Paying the price of popularity

A major cultural and environmental enhancement of Spa Thermal Park is underway in Taupo. The confluence of the Otumuheke Hot Stream and the Waikato River at the north western boundary of the park has become hugely popular with locals and tourists, as they either bask in the warmth of the stream or swim in the cool waters of the river. But heavy use is causing significant erosion and damage to rare ferns that grow near the stream.

Historically the site was important to local iwi as a bathing and meeting place. It’s also important for its ecological values and the rare fern species that only survives in the unique environment that the hot stream creates.

 The Spa Thermal Park is an important cultural and ecological site.

The Spa Thermal Park is an important cultural and ecological site.

It forms the beginning of the famed Huka Falls riverside walking track (township end) and the start of the mountain bike track to the falls. Taupo District Council estimates visitor numbers have jumped from around 500 a day in 2005, to 1500 a day in 2016. And along with the environmental damage those visitors are causing there have also been complaints about bush toileting, theft and rubbish problems.

The four landowners - Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board, Patuiwi Trust, Taupo District Council and the Department of Conservation - have collaborated on redevelopment plans aimed at reducing anti-social behaviour while enhancing the cultural integrity of the site. Council landscape architect Fraser Scott has designed and project managed the redevelopment. His vision includes a new toilet block, changing rooms, walking tracks and a bridge. The cultural and environmental significance of the site will be displayed on storyboards placed along the walking track. A palisade fence will be built to prevent visitors spending time up stream, therefore helping to reduce inappropriate behaviour and damage to the rare ferns.  And for caffeine fiends there’ll be a coffee kiosk.

 Visitor numbers have climbed to over 1500 a day.

Visitor numbers have climbed to over 1500 a day.

Patuiwi Reserve Trust Chairman, Matiu Heperi Northcroft, said he and fellow trustees Judy Harris, Taka Loughlin and Hinemoa Henderson also with Tuirirangi te Heuheu, were pleased to see progress on the project because "protecting the whenua and the cultural integrity of this taonga is the most fundamentally important aspect of our Trust's role as Kaitiaki  (guardians)."

The upgrade’s expected to cost around $1.3 million. A report prepared by Fraser Scott said in its current state, with rapidly growing tourist numbers, the site wasn’t coping. The result he said, was the overall visitor experience was declining as well as the physical quality of the site. “The site has the potential to grow Taupo as a destination, however it also could have the reverse effect if the area continues to decline.”

Taupo District Mayor David Trewavas said redeveloping this area would make a huge difference.  "Once the project is finished we will see the benefits straight away. This is a fantastic place and it's great to see so many groups working together to make such a positive visitor experience," he said.

 The many visitors had begun causing damage to the area. 

The many visitors had begun causing damage to the area.