Chch operators tackle disaster tourism

By Amanda Cropp

The Hassle Free Tours bus makes on its way past the Christchurch CBD cordon, here passing the Provincial Council Chambers in Durham Street. Photo / Amanda Cropp
The Hassle Free Tours bus makes on its way past the Christchurch CBD cordon, here passing the Provincial Council Chambers in Durham Street. Photo / Amanda Cropp

Other countries have exploited natural catastrophes to attract visitors, but Christchurch is wary of promoting disaster tourism and is trying to find tasteful ways of satisfying the curiosity of international visitors.

Disaster tourism is not new. After the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 90,000 people, the Chinese government encouraged tourism as a way of bolstering economic recovery in the quake zone, with millions visiting on one day package tours.

Bus tours ran through parts of New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and tour companies offered trips to view Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010.

Several Christchurch operators are running bus, walking and Segway tours around the perimeter of the cordoned off CBD while tours via helicopter and light aircraft provide an aerial view of the shattered central city and large rock falls and damaged homes in the seaside suburbs of Sumner and Redcliffs.

To date most customers have been local residents, but that is likely to change as the summer tourist season revs up.

Over the coming months about 80 cruise ships carrying some 65,000 to 70,000 passengers will moor in Akaroa Harbour (quake damage to wharves at the Port of Lyttelton has ruled out cruise ship visits there), and about a third of passengers are expected to travel to Christchurch.

Tim Hunter, chief executive of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, says it's only natural that visitors will want to see quake damage, but he would prefer tour operators to focus on the recovery rather than the broken buildings.

"What's happened in Christchurch is huge, it's the biggest transformation of the city since it was created so we can't turn our backs on it and deny it."

An earthquake centre is included in the Christchurch City Council's draft city plan, but Hunter says it is not due to open until about 2017, so a temporary information facility is needed to sensitively tell the story of the emergency response, the deaths, and the city's rebuilding.

"We've got people coming to town now hanging onto wire fences gawking at a broken city. We need to help them in terms of understanding what happened here, and make it a more educational experience."

Next month CERA will begin long-awaited bus tours through the CBD red zone.

The aim was to give local residents a last chance to see the devastation wrought by the quake before demolitions are complete.

Although CERA has yet to decide who will be eligible to go, Hunter is not keen on opening the red zone tours to overseas visitors.

"If you spend too long in there it becomes a very disheartening experience. We have to be very careful we don't send people away with a thoroughly negative sense of hopelessness."

Hassle Free Tours skirts the cordon on one of its double decker bus tours and managing director Mark Gilbert says they show passengers both the functioning and the damaged parts of the city.

"When we're talking about the earthquake we focus on moving forward and the vision for the new city, what's still open, and the amazing story about how Christchurch people have pulled together through some pretty awful times."

Hassle Free Tours also visits Sumner, even though the closure of Evans Pass means buses cannot continue over to Lyttelton as they used to.

Sandra van Hout, co-owner of Joe's Garage café and a member of the Sumner Business Association, is pleased that some tours are continuing because many Christchurch residents have the mistaken impression that Sumner is too dangerous to visit, and businesses have been hard hit by a swimming and surfing ban imposed because of quake-related sewage pollution.

The closure of the Summit Road, a popular cycling route, has also had a dramatic effect on cyclist numbers at weekends - "We went from 100 a day to zero"- so van Hout is only too happy to welcome visitors wanting to view the suburb's spectacular rock falls.

"I want people; I don't care what they're coming to look at. Most people I talk to (in the café) are shocked because the reality is so much worse than they've seen on the TV."

But she's less enthusiastic about noisy aerial tours that don't generate custom for local businesses.

"It's tacky almost. If you've lost your house on Clifton (hill) I think it's a wee bit intrusive to think that people want to come and get a bird's eye view of your destruction."

Garden City Helicopters flies tours over the CBD and Sumner and general manager Simon Duncan said at peak times there were three choppers and one or two light planes from various operators in the circuit.

His company fielded complaints about the noise, and one very upset man made a bomb threat.

He said more than 90 per cent of passengers were from Christchurch and although demand for the flights is declining, they will continue to run while it is there.

The hundreds of shipping containers lining Sumner roadsides as rock fall protection are getting a colourful makeover, and both van Hout and Gilbert think the project has great potential as a tourist attraction.

Sumner graphic designer Dinesh Patel and gallery owner Bryan L'Estrange are seeking sponsorship to create the world's largest outdoor art gallery by covering the steel boxes with New Zealand art works printed on hard-wearing PVC canvases.

Two canvases have been installed so far and Patel says they are already drawing a lot of attention.

"It's amazing how many campervans are parking on Gollans Point and taking photographs."

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