At least six people are dead, with several more still missing, in the wake of a major volcanic eruption in New Zealand. The volcano on Whakaari (also known as White Island) is located off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
Dozens of tourists were on the island at the time. Many of those that managed to survive the dramatic explosion of rock and hot ash have suffered serious burns. One rescue worker described the scenes as something similar to the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Despite the fact that the volcano on Whakaari is the country’s most active, the uninhabited island is a popular tourist destination. Cruise ships and tour companies regularly stop at the island and take visitors all the way into the crater.
A number of experts have questioned why tourists have been allowed to get so close to the live volcano, especially given that only a few weeks ago seismologists said there was a risk of “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.
One of the tour companies present at the time of the eruption had warned on their website that there was the potential for an eruption but it still continued with the tour. They clearly put their own business interests ahead of the safety of both visitors and employees.
Sadly, this disaster has highlighted the dire lack of regulation in New Zealand’s tourism industry. Commercial operators are in charge of making safety judgement calls with next to no public oversight.
Whakaari itself is privately owned by the Buttle family, who for at least three decades have facilitated profit making ventures around the island.
While prime minister Jacinda Ardern has promised an inquiry into the disaster, the government has known for years that much of the tourism sector is run by rogue operators. Successive governments have turned a blind eye to these matters because tourism is a major source of profits and tax revenue.
While everyone should have the right and ability to visit spectacular destinations, safety needs to be prioritised. That can only be done successfully if the profit motive is removed.
Given that the Whakaari volcano has erupted several times in recent years, including in 2016 and 2012, a number of locals have called for tour operations to the island to end.
By Socialist Action reporters