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Down through the years, the Returned and Services' Association has established the tone for the annual Anzac Day commemoration. Its efforts have been richly rewarded. This day, the anniversary of an ill-fated landing on a rugged stretch of Turkish coastline in 1915, is now, arguably, the most revered date on the New Zealand calendar.
Dawn services throughout the country have become notable for the presence of large numbers of the young, as has the commemoration at the Gallipoli battleground. The latter has, however, become a matter of concern for the RSA and its president, Robin Klitscher. He has suggested young New Zealanders should visit the peninsula at other times of the year to avoid overcrowding and causing problems for Turkish authorities.
His comments have been widely, and unfairly, scorned. Yet Mr Klitscher's point is that Gallipoli makes a deep emotional impact on any day of the year. Indeed, when there are few, if any, visitors, there is probably a greater opportunity for reflection, paying respect and appreciating what the New Zealanders achieved in scaling Chunuk Bair. It could even be that August 7, the anniversary of that crowning achievement, and also the Australians' diversionary attack at Lone Pine, for which an astounding seven Victoria Crosses were awarded, is an equally appropriate date to visit Gallipoli.
Most critical of Mr Klitscher have been young New Zealanders who have made the pilgrimage on April 25. They have tended to lump his comments in with scathing criticism of disrespectful behaviour and excessive drinking at Gallipoli. Reasonably enough, they point out that only a small minority has been unable to summon the required dignity. But the embarrassment their antics cause far outweighs their number. Mr Klitscher does urge a restraint
"more in keeping with honouring the Anzacs who lie there forever", but this is not the focus of his concern, or of others who are similarly worried about the impact of the annual influx.
These include the latest Lonely Planet travel guide, which recommends New Zealanders and Australians stay away on Anzac Day to save the peninsula from damage. Already supposed improvements, such as carparks and road widening, have caused considerable damage, most shockingly at Anzac Cove, it notes. An Australian academic, Associate Professor Anne-Marie Hede, has echoed this, saying the Gallipoli commemoration risks sinking under the sheer weight of visitor numbers. She wants it to be scaled back, and greater emphasis placed on homegrown services.
All this should not be construed as venomous criticism of the young people who take the trouble to go to Gallipoli and who, overwhelmingly, behave impeccably. For them, this is an opportunity to pay tribute, to be enlightened about their country's heritage, and to be emotionally enriched. For many, it could be true, as Mr Klitscher concedes, that this emotion is most deeply felt on Anzac Day. Therein lies compensation for the overcrowding, the traffic jams and other hassles that are an inevitable consequence of as many as 20,000 people occupying a relatively small area of land.
Nobody is suggesting this cord should be suddenly broken, or that there should be restrictions on attendance numbers. Nonetheless, the concerns raised by Mr Klitscher and others have a sound basis. Gallipoli differs from other sites and events to which New Zealanders overseas flock. Unlike, say, the Munich Beerfest, it is not restricted to certain dates. It tugs at the emotions at any time. There would be widespread benefits, not least to Gallipoli itself, if more young New Zealanders appreciated this.