A weekend in Rotorua is a glimpse into the future of Maori tourism

For over a hundred years, Rotorua has been a bustling tourist destination for visitors from near and far. Charlotte Muru-Lanning examines how the industry has both shaped and been shaped by local Maori – and how they are adapting for the future.

Shooting skyward through the veil of geothermal mist draping Rotorua, Waikite was once the pride of the city. The geyser’s 20-meter-tall jets were visible from the city center, their waters spilling over the impressive sinter terraces that zigzagged below.

These days, the landmark looks quite different. It’s 8pm and my roommate Lucy and I are driving through Rotorua Te Puiathe enclosure incorporating both the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley and the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute – set up by the government in 1963 to promote traditional arts threatened by the impacts of colonization – with a small group of Americans, Australians and Aucklanders visiting for the Geyser by Night experience.

Lucy and I are truly indoor people – neither of us would normally choose to spend our holidays walking in the dark, let alone in the cold midwinter drizzle. But tonight, guided by kaiārahi Patrick and Maunganui, we have an unforgettable time eating kūmara and steamed caramel pudding cooked at Ngāraratuatara, a nearby hot spring pool, while listening intently to legends and more recent stories of the bubbling pools and erupting geysers that surround us.

Even in the dark, it’s easy to see how Waikite has been transformed. the geyser no longer bursts with water and the cascading falls below are gone; a faint puff of steam is the only suggestion of its past strength. Its current state reflects the complex relationship that tourism has with the geography and people of Rotorua: often symbiotic, but in this particular case perhaps more one-sided.

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The Waikite sinter terraces at night. (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

In the first half of the 20th century, households and hotels in Rotorua dug into the earth to draw hot water from below. Being able to easily and freely access an abundant source of energy would have been liberating at the time, but all those holes in the earth caused the water pressure in the geothermal system to drop.

Geysers have started to go to sleep all over Rotorua; due to its high elevation, Waikete was the first to go there in 1969. Now, after more than 50 years, there is new hope for its future. Since the 1980s, geothermal resources have been better managed and drilling near the site has stopped. More recently, there have been signs of return water. “I really hope it comes back,” Patrick says, as we stand in front of the now lunar terraces.

Before a tourist industry developed around Rotorua’s spa attractions, they were a important resource for the Te Arawa. Hot pools were used for washing clothes, bathing and cooking. The warm surrounding areas were used for growing kūmara and collecting red kōkōwai for carvings.

Just off Te Puia is the village of Whakarewarewa, a reminder of how the last two centuries of Te Arawa’s history have been defined by tourism. It is a place where the Te Arawa hapū Tūhourangi-Ngāti Wahiao have welcomed and guided visitors for over 200 years. For local Maori, adaptation to tourism has been seen as a commodification of culture, and conversely as shaping cultural identity and as a tool for maintaining tikanga and mātauranga. Reflecting on these tensions in her 1981 thesis of the impact of tourism on Te Arawa, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku wrote: “There was indeed substance in my people’s loud and frequent assertions that tourism has not harmed Te Arawa; in many cases it has helped us.

Steamed blood sausage and geothermal activity in Te Puia. (Images: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Jthe next morning we headed to hell gate, a geothermal reserve and mud spa at Tikitere, on the eastern shore of Lake Rotorua. The attraction, run by Rotorua-based tourist conglomerate Wai Ora, is billed as Aotearoa’s first-ever destination spa and is one of several Maori-owned and operated venues in the area. After a short walk around the various pools, fumaroles and lakes, we took what we thought was a well deserved dip in the hot pools. As we sat facing the steaming geothermal park, coating ourselves in mineral-rich mud, we both agreed that it was one of the most luxurious things we had ever done. Our only disappointment was that we couldn’t take pictures of our most glamorous moment – the sulfur in the air would apparently corrode our phones.

That night we had a reservation at Te Pā Tū Maori Village, formerly known as Tamaki Māori Village. In 2018, the village was purchased from original owners Doug and Mike Tamaki by Tauhara North No.2 Trust, an ahu whenua land trust that redistributes profits to hapū members, often for scholarships. Having learned from the website that this is a “unique celebration of Maori culture and cuisine”, we still didn’t know what to expect when we were picked up from our hotel for the journey. to the village.

On arrival, our group, almost entirely made up of foreign visitors, was greeted in manuhiri by the village gates. It was the first weekend that Te Pā Tū had opened this year and there was an unmistakable buzz of excitement and relief in the air. As a city that relies heavily on tourism, Rotorua has been heavily impacted by the effects of the pandemic. Before Covid-19, around 3.5 million people visited Rotorua each year; about 42% of them came from abroad.

During the evening we were guided through raranga traditions and rākau games and a brilliant performance of kapa haka. In the end, we had fun. The intricate menu, designed by guest chef Christopher Stockdale (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Iwitea, Wairoa, Ngāi Tahu Matawhaiti), centered on produce sourced from and around Tauhara whenua and wines from Maori wineries. The kai in these types of tourist destinations is traditionally simple, usually the hāngi served buffet style. The savory dishes we enjoyed – a boiling amuse-bouche; individual bites of eel, kamokamo, watercress and kumara; vodka cocktails infused with feijoa and mānuka honey; and taro gratin – are a sign of how Rotorua is adapting to changing tastes, both in food and tourism.

Te Pā Tū kaiārahi performs waiata. (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Between bites, we chatted with Kiri Atkinson-Crean, tourism manager for Tauhara North No.2 Trust. Before Covid, the village attracted around 100,000 people a year.

The past two years have been the toughest in Te Pā Tū’s 30-year history, she explained, but the break has also created an opportunity to look within and rethink the meaning of Maori tourism.

For Maori, cultural attractions based on our culture but designed to appeal to an international tourist audience can be a difficult experience. Since the early days of tourism in Rotorua, there has been a tension between cultural authenticity and the need to make money from that culture. Te Pā Tū’s new program is an attempt to balance visitors’ needs and expectations, with an evolving Aotearoa where te reo, mātauranga Māori and decolonized history are becoming more mainstream. And it’s a representation of the ever-changing traditions of Rotorua tourism – as well as what we might expect in the future.

Charlotte and Lucy were hosted by Tourism New Zealand.

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