They're only 63km apart, but could they be any more different? Tauranga and Rotorua are different in population, housing, history, rents and crime, among other factors. Each city has strengths and challenges, residents passionate about living there, and others on the fence. What's unique about each place and what can we learn from each other? Dawn Picken digs through data, discussion and debate, and talks to locals in both towns to discover how we got here and what our future might hold.
Unlike the Charles Dickens' classic, there's no revolution and no reign of terror in our Tale of Two Cities, unless you count the technology revolution as the former and Tauranga traffic as the latter. We'll explore both in more depth later. First, we're going back - way back - when fibre was just for clothing and horse power referred only to animals.
Early Days - Tauranga
Our landscape is dominated by the 232m-high Mount Maunganui (Mauao) and nearby Mount Drury (Hopukiore), remnants of an ancient volcanic area. Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, says the first settlers came from East Polynesia (people now known as Māori) in the late 13th century, and named it "Tauranga" meaning "the place of rest or anchorage".
Historian Buddy Mikaere says Tauranga is the only city in New Zealand with a battlefield inside city limits. It dates from the 1860 wars at Pukehinahina - Gate Pā.
"It's amazing. I go there quite often and one of the things I notice in cruise season in particular is people seem to find their way there by themselves. You can tell by the floral shirts they're off the ship. I ask, 'How did you find out about this place?' They say, 'We just Googled it.' "
A Church Missionary Society mission was established at Te Papa in the 1830s. During the wars of the 1860s, the government set two redoubts (fortifications) there. The original mission house, The Elms, still stands, as do remains of the Monmouth redoubt. Te Ara says Tauranga's population grew from the 1910s as dairying developed in neighbouring districts.
"Growth was further fostered in the later 20th century by horticulture – in particular kiwifruit growing – in surrounding districts and by the lifestyle appeal of the town."
Mikaere says a full day of history lessons stretch between The Elms Te Papa Tauranga, the Historic Village, St George's Anglican Church and the battle site of Te Ranga off Pyes Pa Rd.
"If you time it right, you get to The Elms at afternoon tea time. They have an amazing Devonshire tea - people in period dress - full scones with cream and raspberry jam."
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Tauranga historian Fiona Kean says the first officially-recorded arrival of a European ship to Tauranga was in 1826 with the Herald, a missionary ship. Confiscation of Māori land after the battles of Pukehinahina caused hardship and confusion. Kean says the Crown went on to sell land it didn't own at auction in Auckland.
"There was - a lot of ill feeling on that sale on part of Europeans, or Pakeha, because the land was occupied ... most were military - it was like they had taken up squatting rights."
She says they were kicked off the land in 1866, and railed against being displaced by out-of-towners.
"The irony is here are Pākehā military settlers upset about their land being taken from them, when literally only a year prior, the land had been taken from Māori."
Tauranga hasn't always experienced growth. Kean says the population declined in the late 1880s, though only by about four people. One reason for stagnation, says Kean, was poor communication networks, which left people disconnected from other parts of the country and world.
She says the 1886 Tarawera eruption also interrupted migration, as visitors would travel to Tauranga via boat, then head inland to Rotorua to see the pink and white terraces and geothermal activity.
"The eruption cut tourism off and farming conditions were poor. There was a mini-depression at that time, as well. It was a perfect storm that meant the town didn't go anywhere at that time period."
Kean says doctors used to prescribe the Bay's sunshine hours for people in ill health.
"I've often encountered people who've lived here for quite a while, they're second or third generation, saying their parents or grandparents' parents came here because Grandma was unwell, and the doctor said you've got to move somewhere like Tauranga to get well."
Timber trading and the port helped spur further development. Te Ara says a 1919 report observed Tauranga's natural harbour could be developed into a first-class port. "It favoured new wharves at Mount Maunganui, with deep-water berthage. In 1950, the Government agreed: a port at 'the Mount' would also be the terminus of a rail link from the forest at Murupara to Kawerau, and from Kawerau to the East Coast main trunk line."
The port handled 40,000 tonnes of timber in 1954, more than a million tonnes by 1965, and more than 3 million in the early 1970s.
Early Days - Rotorua
Māori also gave Rotorua its name, albeit a much longer one than commonly used today.
Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe is the full name for the city and the lake. Roto means "lake" and rua means "two", or "second", for "Second lake".
The area was intially settled by Māori of the Te Arawa iwi in the 14th century.
Website https://nzhistory.govt.nz says Rotorua is unusual among New Zealand cities because it's neither a port nor originally a farm service centre.
Instead, the government built it in the early 1880s as a town for tourists visiting the "hot lakes".
Land was leased from Ngāti Whakaue near the Māori lakeside settlement of Ōhinemutu. The arrangement with tribal owners broke down, and the government became the sole owner in 1888.
The railway's arrival in 1894 triggered growth; so did a European-style spa with ornamental gardens, and bathing and therapeutic facilities developed by the government.
Like today's residents and visitors, early settlers would've also inhaled an aroma similar to rotten eggs, that of hydrogen sulphide emissions from geothermal activity.
Rotorua's healing reputation grew in 1878 after an Irish priest said bathing in what's now Government Gardens had cured his arthritic pain.
Soldiers returning from war also made use of restorative powers of the area's geothermal waters.
Growth was also fostered by forest, farm and hydroelectricity development after the World War II.
Cheers and Challenges - Rotorua
Mayor Steve Chadwick is, not surprisingly, one of Rotorua's biggest cheerleaders.
Chadwick says she and her constituents are focused on freshwater rivers, streams, lakes and geothermal features, while the economy is fuelled by tourism, agriculture and forestry.
"Mountain biking is our new economic strength enhanced by our environment."
Chadwick says biculturalism is another of Rotorua's strengths. Nearly 38 per cent of the city's residents identified as Māori in the 2013 census.
That's why Chadwick says it was important Rotorua became the country's first bilingual city in 2017. The Reorua initiative is a partnership led by Te Tatau o Te Arawa with support from Rotorua Lakes Council and Te Puni Kōkiri.
"It's such a natural fit with us as a district that has always shared hospitality and manaakitanga - that does fit with our cultural heart."
The designation has allowed the city to get central government funding for things like a playground with signage in te reo, where children and caregivers can learn numbers and colours.
Rotorua has a bilingual welcome sign and Chadwick says Reorua holds economic value, too.
"We have so many delegations sent here from ministries of foreign affairs and trade, other mayors coming and seeing what we're doing in Rotorua … so many spin-offs that are amazing. The benefits of working with tangata whenua in New Zealand are enormous when you share your aspirations."
Bay of Plenty Regional councillor Tiipene Perenara Marr lives in Matatā and says the area's most pressing problems are roads and water quality. He says Te Ngae Rd past the airport needs widening and although Rotorua doesn't have nearly the traffic troubles of Tauranga, it sees congestion around peak times.
While the Rotorua area is known for freshwater lakes, streams and fishing spots, some of those waterways are under siege from non-native pests, weeds, chemicals and waste.
BOPRC initiated legal action last year against Rotorua Lakes Council and Waste Management NZ regarding Rotorua's landfill site. The lawsuit alleges contaminated water discharges.
Marr wants long-term solutions to clean up algae blooms and weeds in area lakes.
He says regional councillors must get to the root of the problem, "... which is nutrients feeding the weeds. Weeds grow again next year then they put more chemicals in. It affects the lakes' water quality and is just a temporary fix".
Both cities face issues related to climate change and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council yesterday declared a climate emergency.
Regional councillor Stuart Crosby says New Zealand is vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, liquefaction, tsunamis ... "On the issue of climate change and sea level rise, irrespective of your view, things are changing and we need to take steps to mitigate that change."
Rotorua has about half the population of Tauranga, according to figures from last year, though the inverse was true in 1906.
Crime rates in Rotorua are higher than in Tauranga, as is the percentage of people living in poverty, according to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
On the plus side, Rotorua gets about five times the number of international visitors, three times the number of guest nights per capita and housing is more affordable.
Rotorua homes cost 6.6 times the median household income, compared with 10.6 times the median household income in Tauranga, which emerged early this year as the eighth most unaffordable housing market in the world.
Median household income and attainment of at least NCEA level 1 education were about the same for both cities.
Tertiary education is available in both places, from private training establishments to post-graduate level work at Tauranga's new University of Waikato campus. Rotorua's Waiariki Institute and Tauranga's Bay of Plenty Polytechnic merged to form Toi Ohomai in 2016. It's the Bay's largest tertiary education provider.
Students and staff travel regularly between the Windermere (Tauranga) and Mokoia (Rotorua) campuses.
Cheers and Challenges - Tauranga
Stuart Crosby knows the Bay of Plenty region and Tauranga city better than most people, after spending 18 years as a Tauranga city councillor and 12 years as mayor. As well as serving on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council as an elected member, he's also vice president of Local Government New Zealand.
Crosby says people are Tauranga's greatest strength and he's seen an influx of younger residents.
"From a cultural perspective we've become far more diverse, especially over the last 15 years. It brings a whole new dynamic to the city which is positive. "
The net number of international migrants to both cities has rocketed since 2002, when Tauranga saw just 63 new permanent migrants and Rotorua had 101. Last year, the number for Tauranga was 687.
Rotorua had 661 international migrants. Counts for both cities were down from a recent migration peak in 2016, when Tauranga got 1163 new international migrants to Rotorua's 830.
We may be seeing more fresh faces in the Bay, but percentage-wise, Tauranga and Rotorua are still trending older. The percentage of people in both cities aged 0-64 has declined slightly or flattened since 2006, while the percentage of people 65 and over has increased steadily. Statistics for 2018 showed 20.4 per cent of people in Tauranga fit the older age group, with 15 per cent in Rotorua. The percentage of retirement-age people in 2006 sat at 17.3 for Tauranga and 11.2 for Rotorua.
Crosby says growth is nothing new for Tauranga. "In the '60s, and from the '70s to the '90s, Tauranga has always been growing. Probably from the mid-'90s onwards, it grew quite dramatically. That brings its own issues, particularly in providing for growth."
Not only do we need more roading and houses, but Crosby says growth requires more meeting and sports grounds, too.
"I was fortunate to open a number of community facilities, which we were miles behind on. In infrastructure, we're always lagging behind ... it's very hard to get a complete package working together matching growth. It's not for a lack of effort by decision-makers at the time."
Crosby says some factors are beyond control, such as New Zealanders coming home from overseas and in influx of Aucklanders to the region.
Current Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless is wrestling those infrastructure issues. He says the city has virtually doubled in size since he arrived in the mid-'80s.
"And things that we used to take for granted like free-flowing roads are congested and of course, the council of the day built the single-harbour bridge which we soon outgrew. They built a second harbour bridge and we're reaching that same traffic congestion again."
The Baypark to Bayfair double flyover project is in progress; the Tauranga Eastern Link is seen is a triumph; and while safety improvements are under way, lack of a four-lane road between Tauranga and Katikati is blamed for regularly-occurring tragedies. Fixing the road is a battle local lawmakers and residents have been waging with central government for decades.
Chamber of Commerce chief executive Matt Cowley says the region's continued business success depends on better transport networks.
"Businesses don't care if it's local or central government ... we want certainty in long-term planning rather than short-term thinking."
Another issue for both cities is homelessness. As property values increase, a growing number of people are being housed in temporary accommodation.
Consultant and historian Buddy Mikaere says he's been told some homeless people come from Rotorua to Tauranga "... because it's warmer and people are more generous here. We've got a whole lot of people doing the [living in] garage and cars thing. We can't seem to get any traction going in getting housing initiatives up and running.
"We've been thinking we can just continually expand, expand, but we're now at the limits of the city, running into multiple-owned Maori land and dealing with those trusts is a new challenge because most Maori trusts do not want to sell their land."
Mikaere suggests land leases as one option.
Why We Live Here
Sunshine hours helped entice people to settle Tauranga in horse-and-buggy days, and the sun's rays are still one of the area's biggest draws.
Melissa van Leeuwen and her family moved from Palmerston North 18 months ago after multiple moves for husband Hans' Air Force job.
After living in Melbourne, Blenheim and France, the family gave themselves two sunny choices: Tauranga, near her parents, or Hawke's Bay, near her husband's folks.
"We felt the Bay of Plenty had more to offer our kids and ourselves as well for doing things outdoors. There was more for our kids growing up, the city being that little bit bigger."
The couple and their two teenaged daughters live in Bethlehem.
"They both love being here and love being close to a nice beach."
Melissa and Hans left Palmerston North without new jobs in the Bay, but the leap of faith has panned out: she works as a financial analyst for PwC and he's the general manager of operations at Apata.
"Chief of staff was a very operational role in the Air Force, so a lot of those skills transferred perfectly. Going from engineering to horticulture was kind of different. There's a phenomenal learning curve."
While she says Hans doesn't rate road cycling in the Bay, he's bought a sea kayak and the whole family enjoys summer outdoor dinner markets in the Papamoa Domain and at the Mount. The girls attend Otumoetai College, where they quickly found friends.
"We really feel so lucky that happened," says Melissa.
Guy Wilkins completed a degree in forestry science at the University of Canterbury, which helped him land a job in Rotorua last October. The 23-year-old grew up in Tauranga and commuted to work from his parents' home in the Avenues until April, when he bought a house in the Owhata area.
Today, he works for Hancock Forest Management as a wood flow scheduler and has a much shorter commute.
"There's not as much traffic in Rotorua. It's quite a significant difference."
Wilkins is still exploring Rotorua, although says he spends every other weekend in Tauranga.
"I've done the Canopy Walk, which is cool, and my grandparents live on Rotoiti, so I go on their boat."
Work Hard and Go Home
Wilkins works in one of Rotorua's main industries: forestry. The others, says Rotorua Chamber of Commerce chief executive Bryce Heard, are farming and tourism. Heard cites inter-generational poverty and housing for low-income residents as community hurdles, but says overall, Rotorua seems to buck national trends.
"When the rest of the country's going up, we're going down and when the rest of country's going down we're going up. I'm not seeing an economic turn-down in Rotorua. On the contrary, everything seems to be humming along quite nicely. Consents are up, residential and commercial."
Average rents in Rotorua are $351 per week, according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Regional Economic Activity website. In Tauranga, average rent is $452. The median home price in Rotorua sits at $440,000, according to Real Estate Institute of New Zealand May statistics. The figure was $677,500 for Tauranga.
Heard says Aucklanders have discovered Rotorua and prices are rising.
"Property values are lower [than Tauranga's] but moving up steadily. People were buying houses for $350,000 in some areas of Rotorua months ago that are now worth over $400,000."
Priority One communications and projects manager Annie Hill cites data showing Tauranga's largest industry sectors in 2018 were were healthcare and social assistance (9.4 per cent), construction (8.9 per cent), manufacturing (8.6 per cent), rental, hiring and real estate (8.2 per cent), and professional, scientific and technical services (7.8 cent).
"In saying that, the single sector that has the largest positive impact on Tauranga's economy is the activity of Port of Tauranga – the country's largest and most efficient port and in the top 10 ports in the world for productivity."
Hill says the city is also seeing more development of an innovation ecosystem. She says knowledge-intensive industries grew by 4 per cent last year, compared with the New Zealand average growth in that sector of 2.9 per cent. Knowledge industries generated 783 new jobs for Tauranga.
Let's not forget kiwifruit: Horticulture is New Zealand's fourth-largest primary industry, with export revenues increasing each year from $1.7 billion in 1999 to around $5.5b in 2018. Eighty-one per cent of the country's kiwifruit is grown in the Bay of Plenty.
Play Hard and Put out the Welcome Mat
Rotorua, or Roto-Vegas, Sulphur City … whichever nickname you choose, the place is synonymous with tourism. Rotorua visitor spending was $815 million last year, while visitors to Tauranga spent $801m. Big differences appear in guest nights and international visitors. Number of guest nights per capita was 31 for the year ending April, 2019 in Rotorua and 7 in Tauranga. Nearly 27 per cent of visits last year to Rotorua were from internationals; the figure stood at 5 per cent for Tauranga.
Michelle Templar, chief executive for Destination Rotorua, says queries and i-Site bookings show visitors come for mountain biking and outdoor adventure activities, Māori culture, geothermal sightseeing, plus forests and lakes.
"We are fortunate to have a fantastic range of attractions and activities in Rotorua which is one of our key strengths. As we move into the cooler months, our natural spas and hot pools continue to keep Rotorua at the top of travel lists."
Templar lists significant new developments including lakefront and forest projects, the Wai Ariki Hot Springs and Spa, Secret Spot hot pools and the five-star Pullman Hotel.
Templar says Rotorua and Tauranga benefit each other by sending visitors back and forth between inland cultural attractions and Mount Maunganui's beach; about 40 per cent of cruise passengers coming into the Port of Tauranga choose an excursion to Rotorua.
Crosby says Rotorua is "world class" in tourism and facilities. "It's something Tauranga could really learn from in terms of getting attractions in Tauranga to complement those in Rotorua on the other side."
Tourism Bay of Plenty lists top attractions as Waimarino Glow Worm Kayak Tours, Bay Explorer cruises and Dolphin Seafaris, popular with Kiwis and international visitors.
Tourism BOP CEO Kristin Dunne says Tauranga can learn something about partnership from its inland neighbour.
"Rotorua is where New Zealand's tourism industry started, so the connections and relationships across iwi, council and the local industry are very strong. We are currently working closely with local iwi to support them to develop attractions that allow visitors to experience Tauranga Moana in a new way and hear the stories of our place from iwi themselves."
Mikaere says one tourism operator is considering putting in tracks to a set of waterfalls; another company wants to add its own zip line associated with a bike trail, and he'd like to see a marine reserve around the bottom of the Mount.
Mikaere sits on the iwi trust that owns Mauao historic reserve. He says the Mount attracted 1.4 million visits last year from people walking up or around.
"Normally I climb up Mauao around 5.30 or 6 in the morning. You get that wonderful view all around the beach, the same magnificent view. I'm just amazed how many people there are. It's like a line of torches going up. It's truly awe-inspiring."
We can joke about Sulphur City (Rotorua) or God's Waiting Room (Tauranga); talk about a museum that's closed in Rotorua and one that may never open in Tauranga. Jibes aside, people in both places have connections and fond memories of the town they visit. Maybe it was that ride through the Redwoods, or a day at Mount Main Beach that sets us upon Highway 33 or 36 to return for more.
Crosby says we must understand our cities to solve problems and manage growth.
"That's what fascinates me about New Zealand ... as a country of 5 million people we're so diverse. You can't just pluck an idea from one place and think it'll work in another. You've got to work with your own communities and put your own flavour on it for success."
Why do you love living in Tauranga?
"I just love living next to the best beach in the country."
Grace Rich, 21, Mount Maunganui Central
"It is such an easy place to live and one of the nicest I'd say. The Mount, the beach, the water."
Karen Ellis, 55, Otumoetai
"My wife and I really love it here. All our family have moved here and the climate is just great. Relaxing place to retire."
Brian Mickleson, 77, Bethlehem
Why do you love living in Rotorua?
"Just a great place to live - very central to the rest of the country and just such a good, laid-back feel."
Daryl Proffitt, 57, Owhata
"Born and bred here - I love the people and the place. Always find myself coming back!"
Carol Toia, 61, Mangakakahi
"Love the uniqueness of the town, the lifestyle and the multicultural character of the place."
Lyall Thurston, 60s, Springfield