Tourism: At What Price. A Treatise on Authenticity

Panorama of the central pools of Wai-O-Tapu, A...

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We’re nearing the end of three amazing weeks on the road in the North Island – from the Wairarapa to the East Cape, on to the Coromandel and back through Rotorua and Taupo it’s been a great trip. However an event in Rotorua yesterday motivated me to write this post.

Nearing the end of the trip we were a little time constrained so decided to visit Wai-O-Tapu, one of the several Rotorua based thermal reserves. The entrance fee was pretty steep (for these Kiwis anyway) but we thought we’d treat the kids. As part of the entry we got to go and see the Lady Knox Geyser yesterday morning.

For the uninitiated the Lady Knox Geyser is a moderately large steam vent that shoots water a fair distance into the sky, my doubt was raised a little when I read that the geyser goes off at 10:15 each morning – methinks mother nature can’t be timed quite so tightly!

We turned up and came upon a large amphitheatre replete with several hundred camera toting tourists all waiting for the main event. Our “guide” then turned up and told a little tale about the geyser before throwing a few hundred grams of chemicals into the geyser vent to create the show – about as authentic a natural geyser as the Bucket Fountain in Cuba Street, Wellington.

The experience leaves me with two distinct questions:

Authenticity

My belief is that in all commerce people are looking for authentic experiences. A human created geyser event doesn’t fall into that category. If New Zealand has to prostitute itself in order to attract visitors, are we not doing ourselves more long term damage than good?

Cultural Sensitivity

Wai-O-Tapu is run by the local tribe I believe. Maori hold geysers, and the thermal areas generally as sacred or Tapu – I was incredulous that they’d allow the sort of desecration to occur that I saw there – maybe a few thousand visitors a day (and the tens of thousands of dollars they generate) absolves one of cultural sensitivity – if so it’s a sorry example of where our values as a nation lie. How far does cultural sensitivity extend in New Zealand – just till the US dollars or Euros appear?

Ah well…

Luckily some things never change. I’m writing this from an amazing and (almost) free campsite on the banks of the Rangitikei river at Mangaweka. It’s camping the way it used to be – a nice flowing river, very limited amenities and a bunch of trees to climb and walks to go on – the real New Zealand – 100% Pure!

7 Comments
  • It’s only the equivalent of washing powder, right? And it does get spat back out… Not too a big a deal given that many tourists will have flown here from the other side of the world.

  • I think that Waiotapu is actually a scenic reserve – acquired by the Crown around 1900. By 1908, the only (!) significant Maori-owned thermal area in the Rotorua region was at Tikitere. Your sensitivity to the environment may have led you to overlook this greater cultural inauthenticity.
    And anyway, what’s the difference between chucking something into a geyser to make it spurt and (for example) fencing off a valley & killing the introduced mammals so that we can enjoy gawking at endangered species.
    In NZ, natural (ie left without human impact) means possums, rats, stoats etc running amok, forest collapse and the rest.

  • Ben, I hope you’ll treat us to a few great Flickr albums :-)

  • @Scott – but it’s fake – authnticity is king
    @rich – your comment raises a number of issues – I’m not brave enough to raise them here :-)
    @zoli – you will see some soon!

  • Since Im a rotorua boy, I better step up here… :-)
    I’m not sure it is fake. Sure, it wouldnt naturally do that at that particular time, but the addition of soap simply lets the geyser erupt at that particular time. I think it has something to do with cold water not letting the hot water erupt or something, and the soap changes the density of the cold water…. I think.

    In all, its about as natural as it can be. Its not like they’re pouring vinegar and baking soda down there. Would it have been better to let the kids see… nothing? As it was, they saw exactly what they would have seen if they had had the amazing fortune to be there when it erupted naturally…

    I didnt think thermal areas were tapu, tapu was AFAIK reserved for very spiritual areas. I’m not an expert though, but maori have been using those areas for cooking and bathing for… ever.

    So, in a pretty touristy place, its a pretty authentic experience you got I think! I hope you took advantage of all the free hot-pools around there!

  • @Greg – maybe not completely fake but far from authentic all the same. Maybe I was just the wrong person for the show…

  • Hi Ben.

    I’ve never seen Lady Knox that I can remember, but the more I read about it in random places, the more it sounds as if this geyser has been largely artificial from its discovery. People have been pouring in soap for the entire time it’s been known, and the only reason it even acts like a geyser, if I understand correctly, is because over 100 years since the discovery of a pool of excited water, people have been piling rocks around the edge to reduce the surface area and make it shoot higher, and over time those rocks have become covered in silica so it appears to have gotten that way more naturally than it did.

    Part of me wants to think that it’s ugly to interfere with these things and it could be nice just to let nature figure itself out on its own and we could enjoy it for what it is, but I can’t imagine that stacking rocks around a geothermal pool would be anything but eclipsed by the effect of the geothermal power stations nearby, or the history of people drawing on geothermal outlets that popped up on their property to save on power bills, etc.

    A quick search around random blogs of tourists to NZ suggests that you’re not the only person who felt cheated after thinking it erupted on its own, only to discover it was induced. eg. [1, 2, 3]. Perhaps they need to revise their marketing to sell it more on its human history, explain why that makes it different from other geysers to be interesting in its own way, and make it clearer to people before they arrive that it’s manufactured and it only reliably erupts at that time because it’s induced.

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