A unique marae experience is being credited with helping attract record numbers to the Whanganui Journey - a 145 kilometre canoe trip down the river.
One of New Zealand's nine Great Walks, the Whanganui Journey includes the opportunity to stay at Tieke Kainga, the only marae that doubles as a Department of Conservation hut.
During the summer season that ended on 30 April about 8500 people made the trip, 14 percent more than in 2014, which in turn was up 15 percent on the previous season.
Te Whānau o Tieke chair Rangi Bristol said kaitiaki were rostered on to stay at Tieke Kainga during the summer to provide a cultural context for people who stopped there.
Mr Bristol said kaitiaki explained the history of the marae, which was in the middle reaches of the river about 10.5km downstream of the Mangapurua Valley, and sometimes held pōwhiri for visitors.
"They are quite interested in the history and what it was all about, and marae protocol and how it was done and all that kind of thing. But we weren't doing it because for a tourist venture, we were doing it to explain to anyone why we were there," he said.
Ironically, Mr Bristol said, the kaitiaki role had grown out of Te Whānau o Tieke's occupation of the land in 1993. That came about due to its incorporation in 1986 into the Whanganui National Park and then later charging levies for using Department of Conservation (DOC) huts.
"We sort of had a bit of a sit-in down there years ago, so we introduced people onto Tieke marae and we introduced people to the reason we were there and all that sort of thing, he said. "And we gave them a cultural welcome there and it became quite popular."
Mr Bristol said Te Whānau o Tieke , which is part of the Uenuku iwi, now jointly managed Tieke Kainga with DOC.
The department's service manager, George Taylor, said its research showed visitors' favourite thing about the Whanganui Journey was the marae stop
"It's certainly one of the aspects that sort of defines the Whanganui Journey from the other Great Walks, and through our surveys in the past the user definitely wants more context around the cultural elements of the journey."
Mr Taylor said as a result of its surveys DOC had installed multiple interpretation panels explaining Māori and Pākehā history in the national park.
"Also at Tieke there is more interpretative whakairo and we've got a pou (carved wooden post) there which has a story to it."
Mr Taylor said since he started working on the river in 2007, numbers on the river had more than doubled and although facilities were holding up, the toilets at John Coull Hut and Tieke now had to be pumped out twice a season.
Mr Bristol said in early discussions with DOC figures up to 12,500 had been discussed and if that many did start to use the area, closer management would be required.
However, he said he was more concerned about securing increased funding for the kaitiaki services whānau members were providing because DOC contributions and koha did not always meet costs.
"Some people give us koha, but at the moment it is not quite enough because you can't do it with one or two people, you probably need three or four."