The Southern Alps
Tourism’s beginnings in the South Island focused on the mountainous regions of Mt Cook, Franz Josef and Tasman glaciers, Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound. The Southern Alps were of interest to European mountaineers, while snow and ice were a novelty for Australians. Experience soon showed that stunning landscape was not enough − transport, beds, entertainment and an extended tourist season were also vital.
Short season, difficult access
The short five-month season when these regions were accessible meant huts and hotels were unprofitable. The government had to buy the Hermitage hotel (opened in 1884) at Aoraki/Mt Cook and other boarding houses. Between 1900 and 1910 the Tourist Department took over hostels at Te Anau, steamers at Queenstown, and the Milford Track. State acquisitions of failing tourist enterprises continued for decades. Tourist numbers had not yet reached a critical mass and the industry was seasonal, with hotels near-empty for much of the year.
Freda Du Faur
Australian woman Freda Du Faur shocked other tourists by refusing to take a chaperone when she went climbing with mountain guide Peter Graham. In 1910 she became the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook, making the ascent and return in record time. In the following years she broke other records. After her climbs she would wear her best dress to dinner at the Hermitage to show that women mountaineers could still be feminine.
High levels of investment in Rotorua meant minimal maintenance of hotels and facilities in other areas. An exception was the construction of a new Hermitage in 1914. Peter Graham and his fine team of guides at Aoraki/Mt Cook attracted both newcomers and experienced climbers. Women were encouraged to be as adventurous as men, and the mountaineering records set by Australian woman Freda Du Faur helped to popularise the region.
One of the Tourist Department’s moves to attract tourists was to add game. Thomas Donne imported red deer, wapiti and salmon to make New Zealand a sporting paradise, and chamois and tahr to give alpine landscapes more charm.
The outbreak of the First World War saw visitor numbers slump and hopes of developing South Island skifields were deferred. Guides joined the army, and government funding was redirected to the war effort. Business was slow to recover in the post-war years − fewer international tourists arrived in 1922 than in 1907. Not many local people could afford to travel to remote places or stay at the Hermitage. Government investment in tourism slowed.
Rodolph Wigley became New Zealand’s first visionary tourist operator when he established a motor coach service to Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1906. He soon saw that transport and accommodation needed to go hand-in-hand. ‘Let private enterprise in’, became his cry.1 Critical of the Tourist Department’s reluctance to extend the Hermitage, in 1922 he persuaded the government to lease it to him. He set up skifields and publicised the resort for all ages and classes. But without the network of railways that had made Canadian resorts successful, he was unable to attract sufficient patrons, and needed government subsidies to survive.
National park arguments
From their earliest days New Zealanders have debated whether national parks should be havens for native plants and animals or adapted for the enjoyment of visitors. For 10 years from 1914, sporting enthusiast and Police Commissioner John Cullen spread tonnes of Scottish heather seed in Tongariro National Park to encourage grouse hunting and beautify the landscape. A critic asserted, ‘We do not wish to turn Tongariro National Park into something that does not exist on earth and I trust does not exist in heaven.’2
National parks in New Zealand were developed on the American model that prioritised pleasure for visitors over nature conservation. Yet shortage of funds meant that the huts in national parks suited only those ‘with the scouting spirit’.3
In the late 1920s Wigley made a bold move to construct a hotel in Tongariro National Park. The Chateau was grand and its modern facilities included a gymnasium, a cinema and central heating. Wigley hoped that being close to Rotorua and midway between Wellington and Auckland on the main trunk railway line would ensure profitability. He also believed that successful tourist operators needed a chain of businesses in both North and South islands.
Tourism in the Depression
The timing was bad for grand ventures, and the economic depression bankrupted Wigley a year later. The Tourist Department took over the resort in 1931, publicising weekend excursions and importing European ski instructors. In 1938 there were 20,000 overseas visitors, 61% of them Australians.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 brought an immediate halt in travel for pleasure. The Chateau’s transformation into a hospital symbolised a tourist industry in ‘cold storage’.4 Wartime petrol rationing brought resorts like Franz Josef close to bankruptcy. Government takeovers kept hotels open for an expected boom after the war.