City with a 2013 population of 53,265, on the southern shores of Lake Rotorua. Rotorua is unusual among New Zealand cities in being neither a port nor originally a farm service centre. The aroma of sulfur (rotten eggs to some) pervades the town, produced by its many volcanic steam vents, mud pools and hot springs.
Establishing the town
Rotorua was built in the early 1880s by the government, as a town for tourists visiting the ‘hot lakes’. It was laid out on the Pukeroa–Oruawhata block, land leased from Ngāti Whakaue near the Māori lakeside settlement of Ōhinemutu.
This arrangement with the tribal owners broke down, and the government became the sole owner in 1888. The arrival of the railway in 1894 spurred growth. The government developed a European-style spa with ornamental gardens, and bathing and therapeutic facilities. The population grew from 500 in 1896 to over 4,700 (including more than 600 Māori) in 1926.
After the Second World War, growth was also fostered by forest, farm and hydroelectricity development. Many government departments had regional offices in the town. The population increased more than sixfold – from 7,500 at the war’s end to 46,000 in 1976. Rotorua was proclaimed a city in 1962.
Since the late 1970s, forestry, farming and electricity have employed fewer people and the city’s population has been stable. Tourism and accommodation employ many, but the biggest single employers are the district council, the hospital, Waiariki Institute of Technology and SCION, a Crown research institute which focuses on forestry science and forest-related industries.
The money spent by over one million visitors each year – about half from overseas – is the backbone of many businesses in the renovated downtown. The finely landscaped approach to the city along Fenton Street has a near-continuous line of motels and hotels, and many residents of Asian origin run tourist-oriented businesses.
The various sources of growth have given the town multiple personalities. The worlds of tourists and timber are distinct, and Pākehā, Asian and Māori residents coexist rather than merge.
Māori in Rotorua
In 2013 nearly 40% of the population identified themselves as Māori – the biggest proportion of any New Zealand city except Gisborne. Māori families such as the Mitchells, Morrisons and Bennetts have long been prominent in the city. Railway land near the central city is now home to large-scale retail outlets leased out by the Pukeroa–Oruawhata Māori Trust.
At the same time, there was a stark contrast between more affluent and poorer areas. In Kawaha Point, 33.2% of the population identified themselves as Māori and 8.1% of residents were unemployed. But less affluent Fordlands, a new suburb nearby, had 73.3% Māori and 31.7% unemployment.
Health or pleasure?
Rotorua’s swanky Blue Baths were quite a departure from the city’s earlier bathhouses. ‘Where [other baths] offered treatments for a variety of ailments from gout to psoriasis, the Blue Baths offered movie-style glamour, for an afternoon at least … For the first time, men and women could get (almost) naked, together in public.’ 1
Rotorua has distinctive buildings. The Government Gardens, now a historic reserve, are dominated by the Bath House, opened in 1908 to emulate European spa bathhouses, especially that at Bad Nauheim in Germany. The building now houses the Rotorua Museum of Art and History Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa. The Te Arawa presence is also recognised in the nearby Arawa soldiers’ memorial, a First World War memorial with many Māori names, and the waka taua (war canoe) carved by Te Arawa artist Lyonel Grant in 1989.
The Spanish-mission-style Blue Baths were built in 1931–32, and introduced mixed bathing to Rotorua. Closed in 1982, they were reopened in 1999 for bathing and as a function venue. The Polynesian Spa occupies the site of the former Ward baths, on the lake front.
Kuirau Park is another geothermal area in the city, and the site of its aquatic centre. In 2007, a large events centre opened in Government Gardens behind the museum.