Skip to main content

Scenery preservation 1903-1953

Page 3 – Beautiful New Zealand

Romantic wonderland

Even before systematic colonisation began in 1840, New Zealand had been promoted in British publications as a wild, scenic, romantic wonderland – and a place of extremes. Guidebooks responded to the growing Victorian appetite for travel, and they marketed flora and fauna and the iconic 'old-time Maori'. These interests also reflected the European fashion for the picturesque and the perception of the 'wild and primitive' romantic landscape as the antidote to the increasingly artificial and corrupt urban life of industrialised society. According to this idea, wild places were not only beautiful but could serve as areas of physical recreation and mental and spiritual rejuvenation.

Not surprisingly, private enterprise and government made concerted efforts to create and manage the indigenous New Zealand environment for tourist purposes. New Zealand was touted as a scenic wonderland. So beautiful is the landscape, argued Captain William Ashby in New Zealand the land of health, wealth and prosperity (1889), that 'if, in short, you concentrate the beauties of the Scottish and English lake districts, added thereto an essence of Italy and seasonings of Switzerland, then, you will find this happy concentration at Wakatipu, Wanaka, Hawea, or Taranaki'.

The government saw the money to be made from tourists. In 1874 politician William Fox spoke in Parliament about preserving Rotorua's thermal areas. The popularity of the district, particularly the Pink and White Terraces at Tarawera, gave rise to the Thermal Springs Districts Act 1881.

The Land Amendment Act 1884 soon followed. This permitted the establishment of reserves for mineral springs and 'natural curiosities'. The earliest direct reference to scenery in legislation came eight years later in the Land Act 1892, which allowed for the reservation of lands containing 'natural curiosities or scenery [that may] be of national interest'. By 1902, 105 scenic, historic and thermal reserves existed under this legislation, yet its limitations were also beginning to show.

In the early 1890s the minister of lands, Thomas Mackenzie, thought that peddling New Zealand's scenic wonders might help to pay off the colony's debt. Observing that tourism was earning Switzerland more than £10,000,000 annually, Mackenzie sought increased government funding for developing road access to key scenic attractions. Such visionary ideas went down badly with backblocks settlers. They thought public money should be spent on improving road access to their lands before catering for tourists.

'[I] care very little about [the tourists],' Mackenzie said, 'but value the money they were likely to leave in the country very much, as a source of revenue.' His critics were unimpressed. Mackenzie was too far ahead of his time and out of step with the prevailing colonial notion of taming the landscape. The idea of progress or preservation would be a significant theme in the debate around the establishment of the Tourist and Health Resorts Department in 1901 and, two years later, around the Scenery Preservation Bill.

How to cite this page

Beautiful New Zealand, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated