Rotorua’s geothermal surface features have been used in a low impact way by Māori for hundreds of years, for practical as well as spiritual purposes.
Extractive use of the system began in the 1870s when Rotorua became a tourist destination, influencing settlement patterns. Demand for commercial and residential use increased further in the 1930s and following energy shortages in the early 1950s extraction of geothermal heat and fluid for private use became commonplace.
By the 1970s more than 1,000 bores had been drilled with depths of 50 to 200 metres below the surface. As a result many geothermal features and activity in Whakarewarewa Valley, Kuirau Park and Arikikapakapa began to decline significantly. In the mid-late 1980s Government stepped in, forcing the compulsory closure of many wells, including all wells within 1.5 kilometres of the Pohutu Geyser, and imposing consent requirements.
Subsequently, geothermal features have recovered and the system has stabilised, with fewer natural events such as hydrothermal eruptions.
Some of the significant geothermal features within and around Rotorua urban area – most notably in Kuirau Park – are the same today as they were in the 1920s. While much of this recovery was rapid, some has taken longer. For example, the Papakura Geyser in Whakarewarewa valley began erupting in September 2015 after being dormant for over 30 years.
Geothermal resources have been an integral part of Māori culture for hundreds of years, with the Bay of Plenty’s Te Arawa people regarding them as a taonga (treasure). Te Arawa have for generations regarded the geothermal resource as a gift from the Atua, and call it waiariki, water of the gods. For Te Arawa, waiariki gives them physical and spiritual comfort; it is interwoven into their culture and traditions and is a major component of their tribal identity. Te Arawa kaitiaki require that any activity that would adversely affect the mauri of their waiariki must be avoided or controlled.
Māori have traditionally used heated waters for cooking, washing, bathing, heating, preserving, ceremonial use and healing. Rotorua was also the birthplace of tourism in New Zealand, with visitors travelling from throughout the world since the 1800s to experience the region’s geothermal wonders and Māori hospitality.
The resource remains integral to Māori culture today, particularly in Rotorua, which has one of the largest and most active geothermal fields in the world. Examples of its rich heritage include the communities of Whakarewarewa Valley geothermal field – the most visited tourist attraction in New Zealand – and Ōhinemutu, and the more recent Victorian setting of Government Gardens, the Bathhouse (now the Rotorua Museum) and the Blue Baths.