Rotorua's popular Polynesian Spa is celebrating 50 years in business, but the famed thermal waters have been attracting visitors for centuries, writes Thomas Bywater.
Home to a huge range of tourist attractions, Rotorua is also the place where international visitors first experienced the region's manaakitanga - the extension of hospitality to strangers.
"We're the birthplace of tourism," says Gert Taljaard, chief executive of the Polynesian Spa.
The spa supposedly enters a sixth decade this year. However, a clear beginning of bathing at the pools is as mercurial and hard to pin down as volcanic mud.
It was on Easter weekend of 1972 when the business was renamed Polynesian Spa. It saw 2000 visitors on opening day but people had been enjoying the thermal waters long before that.
"We've been welcoming Europeans since at least 1878 when Father Mahoney came over from Tauranga," says Taljaard.
The rheumatic Catholic priest made the pilgrimage over the hills to "take the cure". The pumice Priest's Bath is named in his honour.
For tourists, the alkaline pools quickly became associated with wellness and a cure for a variety of Victorian ailments. Among the long list of treatments recorded by Rotorua Museum are cures for "plethora and corpulency", "congestions of the viscera" and "sexual impotence".
Although the ailments date the visits, the pools had been welcoming travellers for centuries.
But these timeless thermal pools are deceptive. The soothing natural hot baths betray little of the violent volcanic forces beneath.
When the padre first visited, the natural pools of the Pink and White Terraces at Rotomahana were still visible from Rotorua. Less than a decade later they were wiped off the map by the eruption of Mount Tarawera.
More recently the pandemic may not have been as dramatic but it was an equally disruptive chapter for Rotorua.
"Impacts of the last two years didn't spare us," says Taljaard.
As hospitality businesses struggled, three MIQ hotels moved into town. Even attractions with a veneer of permanence felt the pressure from the lack of international travel.
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After 90 years the Ngāi Tahu-operated Rainbow Springs was permanently closed in March. The nature park and kiwi hatchery cited tourism's "restricted and uncertain climate" for the closure.
These days, Taljaard says many tourism businesses were taking comfort in the fact that the borders were now reopened. They are looking forward to welcoming international visitors again, and if the past 50 years are anything to go by, they may even see some famous faces.
In 2018 the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka Harry and Meghan) visited the spa and site of the Duchess Baths, now Blue Baths.
The Polynesian Spa remains popular with local Rotorua stars of the screen, including Temuera Morrison - aka Boba Fett - who dropped into the spa between filming for Star Wars, last year.
"It's the kind of place you can drop in under the radar," says Taljaard. "Just what you need when you're trying to relax."
The Polynesian Spa continues its 50th-anniversary celebrations throughout the year, with "golden tickets" pass giveaways and "mud and mānuka" icecream.
For more details see polynesianspa.co.nz
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