Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry for New Zealand - and appetite from overseas travellers is increasing at an increasing rate, leaving some Kiwis to question whether we have the infrastructure to cope with the influx of guests. Next week about 300 international travel sellers will arrive here for the annual TRENZ 2017 conference; networking with hundreds of operators from the New Zealand tourism industry. Ahead of the conference the Herald visited some of our most-loved tourist hot-spots to find out what pressures locals and hosts were under, and how tourists viewed our offerings, as part of our The Great Tourism Squeeze series. Today: Rotorua

As unprecedented numbers of tourists flood into New Zealand concerns are being raised over the nation's ability to withstand the crowds. But one North Island hotspot is revelling in the boom.

The lakeside city of Rotorua has been a tourist destination for 150 years and hosting visitors is in its DNA, local tourism operators say.

Every year more than 3 million tourists flock to Rotorua and the council predicts the city's visitor economy will hit the billion dollar benchmark by 2030.

Advertisement

New Zealand is fast-becoming a globally competing country in the tourism world and "it's our time to shine at the moment", said Bruce Thomasen, general manager of Skyline Rotorua Luge Restaurant and Gondola.

Tourists check out the geothermal attractions at Te Puia in Rotorua. Photo / Mike Scott
Tourists check out the geothermal attractions at Te Puia in Rotorua. Photo / Mike Scott

Rotorua is renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture, with nearly one fifth of the residents working in the tourism sector.

Tourists who visit the city are treated to bubbling mud pools, 30m-tall erupting geysers, lake views, outdoor action activities and traditional Maori culture.

At Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre home to the world famous geothermal valley, tourists are immersed in Maori wood carving and weaving schools and invited to take part in poi dancing and haka performances in the traditional Maori meeting houses.

Tim Cossar, chief executive of Te Puia, said the centre has fielded a "strong growth" over the past five years, jumping from around 312,000 guests to 550,000.

The centre is currently undergoing a $20 million development, including new school facilities and restaurants, he said.

READ MORE:
Squeeze on over tourism funding
Tourism and living costs sky high in Queenstown
Milford off track but visitors pour in

"A big part of the reason we are doing that is quite simply our existing facilities have been outgrown and we don't want to see a deterioration of our visitor experience."

Advertisement

Skyline has seen similar growth in visitor numbers, increasing by 50 per cent since 2012, with up to 5000 tourists riding the gondola every day during peak season, Thomasen said.

In the past five years, Skyline has poured $5m into developments, including doubling the cabin capacity on its gondola service and installing a new luge chairlift.

The property was well placed to take on growing demand and was "nowhere near capacity", Thomasen said.

While smaller tourist destinations such as Waitomo and Milford Sound may be struggling to cope with increasing numbers, Rotorua has the infrastructure and future plans in place to handle it, he said.

New Zealand is rapidly becoming a hot-spot for global tourists, with our tourism industry's rich history dating back to the early 20th century

Both Thomasen and Cossar said the only red flag in Rotorua's tourism sector was the lack of five-star hotels to house the tourists.

The city also needed to be prepared for further growth by continuing to develop its effluent and freshwater systems, they said.

"We don't want to be destroying the very thing people have come here for in the first place," said Cossar.

"The world is demanding more and more of what New Zealand has to offer and this puts pressure on us."

Deputy mayor Dave Donaldson, who leads the economic development portfolio, said Rotorua Lakes Council was well prepared for the growth and had already established goals through its 2030 planning vision.

In 2010, the city's visitor economy was sitting at around $500m. Now it's estimated at $750m and the council hopes this will reach $1 billion by 2030.

The council has implemented seasonal waste collection systems and upgraded toilet and campervan facilities recently, he said.

"We've been dealing with this for a long time. The growth is steady, but we are well prepared and planning to cope with it."

On any given day in Rotorua, the council estimates that on average there would be around 10,000 tourists in the city, which only has a residential population of 65,000.

This comes with pros and cons for the community, Donaldson conceded.

One of the cons was the congestion and pressure these kind of crowds placed on city infrastructure, but a pro was living in a vibrant tourist destination and being able to enjoy the attractions and hospitality built to cater to those individuals, he said.

Rowena Henderson, who has lived in Rotorua all her life, said tourists helped support Rotorua's economy and had a positive impact on the city and its people.

However, she said it could get "a little overpowering" for locals in peak season.

"Sometimes I feel like it can be a little bit overcrowded. You know, you turn around and there's a foreign language going on around you and a foreign face," she said.

"It's good that they are here economically, but I do feel that sometimes they do overpower places."