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Monday, January 27, 2020

New Zealand volcano became a deadly tourist draw. Now the question is why.

New Zealand has long prided itself as a place where tourists could dance with danger. That allure of adventure — natural beauty with a dash of risk — framed the excursion for visitors to the island Monday.

By: New York Times | New Zealand | Published: December 11, 2019 8:32:49 am
new zealand, new zealand volcano, White Island volcano, new zealand volcano erupts, Jacinda Ardern, North Island New Zealand, Whakaari volcano, Indian Express A photo provided by Auckland Helicopter Rescue Trust shows the White Island volcano in New Zealand during its eruption on Monday (Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust via The New York Times)

Written by Jamie Tarabay and Damien Cave (Sasha Borissenko contributed reporting from Whakatane and Alexander Bisley from Wellington, New Zealand.)

Above the noise of the boat engine, there was quiet, Geoff Hopkins remembered. There was no rumble, no roar to signal that the White Island volcano had awakened.

The crater he had just circled with his 22-year-old daughter, Lilani, erupted as they sat in a catamaran several hundred meters from shore, watching with other passengers as the island disappeared under ash.

“A rolling rumbling mass of ash tumbled over the cliff face, in all directions, and it completely engulfed the island,” said Hopkins, a 50-year-old pastor. “It cut out the sun, it went dark. You couldn’t see that there was an island there. It was completely covered in ash.”

That Hopkins, his daughter and dozens of others were allowed to go near the island — let alone scale the crater at its center — when geologists had repeatedly warned of increased volcanic activity is now the subject of an investigation, with the death toll from the eruption Monday having risen to six. As of Tuesday afternoon, eight others were also believed to have died, with emergency workers still unable to reach the island to retrieve them.

And the question heard over and over in the long hours since, heard as the injured were carried to the docks, is: “Why?”

Why was anyone — from retirees to children — allowed to tour the crater of an active volcano, despite warnings about bursts of gas and steam in recent weeks? Why would tour operators and cruise lines tout an adventure ride, with prices starting at $260 per child, at such risk?

And why, as of Tuesday, were there no clear answers to who is ultimately accountable for ensuring visitors’ safety: the family that owns the remote island, or the government charged with enforcing health and safety regulations?

“There has to be more respect for nature. We can’t assume we can access anything we want,” said Jozua van Otterloo, a volcanologist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who visited White Island — also known by its Maori name of Whakaari — in 2012. “This is something policymakers and the public need to consider. Even though this is such a great place, should we be allowing people to go in such large numbers?”

The volcano is the island’s main draw. The town of Whakatane calls itself the “Gateway to White Island,” and much of the local economy is driven by tourist visits. Already, locals are concerned about the effect the eruption will have on the community as questions of disclosure and negligence swirl.

White Island has long been promoted as New Zealand’s most active volcano, appearing in “Lord of the Rings” and other blockbusters, when it is in fact little more than its dangerous apex. Around 70% of the volcano sits under the water, and tourists walk into its crater and up to the lip of its crater lake, peering into its cavity to see its endlessly boiling core.

“You’re walking into this enclosed amphitheater, onto the floor of a very active volcano where there are steaming gas vents, where there are crater lakes filled with hot water close to boiling temperatures,” said Ray Cas, a volcanologist at Monash University who visited the crater twice, and on both visits believed it was a disaster waiting to happen.

A photo provided by Auckland Helicopter Rescue Trust shows the ash-covered shore of White Island in New Zealand after a volcanic eruption on Monday (Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust via The New York Times) 

“That tells you there’s a source of heat under the volcano that is constantly supplying hot gases and heating up fluids under the molten rock or magma,” he added. “Basically you have this hot cooker system at constant high temperature and high pressure that could explode at any time.”

But New Zealand has long prided itself as a place where tourists could dance with danger. It was the first place in the world where you could bungee jump, and jet boating and blackwater rafting in caves are among its other attractions.

That allure of adventure — natural beauty with a dash of risk — framed the excursion for visitors to the island Monday.

Aboard the Ovation of the Seas, the Royal Caribbean cruise ship where most of the victims traveled from, the online promotion for the tour promised “a scenic boat ride along the picturesque Bay of Plenty to White Island for an unforgettable guided tour of New Zealand’s most active volcano.”

“Get close to the drama,” it read. “Gas masks help you get near roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and the amazing lake of steaming acid. And the vivid hues of yellow and orange resulting from all sulfur on the island make for remarkable photos, so have your camera ready.”

GeoNet, the agency that monitors geological activity in New Zealand, had reported increased activity at the volcano for several weeks, raising the warning level to 2 out of 5, while maintaining that the island was still safe for visitors.

Now, more than 27 of the 47 people who were on the volcano when it erupted are suffering burns on at least 30% of their bodies, officials said.

The tours have been running for decades, under a deal between a handful of operators and the family that has passed down ownership of the land through several generations.

They fall under the jurisdiction of the 2016 Health and Safety at Work (Adventure Activities) Regulations, which require a safety audit for companies that “deliberately expose the participant to a serious risk to his or her health and safety that must be managed by the provider of the activity.”

White Island Tours, which was responsible for bringing most or all of the people to the island Monday, is a registered and approved tour provider. A little over a year ago, it won an award as one of the safest places in New Zealand to work.

But it is not clear whether the company or government officials did enough to protect visitors to a location so remote that it can be hard to get a substantial number of people off the island and to safety quickly. Nor is it clear that the government will actively seek to hold anyone accountable.

New Zealand police said Tuesday that a criminal investigation had been opened. But later in the day they corrected that statement, saying it was “too early to confirm” whether there would be one.

Employees at the office of White Island Tours declined to comment, as did New Zealand’s tourism minister and the area’s member of Parliament. Volcanologists with GeoNet, the agency that monitors geological activity in New Zealand, also declined to answer questions Tuesday.

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