“AIn the middle of summer, we will have about 4,000 people a day, ”says James Warbrick as he crosses the bridge to Vakarevarovo, a tiny Maori village in his pocket between hundreds of smoky, turbulent geothermal pools, a place like no other. in your pocket. the heart of New Zealand’s tourism industry.

But today there are no tourists in sight.

When New Zealand closed the border two years ago after the Covid pandemic hit, Whakarewarewa lost 96% of visitors overnight. Now that the country is preparing to reopen to foreign visitors next month, its residents are torn between their economic needs and fears of the devastating effects of tourism.

Vakarevarova, in the town of Rotorua on the North Island, is both a capsule of time and a living place that is evolving – 27 families living in the area still cooking, bathing and living near hot springs and geysers, so the same as their tīpuna (ancestors) did. . And, like their tīpuna, families survived by opening the village to tourists and adapting in times of crisis.

Warbrick stretches down and opens a large wooden box on the ground. Inside the meat is cooked slowly, heated by mineral steam rising from the ground. Behind him a warm sulfur mist rises from the Parekohuru Basin and envelops the small houses with a white veil before rising into the air, exposing the deep blue flint pools beneath it.

On one side of the pool are baths that are filled every morning and left cool enough for families to take a dip in the evening. On the other side – the open-air kitchen – vegetables are boiled in a mineral spring at a temperature of 100C, and the meat is steamed in the oven, reaching 200C.

Kuya Christina Gardiner is outside Weir in Vakarevarovo, a Maori village sandwiched between hundreds of geothermal pools. Photo: Fiona Goodall / The Guardian
Residential village in Vakarevarovo.
The residential village of Vakarevarov, which lost 96% of its visitors when New Zealand closed its borders at the start of the 2020 Kovid pandemic. Photo: Fiona Goodall / The Guardian

Warbrick, a fourth-generation guide, tells stories about pools, their names and their purposes, and tells the story of homes and families – all with the ease that comes from growing up watching generations of guides tell stories before him. its village to more than 120,000 people a year.

The village became a tourist attraction after the eruption of Mount Taravera in 1886, which buried the nearby Pink and White Terraces – a series of terraces, each with a geothermal pool, like a stepped fountain down the hillside, considered the “eighth wonder”. the world “.

After the explosion, residents of Vakarevarovo (Ngati Wahiao) took in the relocated Tuhurangi tribe, who were master guides on the terraces. Shortly afterwards, the two tribes adapted Tuhurangi’s skills to Vakarevarova herself.

Then, in 1901, the government established in Rotorua the world’s first travel agency, the Department of Tourism and Health Resorts – and the New Zealand tourism industry was born.

The country fell silent

For more than 130 years, visitors flocked to Whakarewarewa – until the pandemic, when suddenly, “like a rugby skirmish is collapsing,” everything calmed down, says 81-year-old Christina Gardiner, a guide and village bitch. [elder].

Great walks around the country, its ski slopes, its harbors and cities were motionless. By March 2020, tourism was New Zealand’s largest export industry, accounting for 20% of total exports and generating $ 40.9 billion a year.

Since then, many tourism businesses have struggled to survive. According to the Aatearoa tourism industry, 90% of international tourism has disappeared.

James Warbrick of the Whakarewarewa Board of Trustees (right) talks to bitch (senior) Chris Gardiner.
Christina Gardiner (left) and James Warbrick. Vakarevarova is home to 27 families who still cook, bathe and live near hot springs and geysers, like their tīpuna (ancestors). Photo: Fiona Goodall / The Guardian
Dirt bubble in Vakarevarov.
Dirt bubble in Vakarevarov. Before the pandemic, 120,000 people came to the village every year. Photo: Fiona Goodall / The Guardian

In Whakarewarewa employees had to be laid off, shops closed, and the village had to rely on government subsidies to stay afloat.

“These have been very, very difficult times and I don’t want to experience that ever again,” Warbrick said. But the inventive pursuit of his ancestors after the 1886 eruption was the motivation the village needed, he said.

“It was horrible what they went through, so we had to dig deep. They gave us confidence that we will be able to survive this difficult time. “

When Gardiner and Warbrick are asked what the first closure of the village was like, the words “horrible,” “shocking,” and “ambiguous emotions” soon follow.

“But on the other hand, we’ve become very, very close,” Gardiner says. “It made our children appreciate what they inherited. The bathhouse used to be a bathhouse, but suddenly it became a place where they could be one with nature.

“They are willing to share this with the world, but now they have a different attitude to it.”

Natural geothermal activity in Vakarevorovo.
Vakarevarov was forced to rely on state support when the borders were closed and the flow of visitors stopped. Photo: Fiona Goodall / The Guardian

This month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the long wait for tourism to return was almost over. Since April 13, more than two years after the border was closed, New Zealand will reopen – first to Australians, then to other countries without visas and finally to the rest of the world.

Prior to Covid, most New Zealanders agreed that tourism was good for the country, but said environmental pressures, infrastructure degradation and overcrowding were a concern, according to the 2020 Nation of the Nation tourism industry report. Three regions – Auckland, Queenstown and Rotorua – were perceived as under too much pressure.

A chance to rethink

The opening of the border will be a lifeline for those regions that depend on tourists. For Whakarewarewa, although there is relief, there is anxiety.

Were it not for the pandemic, New Zealand’s tourism industry and its aftermath “would still be on the verge of extinction,” said Mike Gibbans, the village’s general manager.

“We know that many local communities have struggled with numbers, the impact of waste and insufficient facilities.”

Whakarewarewa serves as an exciting microcosm of tourism in New Zealand and the tensions that exist between hoping for tourism to survive and trying to hold on to the virua (spirit) place. It is also a case study of how the years of the pandemic could reorient New Zealand’s relationship with tourism.

Natural geothermal activity in Vakarevorovo.
Vakarevarova became a tourist attraction in the late 19th century. Photo: Fiona Goodall / The Guardian

For the village, there is a reluctance to return to the former tourist framework, when the number of visitors has increased and the environment has become a priority. He has already reoriented his tourism model during the pandemic to capture the domestic audience. Now he wants to redirect his energy to a more environmentally friendly experience that is both intimate and sustainable.

Warbrick says the more than 100,000 tourists who pass through the village each year are difficult for Whenuu (land), while one guide for 70 people lacks the connection the village wants to promote.

Gibbons adds that there are two words that come to mind when looking at the tourism of the future – monoakitanga, which means love and support for someone, and kaitsikitanga, which means care and protection of the environment.

“We’ve been much more focused on what that really means to us,” Gibbons says.

The pandemic has given the village “an opportunity to rethink,” Gibbons says, adding that they are now considering limiting the size of tourist groups and would be happy to have just 40,000 visitors a year, much less than before Covid.

“In other words, go back to basics,” Gardiner adds. “We are like a phoenix – you go down; you return to battle. “

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