1 May 2020

Whakatāne tour operators suffer after Whakaari eruption, Covid-19 lockdown

12:24 pm on 1 May 2020

Tourism operators in Whakatāne already struggling in the wake of the deadly Whakaari eruption say the Covid-19 pandemic has forced them to lay off staff and even consider closing down.

Some businesses in Whakatāne are having a poor summer because tourists have stayed away during their busiest time of year.

Some businesses in Whakatāne had a poor summer because tourists stayed away. Photo: 123rf.com

Despite receiving support from the government, they say the lack of international tourism has left them with no choice.

Steph Van Dusschoten and her partner Phil have taken groups out on guided tours off the Whakatāne coast for the last 25 years. At the beginning of December last year their business Diveworks Charters was booming.

"I really thought it was going to be a fantastic summer. It started off ... with good weather, amazing blue waters like the old days."

But everything changed on 9 December when Whakaari / White Island erupted. The blast killed 21 people and injured dozens more.

A Ngāti Awa rāhui, which banned fishing in the waters off Whakatāne, was put in place after the eruption.

"All our bookings for that was non-existent and then the week we could start, which was the 23rd [December], we actually didn't have very good sea conditions, so that wiped that bit out as well."

Van Dusschoten said the number of tourists visiting the eastern Bay of Plenty town this past summer was much lower compared to previous years.

The loss of that tourism is now being compounded by the Covid-19 crisis, she said.

Despite receiving government support, she said they had lost at least $40,000 of revenue and were considering closing their business.

"I mean, we might be able to work it so we work all winter on other jobs... I just don't know how it's going to play out. But probably the heartbreak would be the people ... if we couldn't take people out to see our amazing waters, because it really, really is an amazing business."

Mark Law.

Mark Law. Photo: Supplied / Kahu New Zealand

Mark Law is known by many as one of the hero pilots who rescued people stranded on Whakaari after the eruption. Nearly 80 percent of his income before the disaster came from taking international visitors on aerial tours of the volcano.

"White Island eruption pretty much stopped our business in its tracks. We went from seven permanent staff to one or two, and since then we have been able to navigate our way through that disaster and sort of stay afloat to continue on."

His business, Kahu NZ, is still operating and now primarily carries out aerial tasks such as firefighting, lifting and heli-logging.

Law hopes to take tour groups to Whakaari again, but with border closures expected to remain in place for some time, he doesn't anticipate that happening any time soon.

"They were the ones spending the money on that luxury-type of flying that we did, we didn't see a lot of Kiwis on that, so even if we started again I don't foresee too much uptake by New Zealanders to fly to White Island if it went again."

The Whakatāne District Council will discuss how it is going to help businesses recover from the economic impacts of Covid-19 and the Whakaari eruption.

Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner.

Mayor Judy Turner. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Mayor Judy Turner said it was not surprising that tourism operators in the Bay of Plenty town were hurting. She hoped domestic tourism would help them survive.

"The challenge is, how do we explain to people the great things they can do on a weekend if they were to have somewhere to go for a good weekend away, good outdoors experiences, great restaurants.

"What sort of things can people expect and how do we market that to them so they understand that they've got something close at hand so they can have a good time."

White Island Tours, the company which had tour groups on the island at the time of the eruption, has so far received almost a quarter of a million in wage subsidies for 36 staff.

A spokesperson declined RNZ's request for an interview, but in a statement encouraged New Zealanders to visit the region as soon as they are able to.

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