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The Māori Village Where New Zealand Tourism Began

By Rēnata West

Sep 30, 2021

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In the Māori village of Whakarewarewa, cooking in hot springs is a traditional way of life.

Courtesy of Whakareware Māori Living Village

In the Māori village of Whakarewarewa, cooking in hot springs is a traditional way of life.

Rēnata West was born and raised in Whakarewarewa, a village on New Zealand’s North Island, where his family and community have embraced tourism that both protects his people and preserves their rich culture—a model he now seeks to spread to other Indigenous communities.

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This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast.

I grew up in a little village with a big name. It’s called Te-Whakarewarewa-tanga-te-ope-taua-a-Wāhiao: 36 letters long and believe it or not, it’s only the third longest place name in New Zealand. We call it Whaka for short. 

Whaka is a little village in a valley of just over 150 acres and it’s filled with hundreds of different geothermal marvels. We’re talking geysers, hot springs, cauldrons of boiling hot mud, gas and sulfur escaping through cracks in the ground. Growing up, this was my backyard.

This valley is where my people come from, but it’s in fact the second place we have called home. We moved here after the eruption of a volcano called Tarawera in 1886. My tribe used to live beneath the mountain, under the shadow of what has been described as one of the eight wonders of the natural world: Te Otukapuarangi or “the fountain of the clouded sky” and Te Tarata “the tattooed rock.” Today most commonly referred to as the Pink and White terraces, naturally formed pools in a stepped formation sloping down the side of a hill, fed from a gushing geyser at the top. 

Visitors to Whakareware can take self-guided walks across mud pools, fumaroles, and geysers.

In the 1800s, the terraces drew visitors from far and wide. Curious artists and budding photographers. Camera technology was just becoming popularized. The early paintings and photographs of the terraces would become some of the first postcards for these beautiful islands all the way at the bottom of the world. Even the [British] royal family heard about these wonders. In 1870 Prince Alfred journeyed to see them for himself. He helped spur a flourishing tourism trade for those interested in taking to the healing waters.

Tourism boomed; it was a skill that came naturally to our people, who loved telling stories. My tribe became one of the richest communities in the country. We became so wealthy that when a new traditional meeting house was completed, gold coins were placed in the eyes of the carvings instead of the traditional abalone shell. 

But it changed in an instant after the volcano erupted in 1886. The terraces were lost. And so was the village. It was seen as a warning to our tribe to not be greedy and to not forget the lessons of old—that above all else maintaining our traditions is the most important thing.

Today [Whaka] is the only geothermal area in the world where people live. And it’s a part of our life. It’s how we live.

My people were fortunate to move down into the valley of Whaka to live with our relatives. That became our new home. And although this valley is also filled with spouting geysers and springs, we never forgot those lost terraces. We work to never forget the lessons learned under the shadow of the mountain and to never again put money before people.

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Today it is the only geothermal area in the world where people live. And it’s a part of our life. It’s how we live. We cook crayfish from the nearby rivers in the hot springs, we bathe ourselves in different hot pools. It is an intrinsic part of who we are as people. It’s unique, so naturally people have been interested to learn about our way of life and to learn about our very distinctive place. 

Tourists and visitors flocked to our little village right from the very beginning, just like they had to the mountain. A little-known fact is that the New Zealand Tourism Board was established in my hometown in 1901, and it was the first ever tourism board in the world. 

In 1919, my grandmother Maramena Wiari was one of the first tourist guides to be registered with the New Zealand government to take visitors around and to teach them our stories, to teach them our way of life. 

She would, of course, take them to see the pools, the deepest blue you could ever imagine. She would also show them how we weave our cloaks, mats, and cooking baskets with flax. She would point out the boiling cauldrons of hot mud. She would guide visitors along the village paths, and show them the small marae or meeting houses. She would share some of the great feats of our tribe, including how our little valley got its long name. She would also explain why our homes have slanted roofs and red, intricately carved trim.

Visitors would watch children performing the haka, our traditional dance, for a penny. And if the wind picked up at just the right time, they may have even been splashed by a geyser. (My grandmother was used to the sulfur smell of her thermal home; sometimes visitors were not so accustomed though.)

And so my grandmother, along with the women of her generation, became the pioneers of tourism in New Zealand. It’s a true family legacy and we take pride in it above all else. For example, one of my grand aunts—Guide Maggie Papakura—was the first Māori woman admitted to Oxford in 1924. But to us, she will always be known as Guide Maggie.

Kapa haka, or performing arts, are a key part of the village’s model of sustainable tourism.

Another grand aunt, Rangi, became extraordinarily well-known when she took Eleanor Roosevelt on tour. And made world headlines when she gave the first lady a traditional hongi greeting, where you press noses together—a move considered audacious by most of the world’s press. Guide Rangi would become so famous that letters received from overseas addressed simply to Rangi of New Zealand made it to her mailbox. 

Over the years, tourism became a major employer for our local families and enabled young generations to grow and learn an international industry. It wasn’t as much about making money anymore. There was an equal emphasis on sharing culture and reinvesting proceeds into the preservation of traditional artforms like wood carving and flax weaving. For many reasons, in the first half of the 20th century, traditional knowledge was at risk of dying out. Tourism income helped us retain some of our most important traditions.

Tourism became a viable career, and a sought after one at that. There was a constant stream of well-known and gorgeous visitors, with everyone from movie stars to heads of state coming to see what all the fuss was about. The guide uniforms became so fancy that they almost looked like airline crew. And you were proud to wear your uniform about town, and everyone knew where you worked as soon as you walked into the room. 

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Business aside, when you strip everything right back, tourism is truly about people. You can find spectacular scenery almost anywhere but you won’t find spectacular people everywhere. That’s why our grandmothers, those early pioneers, recognized the sharing of culture was what was truly important. A bold move when the easy option would be to simply focus on these strange geological phenomena spouting hot water into the air.

We share our stories every day with the world. We share our tales of forbidden lovers who changed the face of our tribe. We share tales of great adventures of our ancestors who outwitted their opponents with their great wits and resourcefulness. We share the story of ourselves. Breaking down barriers and misconceptions one guided tour at a time. 

That’s not to say that we share everything though. Some things are sacred and held close. Some things are not shared for practical reasons. For example, during the day we take people around and demonstrate how we use the hot springs to create our hot baths, but no villager takes a bath in the middle of the day when visitors are around. When the village closes and visitors leave for the day, that is the time we enjoy the healing waters all for ourselves. Life is for sharing, but not sharing everything completely. 

We share our stories every day with the world. We share our tales of forbidden lovers who changed the face of our tribe. We share tales of great adventures of our ancestors. . . . We share the story of ourselves.

Cultural tourism has spread to other parts of town. When we talk about experiencing culture, most people think about watching a cultural performance or something similar. But it goes back to that idea of tourism being all about people. I like the example of a Māori-owned white water rafting company that sets themselves apart from the competition by offering something no one else can: culture. They start the rafting trip with a traditional prayer for protection, and when you’re on the river, they stop to point out sites of significance and tell the stories of the local tribes. So you’re getting a cultural experience but with a side of adventure as well.  

That is not to say that we have everything figured out though. By making ourselves accommodating and welcoming to the world, we adjusted our expectations of our language as well. A few generations ago we focused on learning English to the detriment of the Māori language in our community. Today we have many of us who don’t speak Māori as a first language. But it’s something we’re working on.

Before I moved to Los Angeles six years ago, I was the fifth generation of my family to take visitors around the valley. My mother guided with me in her stomach, and up until we had to pause tourism in 2020, she was still sharing the stories that her grandmothers shared with her.  

When the pandemic hit I realized that it was Indigenous communities that were being hit hardest. This wasn’t isolated to just New Zealand but also throughout the wider South Pacific. In 2020 I founded a cultural training and education agency called Pacific Storytelling to help apply the lessons of my own community. We focus on asking local people their thoughts about sustainability and connect cultural experts with the travel community. 

I believe that when things eventually return to normal, we will emerge wanting to know a little more about what makes us all unique. I am encouraged every day by the thought of my grandmothers—the original pioneers of tourism in New Zealand. 

>>Next: Arctic Revelations

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