A slightly whimsical note to start the year

I spent the last couple of weeks in one of my favourite places in New Zealand –  Whakatane/Ohope.   The beaches are great and the surf is safe, and it is pretty warm even when (as it did too often) it rains.  The local paper – the Beacon – runs a bleakly fascinating crime column of the sort all papers once did –  not just the bare details of names and ages, but accounts of episodes of mundane violence and repeated lack of self-control that come before the District Court each week. They include reports of judge’s comments –  a judge who has been around for a long time but still hears explanations or excuses that flabbergast him.  For an insight into what is, fortunately, like another world it is hard to beat.

One afternoon last week, we dropped in to the local museum, which is rather well done on a small scale.  Among the display panels was one that took me by surprise.  I didn’t jot down the exact words, but it was along the lines of “until the 1950s, Whakatane’s port handled more cargo than Tauranga did”.   These days, picturesque Whakatane handles sports fishing and sightseeing trips to Whale and White islands and not much more, but I’m old enough to remember a few coastal ships in Whakatane in the late 60s and early 70s  And I knew that Tauranga had been a late developer  (in the 1951 census Tauranga and Mount Mauganui combined had fewer than 11000 people). But I still made a note to check out this claim when I got home.

And sure enough, here is shipping data for 1949, from the 1950 New Zealand Official Yearbook.

total trade 1949

And sure enough, Whakatane then still had more shipping trade than Tauranga.  But I was also struck by how high Wellington stood, and by the prominence of Greymouth and Westport.  Bear in mind that in those days, coastal shipping was almost as important (even by volume transported) as overseas trade.  That explains Greymouth and Westport, in an economy heavily dependent on coal.  I wondered if the Wellington story was just about inter-island coastal shipping, but it isn’t.  Here are the overseas shipping volumes by port (sum of export and imports, in tons).

overseas tonnage 1949

Wellington was far and away the second largest port for overseas trade, with volumes almost two-thirds of those of Auckland.

And here, by contrast, is the value of merchandise trade by port for 2014.

total overseas trade 2014

Auckland remains the port handling the largest share of overseas trade, but now Tauranga is second (from 10th 65 years previously) while Wellington’s sea port did not much more overseas trade than New Plymouth. Wellington airport’s overseas freight trade narrowly edges out what SNZ reports as Parcel Post.

No doubt there is a variety of other factors going on.  Even as a coastal port, Whakatane with a shallow and difficult river bar  (and nearby Opotiki) couldn’t survive the advent of bigger ships and the removal of regulatory limits of road transport.  For Tauranga, the establishment of the Tasman mill at Kawerau, and the associated railway line to  the Mount, in the mid 1950s gave a significant boost to its trade.  And from the 1970s containerization focused foreign shipping trade in fewer and fewer ports.  But no doubt population changes matter as well.  The Tauranga urban area last year had a population of around 130000, and the combination of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga urban areas which had accounted for only around 20 per cent of the total population in 1951, were together almost 40 per cent of New Zealand’s total population last year.

As for Wellington, of course services exports are not in these data.  Then again, as a share of GDP services exports are barely higher than they were 20 years ago.

11 thoughts on “A slightly whimsical note to start the year

  1. Michael
    It’s not so long ago that Wellington Airport had more passengers than Auckland
    But a longer runway and a lot of Government intervention saw that turn around
    Could Whakatane Port have maintained its traffic? Could Wellington Airport have grown faster than Auckland?
    In both cases the provision of appropriate infrastructure is a necessary condition to a positive answer.
    Of course that would have meant Whakatane wasn’t the sleepy beach resort with the interesting local newspaper stories that you enjoy.


  2. Interesting question Tim. I’m pretty sure Whakatane couldn’t have maintained its position (NZ rivers don’t make for modern ports).

    The question is does infrastructure create opportunities (and markets) or do the opportunities lead the infrastructure. There are elements of both I suppose. I guess we differ on two things: how large as the opportunities in (and around Wellington) and on the role of public funding to capture/create such opportunities.

    It isn’t obvlously a lack of infrastructure that accounts of Wellington port’s decline: physically the best deep water port in the country, and if I recall rightly Wellington had NZ’s first container crane.


  3. If you ask any pilot where they would prefer to land, Auckland versus Wellington, you would have most pilots preferring a Auckland landing. I personally dread my flights into Wellington. Out of every 10 flights I have experienced turbulence 9 times flying into Wellington. Out of every 10 flights into Auckland I would experience maybe perhaps have 1 experience of turbulence.

    Some of the jolts into Wellington can be quite scary leaving my heart in my mouth.


  4. “AirAsia has confirmed it is returning to New Zealand with daily flights from Auckland to the Gold Coast with introductory $99 one way flights.The low cost carrier last launched scheduled services to New Zealand in April 2011 with four-times weekly flights from Kuala Lumpur to Christchurch, but withdrew in May 2012.”


  5. Perhaps a timely reminder that a market driven economy tends to evolve/adapt/change with time and technological devlopment which maybe makes the seemingly popular phrase ‘secular stagnation’ somewhat stagnant……


  6. In the 50’s& 60″s Lower Hutt was the biggest industrial area in NZ. All the car companies were there, tractor and farm machinery importers, Dunlops, Firestones, Feltex etc. etc. so imports were very high. Wellington also had many warehousing companies and it was the export port for most of the Lower North Island meat works and wool producers.

    If you go to Facebook and look at Old Wellington Region there ar lots of old Photo’s of the wharves atc. Great page.
    I also think you will find that Tauranga is ahead of Auckland in most things except cars.and about to get bigger. Currently dredging to 16 mtr so the 6000 container ships can call. It is now the NZ hub for a lot of coastal container trade and owns a chunk of Timaru and North Port in Whangarei.

    Whakatane will be overtaken soon by Opotiki as the Govt. has tossed a pile of dosh their way because of the development of mussell farming that is commencing.


    • Yes, it is remarkable how Wellington has gravitated towards being such a heavily govt town. Of course, in the 50s part of the manufacturing reflected high protective barriers, but even before they went up Wellington had been a major commercial centre.

      It would be an interesting exercise to try to work out how much of services exports came from Wellington (eg WETA, XERO)


  7. I suspect the Wellington port data does not include RORO figures, as I understand that these are not collected in the FIGS data. This would mean the freight and ship movements are not comparable as between the years prior to the roll on roll off ferries and after their introduction.

    Hope this helps.


    • Thanks for that, altho my two last charts are only of overseas trade so that comparison over time shouldn’t be affected by the introduction of roll on roll off ferries (altho it certainly would affect total freight comparisons).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s