The Southern Alps
Tourism’s beginnings in the South Island focused on the mountainous regions of Mt Cook, the Franz Josef and Tasman glaciers, Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound. The Southern Alps were a boon to European mountaineers, while snow and ice were a novelty to Australians. Experience soon showed that stunning landscape was not enough − providing transport, beds, entertainment and an extended tourist season were 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. From 1900 to 1910 the Tourist Department took over hostels at Te Anau, steamers at Queenstown, and the Milford Track. Taking over failing tourist enterprises continued for decades. Tourist numbers had not yet reached a critical mass and tourism was seasonal. Hotels were nearly 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 the mountain guide Peter Graham. In 1910 she became the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook, and achieved the ascent and return in record time. In following years she broke other records. After her climbs she would wear her finest 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 ski fields deferred. Guides enlisted for the front, and government funding was redirected to the war effort. Business was slow to recover in the post-war years − international tourist numbers were lower in 1922 than in 1907. Few 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 ski fields 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 draw sufficient crowds, and needed government subsidies to survive.
National park arguments
From the earliest days New Zealanders have debated whether national parks should be havens for native plants and animals or adapted for the pleasure of visitors. For 10 years from 1914, sporting enthusiast John Cullen spread tonnes of Scottish heather seed into Tongariro National Park to encourage grouse hunting and beautify the landscape. A critic argued, ‘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 put pleasure for visitors ahead of nature conservation. Yet shortage of funds meant huts in the 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 had modern facilities, such as a gymnasium, a cinema and central heating. Wigley hoped that being close to Rotorua and mid-way on the Wellingon–Auckland rail line would bring higher profits than the Hermitage. He also believed that successful tourist operators needed a chain of businesses spanning 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. In 1931 the Tourist Department took over the resort, publicised weekend excursions and imported European ski instructors. Numbers climbed and in 1938 overseas visitors peaked at 20,000. Of these, 61% were Australians.
A year later the outbreak of the Second World War 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 ready for the expected boom after the war.