Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is an APNZ news reporter based in Wellington.

Christchurch disaster tourism slammed by residents

Destruction in Christchurch's CBD after the second big earthquake. Photo / 2011 / Brett Phibbs
Destruction in Christchurch's CBD after the second big earthquake. Photo / 2011 / Brett Phibbs

Disaster tourism in Christchurch's worst-hit eastern suburbs has been slammed by residents as totally insensitive and exploitative, new research shows.

The Otago University marketing department study examined reactions to the CBD red zone bus tours that followed the deadly February 22, 2011 earthquake.

Interviews with about 50 residents revealed most were accommodating about the central city tours.

However, lead researcher Dr Shelagh Ferguson said residents were far less happy about the possibility of tours in eastern suburbs' residential areas to view destroyed homes.

The research also revealed that focusing on the deaths of 185 people in the earthquake, or dwelling on personal stories of loss, was unacceptable.

Taking videos and photographs of the sites of mass fatalities, like the CTV building, was also seen as inappropriate by many.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) arranged bus visits to the CBD red zone in late 2011, with about 30,000 residents taking part.

Cera had given the people of Christchurch an opportunity to reconnect with the CBD, Chief executive Roger Sutton said.

"I am sure that, like me, the majority people who took part in those visits didn't see it as disaster tourism, but rather a cathartic and important part of remembering what brought us to where we are today and where we are headed as a city."

Mr Sutton said Cera had never encouraged or facilitated tours of the residential red zones, adding they should only be done with the full approval and backing of the local community.

Christchurch East MP and mayoral candidate Lianne Dalziel said residents of badly hit suburbs like Bexley had been offended with people coming to look at their neighbourhood's damage. Some had even put up signs to ward off rubberneckers.

However, she said there was a difference between disaster tourism and visitors from outside Christchurch who were "coming to grieve the loss."

Tourism Industry Association said operators had been getting a great deal of interest in tours of the city.

"You can only get so much of a feel if you're watching it on TV, but it's completely different if you're actually there and seeing it for yourself," said spokeswoman Ann-Marie Johnson, who added that tourism operators were likely to be sensitive.

Christchurch City Council-owned transport company Red Bus runs a number of red zone bus tours, ranging from $15 for an hour-long tour to a $78 return shuttle trip for cruise ship visitors.

Sydney-based tourist Joanne, who took the tour in April, said in a TripAdvisor review that she was concerned the trip could be "a tad intrusive and perhaps in bad taste".

"However I found it very informative and uplifting and, remembering past visits to the city, incredibly emotional."

An Irish tourist commented that there would not be an opportunity to see Christchurch in its current form for much longer, "so jump onboard while you still can".

Red Bus has now carried more than 37,000 passengers on its post-quake tours.

Chairman Peter Rae said where tours took in sites like the CTV Building, every effort was made to "ensure the material was sensitive and respectful to those who died".

"Red Bus felt it was important to portray the events that happened in February's earthquake with accuracy and sensitivity and, as the research suggests, provided an educational experience for those on the tour," he said.

In early July, the company is launching a "rebuild tour", as the city's red zone reopens and focus shifts more towards recovery.

'Let's face it, we're a curiosity aren't we.'


They start dawdling past mid-morning every Saturday.

"Gawkers", is what Bexley residents William and Margaret Dijksma call them.

As the strangers stare at their cracked, twisted, sunken home, which Mr Dijksma built with his own hands 50 years ago, the couple wave and jokingly ask them for donations to help them relocate.

"I don't mind them," says Mr Dijksma, a 78-year-old retired builder.

"Let's face it, we're a curiosity aren't we."

The Dijksmas are one of just five households still living in the apocalyptic post-quake suburb of Bexley.

All of their neighbours moved out long ago, and some demolitions have already started.

Every house in the area will eventually be razed to the ground, and the area will return to the wetlands reserve it once was.

The Dijksmas will finally move into their newly-built home in Amberley, 40km north of Christchurch, on August 21.

Since the deadly February 22, 2011 earthquake, which buckled their beloved family home beyond repair, they have had to put up with the so-called disaster tourism. And the elderly couple now welcome the rubberneckers.

"It's important for people to come and witness the extent of the damage and to understand just what's happened out here," Mr Dijksma told APNZ.

"As long as they don't intrude or interfere, then I don't give a damn."

He has seen buses of tourists travel through the suburb's corrugated and pot-holed streets, and he welcomed them.

He just wishes more politicians had spent more time with the embattled local populace.

In the nearby suburb of Avondale, on the banks of the twisting river Avon, the residents still living amongst the demolished homes or still-standing sunken homes were similarly at ease with quake tourists.

Lorraine and Brian McGrath said the visitors have been coming for more than two years, and they're used to it now.

"You know who's a stranger, the ones who've just come along for a look," said Mrs McGrath, 67.

"I suppose they just want to see what's happened over here.

"Most people are quite taken aback, especially those on the other side of town who have no idea really."

- APNZ

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