Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner adamant on Whakaari / White Island tourism, but locals unsure

9:44 am on 11 December 2019

Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner is defiant about tourism in the face of the volcano, but locals are less sure about whether people should be allowed on Whakaari / White Island.

No caption

The eruption on Whakaari / White Island on Monday. Photo: Michael Schade

Tourism is the life blood of Whakatāne, with welcome signs at the entrance to the town advertising it as the gateway to Whakaari.

Tourist brochures offer visits to what is described as the world's most accessible active marine volcano, while fishing, diving, and even helicopter journeys are also offered for those who don't want to physically set foot on the island.

Whakaari is prominent throughout the town, with restaurants, bars, and accommodation named after the volcano which puffs away 48km offshore.

Turner told RNZ she wanted tourism of the island to continue.

Whakatane mayor Judy Turner speaks to media. 10.12.19

Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner says she wants tourism of White Island to continue. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

However, she said there would need to be conversations about when it was appropriate to visit the island, and whether an alert level of 2 was too high for people to be visiting.

"I think that's the kind of question that's going to be considered, certainly it's never been a problem 'til [the eruption].

"At the time they went out, it was a level 2. That isn't considered necessarily in the matrix of things a high reading, they've been out under those circumstances on numerous times without event."

However, one local, Piripi Akuhata, said a rāhui placed on the island should not be lifted and that Whakaari was no place for people.

"As for tourism, yeah nah. In my eyes nah. They should leave Whakaari alone ... she's had enough, I think Whakaari's had enough."

Read more on the Whakaari/White Island eruption:

Another couple said they visited the island with their children a few months back. They said it was only when they got there that they thought it was no place for children, and they were surprised people were able to visit at all.

About a dozen locals spoken to by RNZ said the island was too dangerous and the trips should end.

Richard Forster works at the hospital, and helped as those injured in the eruption flooded through the doors.

He said if the island was to remain open to tourism, there should be stricter rules around the risk level.

People also needed to know more about what they were getting into with this kind of adventure tourism, Forster said.

"I think it needs to be very carefully spelt out, because that was a fairly small eruption which might not have been on notice that much if people hadn't been there."

National Party leader Simon Bridges says he'd like to think tourism to Whakaari / White Island could be allowed to resume in time.

"There'll be people with a strongly different view than this, and there'll be people who will say as a result of this, 'well I for one am definitely never going back on'.

"But I think there are risks in many things - skiing on Ruapehu at [volcano alert] level 2 is not uncommon at all.

"You would like to think there is still a role for people to do things - assessing the risks sensibly - such as going on to what are active volcanoes.

Mr Bridges, who is MP for nearby Tauranga, told Morning Report he had visited White Island many years ago and it had always been a risky tourist activity.

"People have got to assess the risks and I feel confident iwi and tour operators were doing that."

RNZ has approached tour companies for comment.

Emeritus Professor Ray Cas, from Monash University in Melbourne, said White Island had been a disaster waiting to happen.

He said when he visited the island, he was in disbelief that tour groups were allowed there.

"When there are many hazards in such a small confined crater, and you're actually in the crater of a major volcano, that's not a good place to have a lot of people. It's Russian roulette if you take people for that, and who's responsible for that?"

Dr Amy Donovan, Girton College geography lecturer and expert in volcano tourism, told First Up she was surprised tourists were allowed on the island.

"Volcanoes like White Island are particularly challenging to predict," Dr Donovan said.

"To be perfectly honest, I was really surprised that the tour companies were taking people physically on to the island, I kind of assumed it would be watching it from a distance ... but I don't know how those decisions are made by the tour companies."

She said there had been a number of explosions at active volcanoes around the world with tragic consequences in more recent times.

In July this year one tourist was killed in Stromboli in Italy, while 40 hikers were killed by an explosion from Mount Ontake in Japan in 2014.

"I think partly the emergence of much large numbers of people visiting volcanoes is still something we're trying to work out globally and how to manage that around these kinds of volcanoes which are really difficult to forecast," Dr Donovan said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs