Money, mana row over Hole in the Rock

By Peter de Graaf -
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Tourists paying to see dolphins and the picturesque Bay of Islands may also spot protesters this summer.
Tourists paying to see dolphins and the picturesque Bay of Islands may also spot protesters this summer.

A Maori trust is planning a direct action campaign this summer after a meeting with tourism companies failed to reach agreement over boats passing through the iconic Hole in the Rock.

The Motu Kokako Ahuwhenua Trust, which owns Motu Kokako or Hole in the Rock, isn't saying yet what the campaign will entail - except that it will take its message to the public and prospective tourists, starting with social media and escalating from there. Later options are thought to include protests on wharves and at sea.

The trust says it has no problem with private boats traversing the hole but objects to companies profiting from the island while trampling on the owners' mana.

Chairman Rau Hoskins said the Trust met tour companies Fullers, Explore NZ and Mack Attack on Saturday but the two sides were still far apart. The Trust was open to any agreement acknowledging the island's significance and the need for revenue from tours to and through Motu Kokako to be shared fairly, in the same way companies paid a concession to run ventures on private or DoC land.

''We don't mind private craft respectfully traversing the kohao (hole) but we have a real problem with commercial operators using the island as a core part of their tours. They are profiting, but at the same time they are trampling on our mana.''

Mr Hoskins said from 1988-90 Fullers paid a portion of each fare to the Trust. When Kings Tours, later bought by Explore NZ, started a similar cruise the Trust and Fullers took the company to court alleging trespass.

The High Court threw the case out, ruling that access to the open sea could not be impeded under maritime law. Fullers, which believed the payments gave it exclusive rights, then also stopped paying.

Negotiations between the Trust and operators started in 2008 but the Trust pulled out last year due to the operators' ''insulting'' offer. The trust had now been mandated by its shareholders to pursue direct action, Mr Hoskins said.

''The time when large tourist companies can exploit Maori cultural icons without recognition of the indigenous owners is over. All over the world progressive tourism companies have recognised that when they join forces with indigenous peoples, mana is restored and all parties benefit. We feel the Bay of Islands is behind the times.''

Meanwhile the Trust was pursuing a Waitangi Tribunal claim, Wai 2022, and had started a joint venture with helicopter firm Salt Air, bringing in revenue and showing it could work with tourism operators.

Explore NZ managing director William Goodfellow said, however, paying the island's owners to pass through the Hole in the Rock when there was no legal basis could set a risky precedent.

''If that legal basis is established we'll have no problem paying, but if not it could set a dangerous precedent for all the other sites we visit. The same argument could apply.''

It would also be premature because the Waitangi Tribunal was considering a claim relating to the island, and could award compensation or make a ruling forming the basis of a future agreement.

Mr Goodfellow said he sympathised with the Trust and was happy to make sure information given to visitors about the island was correct. Explore NZ already ran economic development initiatives with the Rawhiti community and was willing to help hapu achieve their economic goals.

Passing through the Hole in the Rock carried risks and was not crucial to the company's tours.

''If we can only go out there and view the hole, we'd be okay with that,'' Mr Goodfellow said.

Fullers GreatSights general manager Charles Parker said long-established navigation rights to seaways around New Zealand included the passage through the Hole in the Rock, used for decades by thousands of vessels. The High Court had ruled boats could not be excluded.

Fullers had held many discussions with the Trust over the past five years, culminating in an offer to work with the Trust to ensure the owners' mana was properly recognised. No response had been received.

The Trust needed to engage with the Crown if it wanted to challenge navigation rights in New Zealand seaways, he said.

The Trust has 617 beneficiaries belonging to eight hapu, primarily Patukeha, around Northland.

Any money earnt will be spent on biodiversity work, such as a survey of island flora and fauna, and creating an economic base for shareholders.

Motu Kokako is one of the few wholly Maori-owned islands left in the Bay.

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