In 1901, New Zealand took a bold step by establishing the world’s first government tourist department; a landmark decision in the history of New Zealand’s tourism industry and wider economic prosperity.
Peter Alsop, a keen collector of New Zealand art and early advertising and the lead author of Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism, continues the story he started in our Exotica issue, of how the humble travel poster helped build the industry and a national identity along the way.
While the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts was central to galvanising an organised tourism effort, there were pivotal publicity events before. New Zealand’s earliest promotion was publicity about Cook’s voyages and, in a related but more commercial sense, the efforts from 1837 of the London-based New Zealand Company to promote emigration to New Zealand. Amongst the effort were prints – kauri trees and all – by Company draughtsman Charles Heaphy; amongst the best known of all 19th century New Zealand images.
The word was out that New Zealand had plenty to offer, something Prince Alfred’s visit to the Pink and White Terraces in 1870 would also broadcast to the world. Ironically, the loss of the Terraces to the Tarawera Eruption in 1886 would also build interest, including 12 years later – such was their potent mystique – when they took centre on the world’s first pictorial stamps in 1898. Spectacular and unpredictable geothermal activity, epitomised by the eruption, would be New Zealand’s start in adventure tourism and great fodder for early tourism publicity.
With that backdrop, it’s no surprise that the Department’s efforts were initially focused on Rotorua, ‘the metropolis of geyserland’. It was also the epicentre of Maori culture, reflected by the choice of “Maoriland” as the Department’s first cable address (think Twitter handle today). In the Department’s first year, the Duke and Duchess of York would visit and be gifted a 3 metre model of the Te Arawa ancestral canoe, piled high with Maori artefacts.
Maoridom was a huge asset – New Zealand’s exotica – with a public line of ‘no racial problem in these happy isles’. In reality, it was a time of significant poverty for Maori and cultural appropriateness was also not part of the publicity brief. Images, for example, of Maori wearing ceremonial garb for daily duties were culturally wrong, and tourists discovering most Maori didn’t routinely wear flax skirts or feather cloaks came as a real surprise. Even today, New Zealanders’ enjoy a ‘tiki tour’ – a wandering exploration – despite trivialisation of ‘Hei Tiki’, a significant cultural artefact. Plump and comical warriors on official publicity, and straw hats on important cultural architecture, probably top the cringe.
Rotorua’s pull would increase in 1908 with the completion of the Tudor-style Bathhouse, the largest building of its style outside England. The Government wanted to compete with the sophistication of international spas and felt a world-famous spa-town would attract thousands more visitors each year. The Government was right but, like all good investment strategies, ‘taking the waters’ in Rotorua was far from the full picture. For diversification, the Department’s first leader Thomas Donne, a keen outdoorsman himself, was well-attuned to the potential of the ‘Sportsman’s Paradise’ – skiing, hunting, trout fishing, climbing and deep-sea fishing. This would quickly become an alluring tourism proposition and a very striking theme for poster artists wanting to make their mark.
Keep an eye on the Glory Days Telegram for part two of Peter's fascinating tale of how New Zealand was marketed to the world,
Keen to find out more about these amazing New Zealand art treasures? Visit Peter's website to purchase the book and receive a 10% discount!