J N Harris, Registered Surveyor, Te Kuiti, September 1985

This paper is in three parts - a little philosophy - a little history - and some comments on where we are at now.

Some philosophy adapted from K Everett ... No matter what any of us do with all the best of intentions, results often blow up in one's face.

A little history (and geography!). We are presently at the Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) hotel, in the village of Waitomo Caves, on a reserve created for accommodation house purposes. Adjacent is the Waitomo Caves Scenic Reserve lying over the world famous Glowworm Cave. Further up the Waitomo Valley there is a bush covered Scenic Reserve, now administered by THC in which lies the Aranui and Ruakuri Caves, as well as a large proportion of Gardner's Gut. These reserves are now administered under the Tourist Hotel Corporation Act, 1974.

The Waitomo Caves is the most widely known and key tourist cave - glowworms over still water viewed from a punt. Aranui and Ruakuri Caves have limited tourist use but tremendous tourist potential. Gardner's Gut is a gigantic cave with many entries and is presently used for small party wild cave experience. All these caves are in the same general watershed.

Since the discovery of the Waitomo Caves there has been a gradual build up of tourist promotion and activity. About the turn of the century the Waitomo Caves and surrounding areas were reserved for tourist purposes, and many other reserves about bush and caves were established then or since. At Waitomo clearly the major development has been the THC Hotel and this has been supported by a small general purpose store, a camping ground, a post office, a school, a handful of staff houses, a sales caravan, and a domain. However the development of the Waitomo Caves Village as a tourist centre has been remarkably low key in a historical sense.

The Waitomo District Council's first statutory planning scheme totally ignored the Waitomo Caves locality in its initial publication.

Meanwhile a steady flow of visitors was occurring. Awareness of caves activity was kept before the community by the editor of the local newspaper. Initially the newspaper decried the apparent capture of considerable funds from caves' entry tickets and the dispersement of those funds to cover losses in other THC enterprises about New Zealand. From balance sheet records THC Waitomo was seen to be a highly profitable organisation yet it appeared that little of that money was being returned to either caves or tourist development in this area. A developing theme in the newspaper was that perhaps the large number of tourists now using the caves were not in the best interests of either the caves or the glowworms. There appeared to be little research into the ecology of the caves and the outsiders' viewpoint as represented by the newspaper was that perhaps a precious asset was to some extent being abused.

At about the same time Council's District Planning Scheme was amended to include a Waitomo Caves Tourist Development Holding zone covering the Village and its immediate environs, and the Aranui and Ruakuri Caves (the upper caves). This zoning required any development requiring Council approval to be considered as a 'conditional use' a process requiring public notification, possible objection, with a resulting hearing at Council level. In terms of the very limited development occurring the holding zone did not embarrass proposals as such, but neither did it promote any guidelines for any future development.

But things were quietly happening. There was a national awareness of matters environmental. Studies of the cave environment, both above and below ground, proceeded. Lighting systems, numbers of people, heating, air movement, water quality, feeding habits and the life-cycle of the glowworm, were all being studied and better understood. The whole study process became much more intense when for reasons not clearly understood at the time, the glowworms decided to put out their lights and the caves had to be closed.

Meanwhile a caves manager had been appointed. THC had developed an improved water supply, and a sewage disposal system by way of oxidation ponds, two services it needed but did not want to administer. Up in the headwaters of the Waitomo Valley farmers were felling indigenous bush and developing further pasture lands, and then fertilising those lands. Also in the headwaters the Waitomo District Council was undertaking major roading improvements in the traditional manner of cutting away the existing spurs and loosing unwanted material into the valleys below.

The roading through the village serves a large farming and forestry area, all with increasing development and significant potential. The produce for and from these ventures presently must pass through the village.

In the early 1980s, a major review of the District Planning Scheme was undertaken. Tourism was seen as a major contributing factor to the district's well being. Some 250,000 tourists were coming to Waitomo Caves, making a U-turn, and disappearing out of the district. A King Country Regional Resource survey stated "... the spin off from such a regular concentration of holiday makers is extremely small. Half of the visitors are in tour groups but of the 125,000 in this category only 1,000 spend the night at the Waitomo Hotel. The group tourist is usually an overseas visitor, travelling rapidly from Auckland to Rotorua via Waitomo. Not only is there an element of rapid transit in such a group visit but attractions which are not natural features will be concentrated in the stop over centre for reasons of organisational efficiency. Although these attractions in the vicinity of the caves could provide opportunities for local investment and enterprise, the question arises why this has not occurred already. A flow of 250,000 people to one limited area must surely provide a market. One response must be that half of the market arrives packaged and hermetically sealed behind tinted glass en route to the corporate pastures of Rotorua."

Although this extract perhaps over simplifies the relationship of tourists, tour promoters, and their service industries it cannot be denied that the huge concentration of visitors by local standards has produced in the past a limited advantage to local interests. The oil shock reduced the annual flow to around 180,000, but numbers are again building and stressing the Waitomo Caves.

The challenge remains as to how best to retain those tourists in the area to the benefit of the district's economy. Council believes that a climate must be established where the community at large can participate in and receive positive benefit from this proportionately large population passing through the district. At that time it was reported that the average stay at Waitomo Village was two hours and 40 minutes.

British studies of rural recreation disclosed that preferences for tourist accommodation included farmhouses, self catering, second homes, camping and caravans, specialised holidays (usually linked with resource based activities), educational or field centres (related to natural phenomena). This district's tourist potential was seen to lie in its landscape - its bush, hills and streams, bluffs and gorges, and caves. Essentially the tourist package must evolve around those features.

Council adopted a series of tourism objectives based upon those of the Commission for the Environment:

  1. To actively promote the indigenous lifestyles of New Zealand as the base for tourist planning so as to ensure that tourism becomes an extension of these patterns, and not independent of them.
  2. To ensure that the carrying capacities of the physical environment are not impaired by tourist activities and to promote the protection and enhancement of special natural features and biological resources upon which the tourist potential of the district is dependent.
  3. To promote a policy allowing a range of tourism facilities in terms of quality and price to meet current and future market demand.
  4. To encourage a greater involvement of more New Zealand family style facilities in the tourist infrastructure.
  5. To require that proposed tourist activities will not impair the physical qualities of New Zealand's environment in order to ensure the long term maintenance of our natural heritage.
  6. To establish ordinances allowing a more relaxed approach to rural tourist enterprises.
  7. To recognise the district's caves as a potential tourist attraction.

Objectives relating to Waitomo Caves included:

  1. To encourage development of a comprehensive range of tourist facilities and recreational activities.
  2. To ensure that all development is in harmony with, reflects, and if possible, enhances the rural nature and character of the area.
  3. To provide supportive private residential areas.
  4. To identify the existing features and potential attractions.
  5. To safeguard for the identified landscape, character and features.
  6. To provide for the needs of the local community.
  7. To provide for the improvement and development of accommodation covering as wide a range of uses as possible, but recognising the need to protect the economics of established services.
  8. To provide for the development of a comprehensive range of visitor facilities and amenities, particularly those providing historical, scientific and topical information about the attractions of the Waitomo area.
  9. To encourage the development of further recreational resources in the Waitomo area.
  10. To develop an efficient and safe pedestrian and vehicular traffic system.
  11. To promote, protect and regulate the pastoral activity as an integral, necessary, functional, and visual part of the nature and character of the Waitomo Caves area.
  12. To promote the Waitomo village as a community focus.

Where we are at now. In the past few years (compared with the very slow changes of the previous 80 years) things have been happening. There has been significant research into biological, ecological and environmental aspects of the caves. The Regional Water Board (the Waikato Valley Authority) has promoted extensive watershed control in the upper Waitomo Valley. Council now consciously modifies its earthworks procedures on roading affecting the Waitomo Valley. Surplus materials are now to a large extent trucked away wherever possible - at considerable expense to Council's ratepayers. The local public are aware that caves management now replaces what was seen to be caves exploitation. THC have now promoted a new tavern and parking area separate from the hotel, and established a major car park at the main caves entry. The Waitomo Caves Museum has been established and is a tremendous credit to the hours of voluntary effort of many local people. In turn the viability of that museum has been ensured by the substantial capital base provided by THC. A Maori village, a model New Zealand village, farm and overland tours, restaurants, and wild cave exploration all add to the Waitomo experience.

But in all these activities there is a very real problem of maintaining a balance between the enjoyment of the natural resource and the efficient promotion and management of the tourist enterprises. If the Waitomo Caves are considered as some form of mini national park one could expect that promotional advertising signs, the sale of teas and souvenirs would remain a low key aspect. This is not always apparent at the moment. How should the many reserves in the locality be respected? Should the Waitomo Village be promoted as the tourist community focus? Or should commercial outlets be allowed to establish at various sites or on various reserves where undoubtedly there may be a concentration of people?

Council clearly recognises the interests of the private enterprises who see Waitomo Caves village as the community focus. It is also clearly evident that from a management viewpoint carparking and comfort facilities are important at any particular tourist site. The logical step from that base is that ticket sales should be available at that site. The next logical step suggests that you must provide the tourist with refreshments. If you are going to provide staff for ticket sales and refreshments surely it is then logical to supply the tourist with souvenirs at the same site. Having provided the facilities it is important of course to establish eye catching signs to ensure that the tourist is attracted to your enterprise. What then is the impact on Waitomo Village as the focus of this tourist development? What then is the impact upon the natural unspoiled environment (much of which may be in reserves) which is the very product the community has to sell. Where is the balance? What are the compelling reasons that should dictate further development?

The issues became particularly evident in the recent THC promotion of a ticket sales and souvenir outlet at the mouth of the Waitomo Caves. There was clearly a need to update facilities for shelter and comfort at the Caves entry. Ticket sales and souvenirs had previously been available within the Waitomo Village. Should they be permitted on the immediate caves site perhaps encouraging a one stop stand for the whole Waitomo experience? These issues tore at the heart of the local community. They could well be repeated where other caves are developed. Credit must be given to local THC management and staff for their understanding and appreciation of local issues in this respect.

As well as the internationally known Waitomo Caves there are the Aranui and Ruakuri Caves together with part of Gardner's Gut within reserves administered by THC. Beyond that area there are a number of caves already within Crown reserves administered by Lands and Survey Department. There are then numerous wild caves scattered over the wider district. Until recent years the preservation of these other caves appears to have related to size or some spectacular aspect. There has been little scientific or qualitative analysis of the wider caving system until an analysis system was set up by Mr J Ash, a promoter of wild cave tours.

Council in its Planning Scheme was convinced that important wild caves should be offered some form of statutory protection. This becomes increasingly evident in terms of demands for limestone quarrying in the district and the possible far reaching effect of such activity. The Speleological Society was approached to advise on wild caves worthy of protection and a list of about a dozen was provided. It is expected that this list will be modified and enlarged in terms of wild cave analysis being undertaken. Council's preservation of these wild caves is encompassed in a preservation and amenity zone where the cave position is approximately identified, or flagged and the presence of an intrinsically valuable item therefore noted. Any development requiring Council approval can therefore only proceed providing the intrinsic worth of the identified feature clearly remains unprejudiced.

The whole of these issues relate to balance, to compelling reasons to either do or not do.

Council's marriage with the other major partner in Waitomo tourist development, the THC, is a bit like most marriages - there are good and bad bits. When I take my wife fishing she talks at the wrong time, uses the wrong bait, reels in at the wrong time, but catches all the largest fish!