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Immink: We’re at our best when things are at their worse

17 Dec 2019  By Contributor

The early morning gathering at Whakatāne riverside giving karakia, waiata and support to the recovery teams on Friday. Image: Lesley Immink

Whakatāne tourism operator and district councillor, and former Tourism Export Council CEO, Lesley Immink, on how the local community and industry have rallied in the wake of last week’s fatal eruption.

Lesley Immink

It’s been a sobering and tragic week for the Whakatāne community and difficult to describe the pride you have in seeing your community come together in a moment of adversity and working across multiple agencies to provide rescue and recovery operations. I know that Christchurch, Kaikōura and other tourism communities will understand all the decisions and actions that get done in front, and behind the scenes, when an incident of this magnitude occurs.

As tourism operators, we already have amazing kaitiaki (guardianship) and manaakitanga (caring and hospitality) for our visitors. On a good hectic day, you might think, “Phew, that was busy, but things went well. Don’t know how we (the business) could have performed any better?”

Well, we now know, that we are at our best when things are at their worse. Another gear of energy is found, patience and care for one another unfolds and the call to action is at its strongest. Bonds are created between complete strangers. Whether you are a New Zealander or visitor to NZ, between families and support people you’ve never met before, or between international emergency agencies.

I’ve been privileged this week to have been able to support and see first-hand how things un-fold from the moment the alert goes out, the rescue and recovery operations and how our tourism organisations and operators come together with the only priority being the wellbeing of our people.

Our family lives on Muriwai Drive in Whakatāne, which is where the river and wharf area is and this is the area that was blocked off last week to the public. The area has been inundated (and camped on) with international and New Zealand media, desperate for news and some willing to accost, follow and interview anyone they can to gain an insight from people willing to share their thoughts. We really value and appreciate the sensitive coverage most media have broadcast. However, some media have not acted sensitively at all.

These media have literally chased people asking questions like, “Have you been out, would you go out, what was it like on the island”, then leading up to “why were White Island Tours allowed to operate when the status was Level 2?” I’m pleased to say that in all instances that I’ve heard about, locals have been united in their support of White Island Tours. And, while locals have not been able to answer the key question, the response of support and aroha for White Island Tours has given media a lot to think about why we live here. He tangata, He tangata, He tangata.

Part of the reason New Zealand is considered one of the best destinations in the world and leader of world class tourism adventures is because of the diverse nature in our offering. There is an absolute reality of living on islands, amidst the ‘ring of fire’ and all the potential natural disasters that come with it. Our perspective to risk and where we live is unique. To quote former search and rescue pilot John Funnell, who posted this on facebook:

It’s is a tragedy that people have died at White Island. To put the risk in perspective, 140,000 people walk the Tongariro Alpine crossing each year. It’s is an active volcano that has erupted in recent years. The Mt Ruapehu ski-fields have around 10,000 people on them most days in the ski season, it is an active volcano that has erupted in recent years. Some 25,000 people live in the Taupo township against the lake edge. It is an active volcano. It has not erupted recently but the lake-bed does heat up and volcanic gas bubbles up.”

It has been 105 years (1914) since there have been any loss of lives at White Island, when ten miners died working at the Sulphur Mine. White Island Tours in its current form has been operating for nearly 30 years with approximately 20,000 visitors (including heli tours) per year with no fatalities. In 2018, White Island Tours won the NZ Safe365 Small Enterprise “Safest Place to Work” and they are a Qualmark Gold endorsed company. The courage that White Island Tours staff and crew displayed during the crisis to ensure as many passengers as possible were cared for and bought to safety is a story that many have currently overlooked. Perhaps their remarkable efforts will come to light when the grieving and healing process begins.

I do hope, when the recovery is complete, that we don’t waste the next few years over analysing the ‘ifs and buts’, only to come to the conclusion that it was sadly an ‘act of God’.

On a personal note, thanks to all those who contacted me during the week. The team from Tourism BOP and other tourism organisations have had an incredibly difficult week and the professionalism and care they have shown for our visitors has been humbling to observe. Please send them your aroha over the upcoming weeks as we’re only in Week 1 of the response phase of a natural disaster event and there are still many challenges to come during the recovery and mourning phase for our community and tourism industry.

This natural disaster event will have an impact on the Whakatāne community, local Bay of Plenty tourism industry and potentially NZ’s wider volcanic and adventure tourism sector. It’s too early to say if the impact (decline in visitors to Whakatāne) will be short-term or long-term. Those sorts of discussions will happen at a later time. The priority is still the well-being of those affected.

Tourism New Zealand and Tourism BOP are proactively working on key messages to be communicated that New Zealand is a safe destination, and Tourism Industry Aotearoa is working on Whakatāne’s behalf with the establishment of VETAG (Visitor Event Tourism Advisory Group) and being a conduit for Whakatāne with key government agencies. Thanks everyone. Your efforts are very much appreciated.

Our thoughts and prayers remain, and will continue to be, with the families of Ngāti Awa, White Island Tours, cruise ship passengers and our visitors most affected by the tragic event. To the boys of the skies from Kahu and Volcanic Air, thank you for your bravery and voice that ‘made the difference’. Your efforts were truly courageous.

We have two young local tour guides with a long road to recovery ahead of them so if folk are keen to help, them please visit the Givealittle pages for: Kelsey Waghorn and Jake Milbank.


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