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Why was access to Whakaari/White Island the responsibility of a private company?

The White Island rescuers’ bravery raises the question of why tourists were there in the first place, writes Bill Ralston.

As time passes after the Whakaari/White Island eruption tragedy, it is inevitable that criticism and recriminations will follow. It is the normal pattern of a news cycle with disasters. First comes the raw reportage of the event, then concerned press conferences from the authorities, interviews with shocked witnesses and those affected, followed eventually by critical reproaches and, usually, a formal inquiry of some sort into the incident.

Personally, being a complete chicken, I would never want to stand on the rim of an active volcanic crater and peer into it, but I can understand some tourists’ desire to do so. There is often an assumption on the part of a traveller that if there are guided tours of something to see, then it must be reasonably safe to do them.

After all, New Zealand promotes itself as an action adventure for tourists, who can throw themselves off high places attached to just a large rubber band, surf in rubber boats through whitewater rapids, speed through the same in fast jet boats, or attempt a host of other hair-raising activities. Just tramping through the rugged New Zealand bush can be dangerous enough, let alone climbing our mountains. With no natural land-based predators, the biggest danger to a visitor’s health and safety is the countryside itself.

Immediately after the eruption on Whakaari/White Island, there were stories that the danger level there had been raised by GeoNet before the event, and the first queries were raised as to why tourists were allowed to land. It appears that the tourist operators themselves are entrusted with determining whether it is safe to visit the island.

By day two of the disaster, it was confirmed that there had been 47 people on the island. Five were confirmed dead, 31 in hospital, three discharged, and eight listed as “missing”. Within a few days the official death toll had risen to eight. The most distressing reports were from flights over the volcano shortly after the eruption, saying there was “no sign of life”.

It has been reported that the Ngāti Awa-owned tourist business takes about 10,000 people a year to the island. Personally, I wonder why it is necessary to visit the volcano at all. After all, it is a source of bubbling magma that can hurl out flying rocks, hot ash and noxious fumes periodically. Perhaps some scientific parties could be allowed ashore occasionally, but the idea of having troops of tourists with guides wandering about now seems just too risky. Every few years, White Island erupts, and it is not always possible to accurately forecast when these events will occur. Access to the island should really be the responsibility of a government agency, not private tourism companies.

What is truly remarkable is the quick response to the disaster by nearby helicopters and boat crews who managed to quickly evacuate survivors to safety. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rightly praised the bravery of the early rescuers, saying: “I want to acknowledge the courageous decision made by the first responders and those pilots who, in their immediate rescue effort, made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out.”

She is right, but the question remains: why were tourists allowed to be put in a position where such “extraordinarily dangerous” conditions could occur.

This will be of little consolation to those who have lost someone, but it seems to me inevitable that access to the volcano must now be greatly restricted and tourists kept safely off the island.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.