David R Williams, Tourist Hotel Corporation, Caves Manager, Waitomo Caves

Planning is an essential requirement in the development of any commercial venture but when that development involves one of our most fragile natural environments the developers take on an awesome responsibility, for a cave once modified can never be returned to its natural state. That responsibility should always rest with the state, for the lifespan of a cave is infinitely greater than the lifespan of any one generation. There are many sad examples all around the world where caves have undergone development only to be abandoned when the venture was not commercially successful; the cave once spectacular and considered worthy of development now lies locked up, neglected and defaced forever.

Tourist cave development planning can fall into three separate but related categories,

Financial Planning:
One of the reasons why most of the tourist caves in the world are state owned and operated is the heavy cost of development. Caves are expensive resources to develop but normal business parameters of return on investment and ongoing economic viability should prevail as much as possible, for a development proposal must be assured of success or it is environmentally criminal to proceed. Even a carefully developed tourist cave is in danger of closure by future administrators, if visitor numbers are not sufficient to make the venture economically viable.

Development Planning:
A development plan puts a series of design strategies and development objectives into a time frame. It defines what is going to be done, how it is going to be done and by when.

Development planning is part of both the initial financial planning and the longer term management plan.

Management Planning:
Management planning also begins at the initial development stage. It involves an objective assessment of the resource to establish a base to monitor changes and a statement of management guidelines, policies and goals. It should be flexible enough to cater for changing circumstances and the plan itself should be subject to amendment and review. Within the plan a management staffing structure should be established to include a management committee, with or without executive power. This could allow for the specialist scientific input into cave management, which is essential.

Most caves chosen for development usually have features that are already attracting more than the occasional visitor and one of the reasons for development may be to prevent damage by this type of uncontrolled visitor and a strong case for conservation through development and tourism can be established.

The following consideration could be included in the planning for the development of a cave for tourism.


A cave does not exist in isolation. It is the product of and part of a greater physical and biological environment. The geochemical processes that give rise to speleothems for example are greatly influenced by the vegetation cover above a cave and there are many examples where alteration of vegetation cover has led to deterioration within the cave. Similarly in all river caves, the catchment above the cave and to a lesser degree below the cave, influences the hydrology and ecology underground and any changes to the catchment are quickly transmitted to the cave. Wherever possible then, the greater karst area should have the same protective status as the cave itself or at least there should be some formal protection of the natural cave influencing processes.


Above ground facilities should reinforce this theme, that a cave is part of a greater physical and biological environment and all construction should be sympathetic to and not intrude upon this existing environment. A visitor centre, housing ticket and souvenir sales, toilets, staff and utility rooms should be sited some distance from the cave entrances and should ideally house interpretative displays. Constructed, written or visual displays and models should be left above ground and interpretative walks to limestone outcrops, natural bridges, gorges and waterfalls should be developed to complement a cave tour and expand the karst theme.


Construction underground should have the least impact on the cave and should not intrude onto the visual experience.

The route through a cave from a long term management point of view needs very careful consideration at the beginning of development. A narrow "to the end and back" route may seem adequate at first but if the venture takes off, the bottlenecks in this design caused by two-way traffic soon causes serious problems. This type of route restricts the cave to a very low visitor carrying capacity. No two caves are the same and the configuration of the cave will decide the route. The ideal route of course is a circular loop with a separate visitor entrance and exit not too far from the outside assembly area. If such a route is possible it is imperative it is used from the beginning. If any modification to the natural cave entrances are considered, every effort must be made to preserve the existing climate of the cave. Both the ecology of the cave and the geochemistry of the speleothems are in balance with the cave climate and this, the most fragile and least understood physical aspect of the cave, is very easily altered by changing the natural entrances.

A walking surface in most caves will need to be considered and again a very long term unobtrusive perspective must prevail. Concrete is probably the best material but should be used sparingly and not wall-to-wall with drains, kerbs, culverts and painted lanes. Wooden boardwalks are better on silty or muddy ground. Both timber and concrete are suitable for bridges and catwalks. Any wood construction should use the highest grade preserved timber. Crushed limestone and concrete pavers are other surface materials to consider. All surfaces should be slip-resistant, even after long use.

Wooden handrails have a better feel and last longer than galvanised pipes. After continued use the zinc galvanising on pipes wears away and scaley rust sets in. This is both uncomfortable to the touch and weakening to the structure. Barriers to protect formations need careful design and placement to avoid the caged-in feeling but sometimes this cannot be avoided.

Provision should be made in the underground planning for long term maintenance and cleaning. Piped water through the cave is essential to clean walls, floors, formations and the chemical residues from lampenflora removal. A small out-of-sight section of the cave can be used to store ladders, hoses, and other 'safe' maintenance hardware. A telephone link to the outside is also advisable.


There is no correct way to light a tourist cave. The design of a cave lighting system is completely at the discretion and imagination of the developers, but some general principles do apply.

The system should:

  1. Show the cave to best effect
  2. Provide safe viewing for visitors
  3. Be safe and reliable
  4. Be cost efficient

If visitor numbers are not expected to be high a portable lighting system could be considered. The advantages of low cost and minimal impact on the cave are obvious but another real bonus of this system is the retention of some of the excitement and adventure of wild caving. Combustible fuels should not be considered for long term use. The residues left behind may not be apparent until later when the cave may be developed further with an installed lighting system.

For most tourist cave development a semi-permanent installed lighting system will be required the developers have to consider the type of electrical supply, type of lighting and the placement of lights.

Tapping into the local electrical supply and maintaining the same standard voltage is the best system for supplying power to cave. Supply is usually constant and there is a wide range of lighting hardware available. A hydro power source if available can be very economical and efficient.

There is a wide range of lighting types available, all with their own advantages and disadvantages. Developers should make the best use of the amazing new advances in lighting technology. There is a trend away from multi-coloured lighting to a single uniform colour of light in a cave. To bring out the natural colours of formations and limestone (and lampenflora unfortunately) a colour of light approaching white daylight is required. Special daylight blue bulbs have been developed and are used in caves and other situations such as the theatre and art galleries but these have now largely been replaced by fluorescent lighting. Colour correcting filters used in the television and film industry to convert the yellow light of tungsten filament bulbs to white light can also be used in caves with excellent results. Tungsten filament bulbs are the type of lighting most used in tourist caves and there is a growing use of the all weather reflector bulb (Edison screw is better than bayonet cap). They are readily available, reliable and cheap and easy to replace. Their disadvantages are the yellow colour (which can be corrected), they consume more power than other systems and they give out more heat. Overheating of the walls and atmosphere of a cave can effect the formations and cave ecology. Fluorescent lights, especially the new compact bulbs, may have some advantages over tungsten filaments. They have a good white light, they consume much less power and they give off little heat. Their unit cost is however much greater and they may not perform well in the damp cave environment. Sodium and mercury vapour systems may have applications in some situations.

The placement of lights in a cave needs both care and imagination. Bulbs should be concealed and should not shine in the faces of visitors. Wherever possible they should be at a level that does not require ladders to change bulbs or remove lampenflora. In general a more dramatic effect can be achieved if lights are shone up a wall rather than down or at right angles. Too much light is to be avoided or the special effects of shadows and the mystery of dark side passages are lost. The magical quality of light upon or under water can be used to great effect in a cave. Similarly the exit from a cave can be enhanced if cave lighting becomes more subdued and ceases just as daylight takes over. Whenever possible electrical cables, transformers and switching gear should be concealed.

Provision should be made for emergency lighting in case of power failure. Often sealed packs of candles and matches placed throughout the caves is all that is required.


There is a variety of guiding systems operating in the tourist caves in Australasia. Three categories can be defined.

1) Self Guided Tours:
This system usually operates alongside other caves with full guided tours. Visitors choose their own time of visit and activate lighting and taped commentaries as they walk unaccompanied through the cave. Controls are built in to prevent vandalism, wandering off the path and power failures. Few caves lend themselves to self-guided tours. They need very careful design but if well planned they are cost efficient and provide an excellent cave experience which complements a full guided tour. If the system is not well designed it can be an absolute disaster and can ultimately lead to abandonment of the cave.

2) A Stationary and Roving Guide System:
This method involves visitors walking unaccompanied within the cave to stations where guides give commentaries and answer questions. A roving guide keeps the system flowing. In a small number of caves this is the everyday system; in a few other caves this method is employed on exceptionally busy days. This type of guiding has many drawbacks and a few real applications and is the least used system.

3) Full Guided Tours
By far the majority of tourist caves in the world have guides who accompany visitors in groups for the whole length of the tour and give commentary and answer questions as the tour takes place.

The standard of guiding can have a great influence on the success or failure of a tourist cave venture as two quotes indicate.

"The ill-informed, unsympathetic and disinterested guide can make even a superb cave seem dreary and unpleasant, while an informed, articulate and enthusiastic guide can make even a moderately interesting cave an adventure."    Russell Gurney.
"The confidence and enthusiasm of guides influences the enjoyment of the caves and adds greatly to the impression taken away by each visitor. The information given by guides is generally accepted without question and must therefore be accurate and up-to-date."    Waitomo Caves Management Plan.

Guide selection and training is crucial in setting a high standard of guiding. Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in New Zealand and is already an important section of our economy and guiding, not just in caves, is now being recognised as a skilled occupation with training courses established at universities and technical institutes. Guides should be chosen as much on personality and attitudes as on experience and education and they should be encouraged to express their own individual personalities, but within acceptable standards. After initial training and development of guiding skills the problem of boredom sets in. It is not generally recognised how psychologically difficult it is to present a very repetitive routine in a friendly, fresh and enthusiastic manner. Guides should have non-guiding duties and be responsible for the conservation, maintenance and everyday presentation of the whole tourist cave complex along similar lines to a National Parks or Reserves Ranger.

Guides should be trained to control difficult customers, vandalism, littering as well as emergencies. Emphasis should be put on preventing these problems.

Ideally every tourist cave complex should have other interpretative facilities to complement a tour of the cave. Some aspects of interpretation can only be done by models, displays and audio-visual programmes. Such facilities extend the learning process to any depth the visitor chooses, and this leads to a greater awareness and appreciation of both the karst resource itself and the need for its conservation.


Ongoing monitoring of the tourist cave operation is essential to ensure the careful management of the resource and to provide data on which to make further development decisions. Monitoring falls into two areas, visitor patterns and environmental checks.

It is important to keep data on the numbers and type of visitors arriving to the cave, whether they come on coaches or not, whether they are local or overseas (this can be difficult), or as school groups. Arrival patterns can indicate daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly peaks and trends. Records should be kept on the use of surface facilities and the occasional visitor survey can provide feedback on whether the services provided are adequate or utilised enough or if further development is needed.

Environmental monitoring examines changes that may occur since the onset of development. Basic outside climatic data on rainfall and temperature should be kept. Similarly cave climate and the quality of atmosphere (CO2 levels in particular) should be monitored, preferably continuously. Where possible the population of cave dwellers should be checked periodically to note possible changes to their numbers and distribution. Photometric surveys can indicate if vandalism and souveniring is occurring and if any further major cave modification is decided photo surveys should be done before and after the event.


In summary then the development of a cave for tourism needs very careful commercial and environmental planning. If the venture succeeds and is environmental and economically successful the modification to the resource necessary during its development can be shown to be justified and that conservation can be achieved through controlled development and tourism.


"Conservation through commercialisation Rio Camuy Development Proposal", Russell Gurney, Bulletin of the National Speleological Society, April 1967

"Cave Lighting", L. Robinson, Cave Management in Australia, Proceedings of the first Australian Conference on Cave Tourism, 1973

Waitomo Caves Management Plan, 1982