Early tourism in New Zealand was encouraged by the development of ocean-going steamships in the mid-19th century, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the visit to New Zealand of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1870. The first tourists were wealthy travellers from Britain and the United States, many of them stopping over during a six-month grand tour of the world.
In 1882 Thorpe Talbot published the first tourist guidebook to New Zealand, The new guide to the lakes and hot springs; and, A month in hot water.
From the beginning New Zealand’s appeal to international tourists was based on the mountains, forests, lakes and geysers that led it to be called ‘the wonder-country’.1 Highlights were Milford Sound, the Whanganui River and the thermal area of Rotorua – ‘the Hot Lakes District’ – where the chance to observe Māori people and culture was an added attraction. In the 20th century spas and lodges in the wilderness were modelled on tourist resorts in North America and Europe.
Rugged terrain made infrastructure and transport expensive, and remote resorts were difficult to staff. Tourism has always been highly vulnerable to war and recession. But the major handicap in developing tourism has been New Zealand’s distance from much of the populated world. The advent of passenger jets diminished its isolation, and by the 2000s tourism was the country’s highest export earner and employed, directly or indirectly, almost 1 in 10 of the population. In the 2000s the greatest threat to growth in tourism was the cost of fuel.
The earliest record of annual international tourist numbers to New Zealand was 5,233 in 1903. International tourism growth was very slow before the 1960s. Growth was especially strong from the 1990s. In 2019 there were nearly 3.9 million international tourists and tourism’s annual contribution to the economy was about $25 billion, roughly 10% of gross domestic product.
The industry has become more complex, providing cultural, adventure and nature activities. There are backpacker hostels, large campervan companies, souvenir stores, restaurants, multinational hotel chains and cruise ships, all servicing different types of tourists − from independent travellers to those on guided coach tours.
In 1903 Australians and Britons made up over 80% of arrivals. In the early 21st Australians were still the largest single group but they were not as dominant, and new source destinations such as China, Japan, South Korea and Europe were important.
While some destinations, such as Queenstown and Wānaka, manage to have both a winter and a summer season, for most of the country the main tourism season is during summer.
In 1892 traveller William McHutcheson compared Fiordland’s scenic beauty to the riches of a gold mine: ‘Sooner or later the heaviest “leads” dwindle to a thread, and the richest “wash” runs out; but Fiordland is an everlasting possession, its scenic attractions a perpetual and ever-increasing mine of wealth to the colony.’2
Until the 1990s New Zealanders maintained a tradition of simple holidays and stayed in baches, caravan parks or (increasingly) motels. In the 2000s domestic tourists spent around 50 million nights away from home each year, but they mainly stayed with friends and family.
New Zealanders travelling in their own country accounted for almost half of tourist spending ($8.06 billion) in 2008, and about one-third a decade later. Although this domestic tourism brings no new funds into the country, it provides a ‘bread-and-butter’ income for businesses, especially in the low season. At the same time, New Zealanders’ enthusiasm for overseas travel (and its relative cheapness) diverts many away from local holidays.
Until 1886 the climax of a visit to New Zealand was a tour of the stunning Pink and White Terraces beside Lake Rotomahana. The Tūhourangi people were at the forefront of tourist development here. They protected the terraces against vandalism, and provided guides, canoes, meals, accommodation and entertainment for visitors. Guides Sophia Hinerangi and Kate Middlemass became famous and prepared the way for Māori women guides in the 20th century.
Māori guides began the tradition of ‘soaping’ geysers (putting soap in them to make them bubble) to improve the display for visitors. After the government outlawed this practice, female tourists hid soap in the folds of their voluminous Victorian dresses. When the great Waimangu geyser died away altogether in 1903, the Tourist Department tried to get workmen to clear debris from its mouth in the hope of getting its spectacular eruptions going again. The men soon refused to undertake such dangerous work.
After the eruption of Mt Tarawera destroyed or submerged the Pink and White Terraces in 1886, Tūhourangi people continued to provide services in the thermal springs area around Rotorua. Soon Pākehā entrepreneurs recognised the opportunities and built grand hotels in the town. The government employed engineer Camille Malfroy to investigate geyser activity and if possible control its erratic nature. He developed mechanical systems to make geysers perform more spectacularly, and succeeded in stimulating the great Pōhutu geyser to erupt to a height of 18–24 metres twice daily.
To control commerce and make the charms of nature available to everyone, the government had passed the Thermal-Springs Districts Act 1881. This enabled an area to be declared a thermal springs district within which only the government could purchase, lease or develop land. The government bought land beside Lake Rotorua from Ngāti Whakaue in 1890, and most of Whakarewarewa village in 1893. It was now the owner of New Zealand’s prime resort.
Rotorua’s role as a tourist resort brought continued conflict. Government controls cramped Māori initiatives and their freedom to levy charges. European visitors expected Māori to live in a romantic past, rather than succeed in business. From 1903 to 1909 the government built a model village to cater to tourist expectations and show a ‘primitive’ Māori lifestyle. Māori had little interest in becoming a tourist spectacle, and the ‘living village’ remained sterile and empty. Guiding visitors, however, remained an important avenue of work for Māori.
The 19th-century European enthusiasm for visiting spas inspired the government’s development of Rotorua as a tourist resort. The town needed to provide a range of medical cures and the chance to enjoy civilised pleasures. From 1882 the government built several bathhouses and made the surroundings more sophisticated – constructing promenades, a small zoo, a band rotunda, a tea-house and 80 hectares of gardens.
Rotorua’s potential as a resort encouraged the government to take further control of the tourist industry. In 1901 it founded the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, the first government tourist office in the world. Thomas Donne, its superintendent, became a dynamic leader of the developing industry.
Built in the style of European spas, the Rotorua Bath House provided inhalation rooms, mud baths, sun baths, electric treatment and needle douches, along with other treatments. These were claimed to cure almost everything from skin infections to gout and ‘brain fag’.
The Department employed Dr Arthur Wohlmann, a balneologist (an expert on medicinal springs) from England, to take charge of the spa facilities in New Zealand. After touring smaller thermal regions such as Te Aroha (near Thames), and Hanmer Springs in north Canterbury, Wohlmann decided that the government should focus its investment on developing Rotorua as a first-class spa for international visitors. He designed the expensive new Rotorua Baths, which opened in 1908 to treat 1,000 visitors a day. People could choose from a range of scientific treatments that were claimed to cure a number of diseases.
The popularity of spas waned, and ‘taking the waters’ went out of fashion for most of the 20th century. In the 1990s the baths at Hanmer Springs were modernised to cater for a revival of interest in spas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the early 20th century most New Zealanders could afford only one- or two-day excursions. In the 1920s the Railways Department aggressively promoted weekend excursions which drew crowds to places like Caroline Bay in Timaru, Arthur’s Pass, Rotorua, Te Aroha, Waitomo Caves and Waihī Beach. In the 1930s, with New Zealand now 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 petrol rationing and severe travel restrictions. Hotels in remote areas were hit hard by the loss of traffic. The post-war years saw domestic travel boom again.
Although advances in aviation during the Second World War brought optimism to the tourist industry, many difficulties confronted its development. At heart New Zealand remained an agricultural country. Although the 1940s Labour government fostered manufacturing, in the 1950s Treasury poured scorn on the idea that tourism could make a valuable contribution to the economy. It based its forecasts on the history of tourism in New Zealand and judged that the country was too far away from the rest of the world.
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 public alike underestimated the cost of providing decent hotels and access to remote areas, and the need for sophisticated entertainment for tourists who grew weary of gazing at nature. Young people’s preference for working in factories 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 lost money 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 was given to agriculture and manufacturing − 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, weekend shopping and Sunday cinema screenings also irked 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 make use of business expertise to expand government hotels. There was a chain of modern THC resorts from Waitangi to Milford Sound by 1973, but they remained unprofitable until the mid-1980s. The only advance was the introduction by general manager Eric Colbeck of formal staff training and elegant meals. This set standards for the rest of the industry to follow.
The advent of jet passenger planes in the 1960s and then jumbo jets in the 1980s revolutionised New Zealand tourism. Distances seemed shorter, costs fell and more tourists made businesses more viable. New Zealanders’ experiences while travelling overseas led to higher expectations back home which benefited visitors.
The British Overseas Airways Corporation’s inaugural London–New Zealand flight in 1963 and Air New Zealand’s inaugural DC-8 flight from Los Angeles in 1965 marked the beginning of long-haul flights to New Zealand. Auckland international airport in Māngere was officially opened in 1966 and became New Zealand’s main link with the outside world. From 1970 wide-bodied DC-10s made flying faster and cheaper. They brought mass tourism to New Zealand, leading to an accommodation shortage. The government’s agreement to provide financial assistance for hotel construction resulted in the opening of the Intercontinental and South Pacific hotels in Auckland in 1968. Hotels in other tourist centres followed.
Rangitīaria Dennan was the most famous of a long line of Māori women guides in Rotorua. Confident and articulate, she enjoyed discussing political and racial issues with overseas visitors. Guide Rangi was irrepressible, refusing to bow to government advice that her comments on the colour bar in other countries might offend tourists.
The new ease of flying across the vast Pacific Ocean brought a surge of interest in a South Pacific ‘paradise’. To meet tourist expectations the government sought to restore Rotorua as the showpiece of Māori culture. The Māori Arts and Crafts Institute was set up by legislation in 1963 to preserve traditional carving skills and make high-quality souvenirs. Māori concert parties modernised their style and performed with more glitz and glamour. The local Māori community, however, resisted pressure to rebuild its housing to appeal to tourists.
Japanese tourists were valued because they tended to be high spenders. In 1973 a group of hunting enthusiasts brought so much cash into the country that the bank at Christchurch airport ran out of New Zealand currency when they converted it. Tourist businesses needed to adapt to Japanese tastes by flavouring food more strongly, and wrapping gifts elegantly and not ‘like a parcel of fish and chips’.1
The increasing number of tourists led operators and the government to acknowledge that scenery alone was not enough – tourists needed other things to do. In 1969 the government introduced loans for constructing tourist facilities. One of the first recipients was the Agrodome at Rotorua, which was based on a farm show in Seattle and the Wool Board’s show at Expo 1970 in Japan. It gave tourists a glimpse of New Zealand agriculture, was hugely popular, and set a precedent for other businesses celebrating life on the land. In 2008 the Agrodome won the annual tourism award for best visitor attraction.
New Zealand’s marketing had traditionally focused on Britain, Australia and the US. This changed in 1973 when the Tourist Department opened its first offices in non-English speaking countries, in Tokyo and Frankfurt. The number of high-spending Japanese tourists who took the ‘blue ribbon route’ from Auckland to Rotorua, Christchurch, Queenstown and Milford Sound rose steadily until the early 2000s.
Tourism, like all industries, has its social and environmental impacts. In resort towns like Queenstown, escalating property values mean that house prices are out of reach of many of those working in the industry. It is likely that domestic and international tourists introduced and spread harmful organisms such as giardia and didymo in New Zealand waterways. Overcrowding can be an issue – the Milford, Routeburn and Abel Tasman walking tracks all have booking systems to limit daily numbers.
Most tourists have no experience of New Zealand’s changeable weather and rugged terrain, and they are increasingly represented in the tally of back-country fatalities. A number have also died in vehicle accidents caused by unfamiliarity with New Zealand road rules.
In 1985 half a million tourists visted New Zealand and, with the introduction of wide-bodied Boeing 767s by Air New Zealand, numbers were set to increase. Tourism was now the fifth-highest earner of overseas funds. With the industry less dependent on government subsidies for survival, the government sold the Tourist Hotel Corporation’s hotels to private companies. Deregulation in other areas made New Zealand more attractive to tourists – the availability of alcohol was liberalised and shop opening hours were extended. Night-life, cafés and restaurants took off.
From the late 1980s rugged landscapes became the backdrop for adrenalin thrills. A precedent had been set in the 1960s when Bill Hamilton’s jet boat was adapted for tourist rides near Queenstown. In 1988 A. J. Hackett and Henry van Asch set up bungy jumping from the Kawarau River bridge. More high-velocity activities followed, and Queenstown was soon being marketed as the adventure capital of the world. Other extreme activities, like skydiving and black-water rafting, were developed in other regions; innovative companies became million-dollar businesses and New Zealand gained a fresh image as a country of exhilarating adventures.
Bungy jumping is based on a Vanuatu ritual in which young men leap from towers with vines attached to their ankles. Bungy jumping was developed in New Zealand by A. J. Hackett and his partner Henry van Asch, after three years of experimentation with different cords. From 1988 the world’s first commercial bungy jump hurled paying customers off the 43-metre-high Kawarau River bridge, near Queenstown. The company opened the 134-metre Nevis Bungy, the highest in Australasia, in July 1999.
At the same time, ecotourism was developing, led by Whale Watch Kaikoura (which took visitors to see whales off the Kaikōura coast). Its huge success encouraged other small businesses to focus on viewing seals, dolphins and other wildlife. The Tamaki brothers’ new slant on a ‘living village’ at Rotorua (offering a Māori cultural experience for tourists), and Whale Watch Kaikoura, typified how Māori were once again initiating important tourist ventures.
Rising tourist numbers gave the industry the confidence to call for a more entrepreneurial approach to marketing New Zealand. In 1990 the Tourist Department was disbanded and replaced by a smaller policy unit. Most of the government’s support for tourism was redirected to the New Zealand Tourist Board, composed of leaders in the tourist industry. The board became responsible for marketing the country internationally. Their tactical marketing campaigns encouraged short-term growth, but led to disenchantment when numbers slumped during the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98.
When M&C Saatchi chose the tag-line of ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ they wanted a visual ‘hook’ to attract attention. A creative director in Singapore had the idea of integrating the distinctive shape of New Zealand into the percent sign.
Radical changes to marketing New Zealand as a destination came in 1999 when Tourism New Zealand (the renamed government tourist agency), moved away from a fragmented approach of one-off campaigns in different countries. The international advertising company M&C Saatchi designed a unified global campaign to be used consistently in New Zealand’s eight major markets. The bold, concise statement of the tagline – 100% Pure New Zealand – was aligned with images of sweeping landscapes.
Innovative use of technology put New Zealand ahead of other national tourist campaigns. The site www.newzealand.com was integrated into all 100% Pure New Zealand publicity. By 2008 it was attracting almost 11 million visits a year. In 2006 Tourism New Zealand was at the forefront of advertising via podcasts, mobile phones and electronic billboards. It bought out the front page of YouTube for 24 hours, and inserted tourist sites into a layer on Google Earth (an online digital map of the world).
The 100% Pure campaign benefited from the successes of the America’s Cup yacht races in New Zealand and the wine and film industries. The stunning landscapes shown in the Lord of the rings film trilogy added to the country’s appeal. New Zealand was also viewed as a safe haven in an era of international crises such as the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, the Bali bombings of 2002, and the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in Asia in 2003. Visitor numbers rose at an average of 7% per year between 1999 and 2004, compared with 3% for other countries. Tourist activities expanded to encompass the World of WearableArts and ‘voluntourism’ (tourists doing some voluntary work as part of their overseas experience).
As the conservation movement gained influence in the 2000s, the marketing slogan of ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ risked seeming untenable. The tourist industry set its own environmental standards such as Green Globe 21 – an international system of certification for businesses that reduce their damage to the environment. It also worked to meet the government’s sustainability goals.
Despite jet travel, New Zealand’s far-flung location remains a challenge. As a British travel editor commented, ‘New Zealand’s beautiful. It’s like Scotland … But Scotland doesn’t involve a 26 hour flight and 13 time zones.’1
The concept of carbon footprints and the rising cost of fuel also intensified the idea that New Zealand was a distant place. To retain its profitability, Air New Zealand adjusted aircraft design and flying techniques and ordered fuel-efficient new-generation Boeing aircraft.
Tourism was New Zealand’s top export earner in the year to March 2007, contributing 9.2% of gross domestic product. In 2008, for the first time, the combined spending of domestic and international tourists reached $20 billion a year. However tourism remained a volatile industry, often at the mercy of forces outside its control. The chill of world recession and high fuel prices saw tourism decline temporarily.
In 2018, 3.9 million international visitors entered New Zealand, and combined domestic and international tourist spending was $39.1 million. There was debate about the effect of such numbers on the quality of the experiences of both tourists and locals at popular destinations – and the ability of infrastructure to cope. In 2019 a tax of $35 was imposed on visitors from countries other than Australia and the Pacific Islands, and targeted ‘bed taxes’ were introduced by some local authorities.
Tourism New Zealand was competing against more than 100 other national tourist offices. New Zealand’s annual investment of $69 million was dwarfed by the publicity spending of other countries. Although New Zealand was ranked as tourists’ top long-haul destination in both the Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller in 2008, tourists are constantly being drawn to new destinations. New Zealand’s remoteness puts it out of range of low-cost airlines and a trend towards short breaks.
Tougher economic times saw airlines in the UK, US, Japan and South Korea withdraw from the New Zealand route, and fewer visitors from these countries. Leading companies like Tourism Holdings and Ngai Tahu Tourism have taken over the kind of large-scale enterprises once owned by the government, but 75% of tourist companies employ five or fewer workers.
In the early 2000s New Zealand tourism still benefited from unspoilt scenery and imaginative developers. Māori entrepreneurs had regained a dominant role in the industry. Air New Zealand’s new direct flights from Vancouver, San Francisco, Beijing and Shanghai gave faster access, though they also lured New Zealanders away from domestic travel.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic effectively halted inbound tourism – and most international air travel – in March 2020. Its long-term effects on the industry were unforeseeable, but likely to be substantial.
Bain, Carolyn, and others. New Zealand. Footscray, Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2006.
Hall, C. Michael, and Geoffrey Kearsley. Tourism in New Zealand: an introduction. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.
McClure, Margaret. The wonder country: making New Zealand tourism. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004.
Wevers, Lydia, ed. Travelling to New Zealand: an Oxford anthology. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000.