas such as Kaiteriteri and rural Waimea (around Richmond, Wakefield, Brightwater, Māpua and Wai-iti). Motueka and Nelson city had reasonable growth – much of it driven by internal migration, with two-thirds of migrants from other parts of the country (especially the South Island) and the rest from overseas.
In the 2010s Nelson had an ageing population, as younger people moved away for tertiary education and work, and older people retired in the region. Residents had few high-income job opportunities, with the economy reliant on primary production and tourism. Surging house prices in the 21st century – largely driven by lifestyle migration and retirement – put home ownership beyond the means of many younger locals.
The Nelson region was New Zealand’s least ethnically diverse area in 2013, with over 90% of the population identifying as European (in much of the South Island, the proportion of Europeans was just under 90%). There were fewer people of Pacific, Asian or other ethnic descent than in most other parts of the country – a trend that was even more marked in rural areas. In 2013, 8.5% of the Nelson region’s population identified as Māori, compared with 14.9% for New Zealand overall.
From farmers to hippies
In the 1970s alternative lifestylers (‘hippies’) were attracted to rural Tasman Bay and Golden Bay by cheap land prices, the mild climate and beautiful environment. The Golden Bay population at the time was mostly established dairy-farming families and workers at the Tarakohe cement plant. The status of ‘local’ could take more than a generation to earn, and there was a divide between the earlier residents and the new arrivals. The hippies often eschewed full-time work, choosing freedom over economic security. Many turned their hands to crafts to make a living, and marijuana cultivation was common.
Since the 1990s different types of lifestyler – wealthy people from Germany, the United States and other countries – attracted by the climate and environment have bought coastal land in Golden Bay and Tasman Bay.
Inland Nelson is sparsely populated – mainly by farming families, some of whom have been on the land for generations. St Arnaud is a small tourist town and Murchison a rural service centre.
Communes were established mainly from the mid-1970s, although the Riverside community in Upper Moutere traces its origins to 1941, long before the first hippies. Riverside was set up by a small group of Methodist pacifists interested in social justice. In Golden Bay, the Rainbow Valley community up the Anatoki River valley was set up in 1974, and the Tui community in Wainui Bay in 1984.