Danger ahead: White Island volcano ruling could reshape adventure tourism in New Zealand

White water rafting guide Hamish Watters stands in a garage, a 30-minute drive north of Wellington city, hosing down an inflatable raft and hanging lifejackets up to dry. The owner of Wellington Rafting has just taken five tourists down the swollen rapids of the Te Awa Kairangi/Hutt river.

It has been a good morning for it – rain the previous day has lifted the river levels, giving customers a thrilling ride as they flew over gushing white water, hurling their rafts over hidden boulders and negotiating eddies near the gnarled banks.

It can be a dangerous sport, with potential problems around every bend – from slippery rocks to flash flooding and landslides, or being turfed out of the boat – but Watters has his safety protocols down pat.

“That stuff we can mitigate, by studying the environment … we find ourselves very, very connected to the elements,” Watters says.

Hamish Watters, owner of Wellington Rafting. Photograph: Eva Corlett/The Guardian

Customers are given a full run-down of the hazards before they go near the water and are prepared with a safety briefing “so they can 100% understand the risks involved”, Watters says. Before hopping into the rafts, customers gear up in hard hats, wetsuits and lifejackets.

Wellington Rafting is one of roughly 300 registered adventure tourism operators in New Zealand trying to strike a balance between offering exciting and potentially dangerous experiences while keeping their customers safe. Now, that responsibility will be even greater.

The safety of adventure tourism has been pulled into sharper focus after a court ruling last week found the owners of Whakaari/White Island volcano guilty of failing to adequately communicate the risks to visitors touring active volcano. In 2019, the volcano – a popular tourist destination 48km off the east coast of the North Island – erupted, killing 22 people who were touring the crater and injuring 25.

The disaster has led to tougher regulations requiring tourist operators to tell customers about serious risks before they embark on an adventure, but questions remain over the lasting impact of the tragedy on the wider adventure tourism industry, which forms a crucial part of New Zealand’s NZ$40bn (£19.3bn) tourism sector.

The all-important safety gear at Wellington Rafting.
The all-important safety gear at Wellington Rafting. Safety regulations are being toughened up in New Zealand in the wake of the White Island / Whakaari volcano eruption Photograph: Eva Corlett/The Guardian

The Whakaari case and new regulations will have “enormous implications for all tourism businesses” and will extend far beyond adventure operators, says James Higham, a professor in tourism at Griffith University.

“Any tourism business that takes place in environments that are potentially dangerous will need to take note of this and take steps towards knowing what their responsibilities are.”

‘Adventure capital of the world’

New Zealand promotes itself as being the adventure capital of the world, with some New Zealanders responsible for creating and popularising some of the most famous adventure sports, including bungee jumping, zorbing and jet boating.

Its adventure activities are so popular in part because of its record on safety. New Zealand is an outlier among other jurisdictions in requiring adventure activity operators to register their activities, thereby increasing the regulatory oversight of their business.

“New Zealand has a global reputation in international tourism for being an advanced democracy, with legal systems and tourism policies in place and a safe destination that people visit to experience nature,” Higham says.

Adventure tourism is not consistently tracked as a separate industry, but figures from 2011 show that 36% of international tourists that year took part in at least one adventure tourism activity while in New Zealand, contributing $4.1bn to the economy.

“It’s fair to say that we’ve become known internationally for the ability to get your blood pumping,” says Rebecca Ingram, the chief executive of Tourism Industry Aoteaora, the national body for tourism operators.

“We’re not the sort of destination where you lie by the pool – you’re likely really motivated by getting into the outdoors and experiencing the environment, because that’s what a holiday in New Zealand entails,” Ingram said.

But the potential of natural risk looms large in New Zealand, an island nation that forms a spine over a tectonic fault line, and which is exposed to seismic, geothermal and meteorological hazards.

Activities such as bungee jumping look enormously risky, when in actual fact they are “planned to the nth degree”, Higham says. Meanwhile, “going off into the national park on a beautiful spring day has a very low perceived risk but circumstances can change and those can be extremely challenging environments.”

When Whakaari erupted, the world became aware of just how sudden and how devastating New Zealand’s natural hazards could be. Some survivors of the eruption told a New Zealand court in July they were not informed of the potential dangers regarding a possible volcanic eruption until they were already on the volcano, and safety measures were lax.

Tougher regulations imposed

In response to the tragedy and lack of proper communication over risk, the Labour government announced the introduction of tougher safety regulations on the industry to come into effect in April 2024, with a further sector-wide review earmarked for 2026.

The incoming rules will heighten the onus on operators, as well as landowners, transport providers and tour companies, to communicate serious risks to customers before they buy a ticket. They will also be expected to consistently assess risk and work with agencies such as GNS, which monitors seismic activity, and meteorological services to provide day-to-day updates about hazards.

The country’s primary workplace and safety regulator, WorkSafe, will also receive expanded powers to shut down operators immediately and refuse registrations if there is evidence of imminent risk to people.

Many operators already working to meet the requirements, says Ingram, and the organisation will work with the industry to get everyone up to speed by next year. But WorkSafe has not yet released “really important information” about how the rules will be applied, she adds, including the degree of responsibility on operators throughout the supply-chain and how natural hazards will be managed.

Fundamentally, however, operators understand that maintaining a reputation as a safe country for adventure sports will keep the sector booming.

“It is incredibly important that we take care of our manuhiri [guests] and that they leave the country with wonderful memories,” Ingram says.

Rafting guide Watters believes operators will take the new rules in their stride. Managing ever-shifting environments, be they regulatory or natural, is part of the job.

“Adventure guides are really used to being dynamic and adapting to new changes – that’s our work all the time, and that’s why we love it.”

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