1 Dec 2020

Whakaari: Tourism industry keeping close eye on govt review

5:53 pm on 1 December 2020

The tourism industry is warning that tightening rules around how to manage risks could hit the sector hard in the wake of the Whakaari/White Island eruption.

View on 16 November 2020 of steam, gas and ash emission from the 2019 primary vent area of the Whakaari/White Island crater.

View on 16 November 2020 of steam, gas and ash emission from the 2019 primary vent area of the Whakaari/White Island crater Photo: GNS Science

At least two tourism operators are among 13 parties charged by WorkSafe.

The eruption has also sparked a review by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) into regulations governing adventure activities that operate near natural hazards.

Adrift Tongariro operates guided walks on and around active volcanos including Mt Ruapehu and Tongariro.

Its director Stewart Barclay said they had upped their safety systems even more since the Whakaari eruption - and ensured their guests were well informed about volcanic risks.

"Essentially if you're in the middle... and a volcano erupts, you really don't have any chance and that's something that's quite new for us to be telling our customers since the terrible White Island tragedy," Barclay said.

The risk at Tongariro was very low and the Department of Conservation managed and closed access to the mountain if the risk rose, he said.

Barclay was concerned the government review might trigger more rules and compliance costs that had already cost his business thousands of dollars.

He would reconsider whether to operate if that happened.

"There is a tendency for statements to be 'we want to make sure this never happens again'," Barclay said.

"People do die eventually. Everybody dies, and people do take risks. As long as they're knowledgeable of the downside of taking those risks, then I would hate New Zealand to become a country that is really mothered through everything and not given the opportunity to go out and have fun."

This is not the first time an eruption has forced a rethink of safety practices - Barclay was operating back in 2012 when Tongariro erupted.

The key step would be to improve how eruptions are monitored and forecast, but he said that was easier said than done.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts said the country should think very carefully before making big changes to how risk was managed.

"There are significant implications if as a country we want to take a different approach to managing risk. As I mentioned to the [Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood] earlier this week, if we want to be ultra-cautious, we could close down our national parks every time there's a heavy rain warning because that raises the possibility of landslips and danger to people in those parks. So how far do we want to go in trying to totally eliminate risk from people's interaction with the natural environment," Roberts said.

"If you think of a place like Rotorua which is built on a geothermal field, there are volcanic hazards right across that city, in people's backyards. How far do we want to go in trying to eliminate the risk that any of those hazards might pose."

Tourism Industry Aoteaora chief executive Chris Roberts

Photo: Supplied / TIA

WorkSafe is already speaking to tourism operators and other businesses impacted by the review. The review was requested not long after the eruption, but it only started in October due to delays from Covid-19.

"There will be dozens of activities and tens of thousands of human interactions with areas of natural hazards around the country so how do we manage the interactions of people going to places that might be susceptible to things like landslides or volcanic activity or ocean surges."

He said Aotearoa had the best adventure activity rules in the world, and they did not need to be reviewed.

Roberts agreed a rethink on human activity around natural hazards needed further assessment.

Former Bay of Plenty Civil Defence chair and former Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless said shutting Whakaari/White Island for good would be a devastating economic blow for Whakatāne but the government had to weigh up what was best for everyone.

"It's not looking good because this was on a level 2 and I think they'd had level 2 before. But level 2 in this case resulted in a terrible eruption."

Geonet reports volcanic alert levels on a scale from zero with no volcanic unrest to five with a major eruption that impacts on and beyond the volcano. Level 2 represents moderate to heightened volcanic unrest with the potential for eruption.

The tourism industry will be watching closely when advice from the review is given to the Workplace Relations and Safety Minister this month.

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