Rotorua tourism bounces back after COVID-19 as international visitors soak up Māori culture

The city of Rotorua has turned a new leaf. Recently known for housing New Zealand's homeless, tourist numbers are back on the rise to what they were pre-COVID-19. 

Māori tourism operators have pivoted their products to suit a new market of tourists who are staying longer and want more personalised experiences.

Rotorua has been named by Forbes as one of the 50 hottest tourism destinations in the world. Before COVID-19, around 3.5 million people visited the city each year, with about 42 percent of them coming from overseas.

Te Pā Tū Māori Village, formerly known as Tamaki Māori Village, was one business purchased just before the pandemic hit when visitor numbers were at their peak.

But the pandemic changed things. So it was back to the drawing board where their ultimate goal was based on a set of values. The main one is to provide premium manaakitanga - hospitality.

"In order to achieve all those things and lessen the number of people we host we have to actually increase the actual ticket price because we want to do all the things that are right, looking after our environment, looking after people, being different, being step-changed and making our ancestors proud," Te Pā Tū Head of Tourism Kiri Atkinson-Crean said. 

Atkinson-Crean said this meant quality engagement with customers, elevating their authentic cuisine experience, paying their staff well and aligning their operation with the maramataka Māori or Māori lunar calendar.

"So it's value-based tourism but that also has a value which means it does cost more to share more deeply to expect more of our people, so we unashamedly have increased the price."

Down the road, hidden within Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley, Te Puia also had to make changes to their service due to the pandemic. 

Now providing all of their experiences with a guide to make the experience more personal to the customer.

Te Puia general manager of marketing and sales Sean Marsh the pivot allowed the company to bounce back after COVID-19. 

"We've greeted and welcomed more manuhiri than we hoped we would. And we know that they are staying longer and yet they are leaving with a better sense of who we are and why we are important."

Despite the murky waters of the COVID-19 years, Rotorua is back on track to being a world-class destination. Local iwi are set to soon launch Wai Ariki, a hot springs and spa experience, steeped in Te Ao Māori.

"I've been really pleased in terms of the volume of visitors that have come back into town. Certainly lots of manuhiri (visitors) from right around the world. We are starting to see Chinese visitors reemerge, but certainly seeing Europeans, Americans, Australians have all been here in really big numbers," RotoruaNZ CEO Andrew Wilson said. 

More independent travellers and fewer group tours however they are spending more and soaking up Aotearoa and Māori culture.