Māori village nestled among hot springs reckoning with the return of foreign tourists

    “At the height of summer, we would get maybe 4,000 people a day,” says James Warbrick as he crosses the bridge into Whakarewarewa, a tiny Māori village pocketed between hundreds of steaming, bubbling geothermal pools – a place like no other and one at the heart of New Zealand’s tourism industry.

    But today there are no tourists in sight.

    When New Zealand shut its border two years ago as the Covid pandemic hit, Whakarewarewa lost 96% of its visitors overnight. Now, as the country prepares to start reopening to foreign visitors next month, its inhabitants are torn between their economic needs and trepidation at the destructive impact of tourism.

    Whakarewarewa, in the North Island town of Rotorua, is both a time capsule and a living, evolving place – the 27 families who live on site still cook, bathe and live alongside the hot springs and geysers, just as their tīpuna (ancestors) did. And, like their tīpuna, the families have survived by opening the village to tourists and adapting in times of crisis.

    Warbrick reaches down and opens a large wooden box on the ground. Inside, meat is cooking slowly, heated through by the mineral steam rising from below ground. Behind him, warm sulphurous mist billows up from the Parekohuru pool and shrouds the small houses in a white veil before being whipped up into the air, exposing the deep blue silica pools beneath.

    To one side of the pool are the baths, filled each morning, and left to cool enough for families to take an evening dip. To the other side is the open-air kitchen – vegetables are boiled in the 100C mineral spring and meat steamed in ovens that reach 200C.

    Kuia Christina Gardiner outside the Whare at Whakarewarewa, a Māori village sandwiched between hundreds of geothermal pools. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/The Guardian
    The residential village at Whakarewarewa.
    The residential village at Whakarewarewa, which lost 96% of its visitors when New Zealand shut its borders at the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/The Guardian

    Warbrick – a fourth generation guide – tells stories about the pools, their names and their purposes, and chats about the histories of the houses and the families – all with an ease that comes from growing up watching generations of guides before him tell the stories of his village to more than 120,000 people a year.

    The village become a tourist attraction after the 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption, which buried the nearby Pink and White Terraces – a series of terraces, each with a geothermal pool, like a stepped fountain down the mountainside, that had been considered the “eighth wonder of the world”.

    After the explosion, the people of Whakarewarewa (Ngāti Wāhiao) took in the displaced Tūhourangi tribe, who had been master tour-guides at the terraces. Soon after, the two tribes adapted Tūhourangi’s skills to Whakarewarewa itself.

    Then, in 1901, the government established the world’s first tourism office, the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, in Rotorua – and New Zealand’s tourism industry was born.

    A country stilled

    For more than 130 years visitors have flocked to Whakarewarewa – right up until the pandemic hit, when suddenly, “like a rugby scrum collapsing”, everything went quiet, says 81-year-old Christina Gardiner, a guide and village kuia [elder].

    The country’s great walks, its ski-slopes, its harbours and towns were still. Up until March 2020, tourism was New Zealand’s biggest export industry, contributing 20% of total exports and bringing in $40.9bn a year.

    Since then, many tourism businesses have struggled to survive. According to Tourism Industry Aotearoa, 90% of international tourism disappeared.

    James Warbrick of the Whakarewarewa Trust Board (R) speaks with kuia (elder) Chris Gardiner.
    Christina Gardiner (l) and James Warbrick. Whakarewarewa is home to 27 families who still cook, bathe and live alongside the hot springs and geysers, just as their tīpuna (ancestors) did. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/The Guardian
    Bubbling mud at Whakarewarewa.
    Bubbling mud at Whakarewarewa. Pre-pandemic, 120,000 people a year came to visit the village. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/The Guardian

    In Whakarewarewa staff had to be laid off, stores shut down, and the village had to rely on government support grants to keep afloat.

    “Those were really, really hard times, and I don’t want to experience that ever again,” Warbrick said. But the inventive drive of his ancestors after the 1886 eruption was the motivation the village needed, he said.

    “It was horrendous what they went through, so we had to dig deep. They gave us confidence that we can get through this hard time.”

    When Gardiner and Warbrick are asked what the first lockdown was like for the village, the words come quick: “eerie”, “shocking”, “there were mixed emotions”.

    “But on the upside, we became very, very close,” Gardiner says. “It made our kids appreciate what they’d inherited. Before, the bath was a bath, but all of a sudden it was a place where they could be one with nature.

    “They are prepared to share it back with the world, but they have a different affinity to it now.”

    Natural geothermal activity at Whakarewarewa.
    Whakarewarewa was forced to rely on government support when the borders were closed and the flow of visitors stopped. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/The Guardian

    This month, prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the long wait for tourism’s return was nearly over. From 13 April, more than two years after the borders shut, New Zealand will reopen – first to Australians, then to other visa-waiver countries and finally the rest of the world.

    Pre-Covid, most New Zealanders agreed tourism was good for the country, but said the pressure on the environment, degradation of infrastructure and overcrowding were a concern, according to the 2020 Tourism Industry “mood of the nation” report. Three regions – Auckland, Queenstown and Rotorua – were perceived as being under too much pressure.

    A chance to rethink

    The border reopening will be a lifeline for those regions that are tourist-dependent. For Whakarewarewa, while there is relief, there is also trepidation.

    If the pandemic hadn’t happened, New Zealand’s tourism industry and its effects “would still be on a fast track to destruction”, says Mike Gibbons, the village’s general manager.

    “We know that a lot of local communities were struggling with numbers, the impacts of waste and insufficient facilities.”

    Whakarewarewa serves as a fascinating microcosm of tourism in New Zealand, and the tension that exists between relying on tourism to survive, while trying to hold on to the wairua (spirit) of a place. It is also a case study in how the pandemic years could reorient New Zealand’s relationship with tourism.

    Natural geothermal activity at Whakarewarewa.
    Whakarewarewa became a tourist attraction at the end of the 19th century. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/The Guardian

    For the village, there is a reluctance to return to the previous tourism framework, which saw visitor numbers creeping up and the environment de-prioritised. It has already reoriented its tourism model once during the pandemic, to capture a domestic audience. Now, it wants to refocus its energy into a more environmentally friendly experience that is both intimate and sustainable.

    Having more than 100,000 tourists walking through the village every year is hard on the whenua (land), while one guide to 70 people lacks the connection the village wants to foster, Warbrick says.

    Gibbons adds that there are two words that come to mind when looking towards tourism of the future – manaakitanga, meaning extending love and support to someone, and kaitiakitanga, meaning guardianship and protection of the environment.

    “We’ve taken on a much stronger focus on what that really means to us,” Gibbons says.

    The pandemic has given the village a “chance to rethink,” Gibbons says, adding that now, they are considering limiting tour group sizes and would be happy to have just 40,000 visitors a year, a significant drop from pre-Covid times.

    “In other words, come back to basics,” Gardiner adds. “We’re like the Phoenix bird – you go down; you come back up fighting.”

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