Loving nature to death, Kirstie Ross

The Wonder Country: Making New Zealand Tourism
Margaret McClure
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
ISBN 1869403193

Our Islands, Our Selves: A History of Conservation in New Zealand
David Young
University of Otago Press, $59.95,
ISBN 1877276944

Tourism and conservation are the main lenses through which New Zealanders and others perceive, experience and interact with New Zealand. Indeed, “clean and green” – the phrase so often used to describe New Zealand –  embraces the country’s appeal as a tourist destination and its leadership on conservation issues. Both are “modern” responses to the landscape, emerging from urbanisation, industrialisation and mass consumption. But they are also linked to the past – to 19th century romanticism, the European grand tour, and intellectual pursuits, such as the study of natural history. In settler societies both are also inextricably linked to colonisation.

As with so many other aspects of New Zealand life, the government has overseen tourism and conservation. The Department of Tourist and Health Resorts was established in 1901, and the government subsequently administered a surprising range of activities related to tourism for most of the 20th century. State involvement in conservation took a different path. Until the Department of Conservation (DOC) was established in 1987, responsibility for the conservation estate and protection of species was uncoordinated, and distributed amongst a number of government agencies.

Margaret McClure’s The Wonder Country: Making New Zealand Tourism is a history of the government’s involvement in tourism, while David Young’s Our Islands, Our Selves: A History of Conservation in New Zealand examines the state as conservationist. The books were commissioned by Tourism New Zealand and DOC respectively and managed by the History Group of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Thus, they are “official”, although not necessarily definitive, general histories of the government’s role in accounts where nature is, as McClure puts it, the “lead character”.


Ngaio Marsh wrote of New Zealand in 1942: “This is a country so young that it impinges on the very ancient, and its clear and primordial landscape reaches back to emotions that have nothing to do with civilisation, but its spell – once felt – is not easily forgotten.” The spell cast by the landscape over New Zealand politician William Fox was an important motive for the state’s involvement in the tourist industry. In 1874, after bathing in the soothing thermal waters at Orakei-Korako and visiting the Pink and White Terraces, Fox turned his attention to protecting the beauty and health benefits of these places from private speculators. The legislative mechanism for this was to be the Thermal-Springs Districts Act passed in 1881, which brought the thermal region around Rotorua under government control.

Soon, McClure tells us, New Zealand’s scenery was being described as the country’s “priceless asset … our richest and most lasting goldmine”, and the government, by establishing in 1901 the world’s first Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, became the official overseer of this valuable asset. The iconic places managed by the government on behalf of the nation frame McClure’s history. Starting in 1870, she takes readers on a chronological tour of these spots as well as the facilities, administrators, entrepreneurs, events and challenges associated with them.

The Department of Tourism was always more involved in attracting international travellers and foreign currency to New Zealand than in domestic tourism, which took second place and was left to other government departments to develop. In the 1920s, for example, while the Department was encouraging American celebrity fisherman Zane Grey to visit the Bay of Islands, the Railways Department was providing for ordinary New Zealanders modest excursions to National Parks.

The apparently preferential treatment given wealthy visitors prompted one MP to declare during the Tourist Hotel Corporation Bill parliamentary debate of 1955: “We want our own kiddies to see our own country.” Ambivalence about tourism meant tourist hospitality services were often more like tourist hostility, provoking the department to initiate welcoming gestures like the 1966 Haere-mai Year.

McClure shows how important infrastructure and transport have been for the success of New Zealand tourism. Long-range jets, for example, opened up the Pacific in the 1960s and saw mass tourism to New Zealand take off. Tourist numbers grew exponentially; by 2003 they had reached two million. In fact, with so many people seeking out scenery, it became, in places like Fiordland National Park, a case of “loving nature to death”.

While visitor numbers rose, the Department was rationalised. In the 1980s it lost its commercial arm and became a policy unit. At the same time, increased government funding, now almost exclusively earmarked for international marketing, was handed over to a Tourism Board made up of industry insiders.

The Wonder Country reveals other shifts that have taken place over the past 130 years. In the final chapter McClure shows how extreme adventure now defines the New Zealand tourist experience as much as scenery-induced rapture did in a less hectic age. While today’s tourists use nature “like a trampoline”, physical or metaphysical escape remain potent reasons for coming to New Zealand.


Conservation is a philosophical and scientific view of the natural world that looks closely at the impact of people on the environment. According to grassland scientist Kevin O’Connor, quoted in David Young’s Our Islands, Our Selves, conservation is about “allowing the processes of nature to express themselves in their own way, and in their own time”. It is grounded in ecological science, but often motivated by an emotional and personal response to unique biotic communities that developed in New Zealand over millions of years of geographical isolation.

Our Islands, Our Selves describes “the evolution of a conservation ethic in New Zealand” and focuses on the “efforts, campaigns and triumphs” of individuals and groups concerned with government’s ad hoc approach to managing indigenous nature. This amounts to a Who’s Who of conservation in New Zealand and, as Young notes, most of the actors in this extended drama are wealthy, educated and articulate, with spare time to devote to this cause.

In the 1870s, “as farmers and foresters continued to skin the land”, the first, albeit false, sign of an official concern for the environment appeared. Premier Vogel introduced forest conservation legislation, although conservation at this time meant the prudent use of forest resources rather than permanent preservation. Reserving remnants of native bush was left to individuals and scenery preservation groups that formed in the 1890s. The 1892 Land Act finally allowed for the statutory reservation of nature for scenic purposes. In the same decade some native birds endangered by habitat loss and introduced animals were beginning to find havens on dedicated island sanctuaries.

Young points out how important leisure has been in the growth of a conservation ethic. Certainly, from the 1930s, the movement received a boost from increased participation in outdoor recreation. However, the real sea change occurred after WWII when, for example, a single administrative structure was established for the growing system of national parks. Useful data about the ecological domino effect caused by introduced invasive pests began to be collected and the fraught journey “back from the brink” for endangered native birds like takahe began in earnest.

Our Island, Our Selves charts a shift that occurred in the early 1970s, when the conservation concept became a popular movement. It was in this decade that the Manapouri dam project became a national issue, and conservationists moved their lobbying activities out into the street and even into the tops of native trees. By the time DOC was established in1987, it had “unity of control” of about 30 per cent of New Zealand lands, fought for by lobbyists and protestors for over a century.

Young is specifically concerned with how individuals, groups and the government have tried to ameliorate the environmental impact of European settlement. However, he also considers the earlier environmental impact of settlers from the Eastern Pacific, and their development of a finely tuned system of resource management. And, just as McClure is attentive to the complex role of indigenous culture in tourism, probing the assumption that Maori were “expected to be figures in the landscape not entrepreneurial participants” in tourism, Young also shows that conservation is a culturally contested practice. He discusses, for example, how DOC’s “preservationist” definition of conservation is increasingly challenged by Maori assertions of their right to sustainably harvest indigenous species.


While it has become serious business, tourism is, by its nature, a positive and upbeat topic. Its product is based on fantasy and escape, or, as McClure puts it, “the stuff that dreams are made of”. Tourism is an economic success story, as well as a celebration of New Zealand. The style of The Wonder Country captures this. Material has been confidently synthesised and is peppered with pithy quotes. But while her tone is light, McClure looks directly at some of the difficult issues involved in selling New Zealand to the world.

Conservation, on the other hand, has an explicit moral dimension. For this reason it is a difficult subject to write about without becoming earnest or reproachful. It is certainly a big and serious story, and there is enough material in Our Islands, Our Selves for several books. Young confesses that being commissioned to write Our Islands, Our Selves was a “dream come true”, but his personal commitment to conservation may have made it difficult for him to let go of some of his material or to mould it into a clear narrative. On the other hand, Young’s voice could have been heard more often in the nature documentary-style text, rather than at odd moments in inventive phrases. For example: “As a fabric, DOC was officially a blue Swanndri … but it was actually a coat of many colours.”

Both books draw on vast amounts of archival material as well as personal communications and interviews with many people. This research is fully documented in accurate endnotes and bibliographies. Page references to McClure’s endnotes are especially helpful when flicking between the main text and notes. Scholars will also benefit from having Young’s comprehensive list of sources related to conservation, gathered in a single publication.

The commissioners have been served well by their publishers. Each press has produced good-sized and generously illustrated publications. Auckland University Press has kept the cost of The Wonder Country down by printing colour plates together in a small section and distributing black and white photographs throughout. The text is a good size, although printed slightly too close to the inside margin. University of Otago Press has designed Our Islands, Our Selves along the same lines as its slightly larger Natural History of Southern New Zealand (2003). In this case, colour photographs appear throughout, which adds to the book’s attractiveness. The text is compressed into two columns, interrupted periodically with side bars of extra information. This layout tends to give a magazine-like look to the book.

Altogether The Wonder Country and Our Islands, Our Selves are important and essential historical appraisals of two ubiquitous aspects of New Zealand life. McClure’s and Young’s efforts in synthesising disparate sources for the general reader are commendable. The two historians must be congratulated for unravelling how we have come to see and think about New Zealand in ways that are now firmly fixed in our cultural landscape.


Kirstie Ross ispreparing a social history of outdoor leisure activities, andcurating anexhibition about the New Zealand environment that will open next year at Te Papa.


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Posted in History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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