Omanawa Falls Reserve has been described as a "hidden treasure" of Bay of Plenty's landscape but in recent years the stunning waterfall and pool has also become notorious for serious injuries, rescues and even death. Access to the falls has been banned but the signs fail to stop adventure seekers and keen tourists. Reporter Kiri Gillespie reveals how Tauranga City Council, Tourism Bay of Plenty, iwi and residents are coming together to put a stop to people risking their lives for a selfie and a swim.
A popular but deadly Bay of Plenty tourist attraction is expected to be upgraded and opened to visitors in time for summer.
But whether local residents will have to pay for it remains unknown, for now.
Tauranga City Council has voted in favour of a recommendation to open the Omanawa Falls Reserve in a staged approach, beginning with paid, guided walks to a lookout viewpoint.
Omanawa Falls is located in the Kaimai Range and has become increasingly popular with visitors, particularly after it featured on the reality TV show The Bachelor in 2015.
However, there have been at least 10 serious accidents in the past six years, including a drowning last year and an overnight rescue.
Yesterday, the council voted to immediately begin working with Tourism Bay of Plenty, iwi and residents towards safely managing the site entry and visitor experience, with the aim of opening the site to visitors in time for summer.
"The council has tried telling people not to go down there for years but they have failed. You put up a sign and people jump over it."
This would begin by offering guided, paid walks to a lookout point. Access to the water would remain prohibited for safety and cultural reasons. However, future plans for a possible gondola were a consideration as part of a long-term goal.
Details of longer-term options were yet to be discussed or finalised but the council voted to pursue this with all parties involved.
An Omanawa Rd resident, who would not be named, told the Bay of Plenty Times he completely supported the decision.
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"Every time we hear a helicopter, we think 'oh, there's another accident'.
"The more drama we seem to have, the more people want to come out."
The man said it was "so frustrating" for residents. Some days there were so many cars parked on the road, residents were physically unable to get out of their properties, he said.
"I think the only way to stop it is to have someone there. The council has tried telling people not to go down there for years but they have failed. You put up a sign and people jump over it."
Another resident said the people accessing the falls were "adventure seekers" and she had no issue at the proposed payment for visiting.
"The fact is we are paying for the rescues and drama if something happens."
In the vote, only Councillor Steve Morris opposed the decision. He said he felt people should be able to safely walk down to the water's edge rather than just view it from above.
The decision was made following the presentation of a peer review recommending the council open access to the falls in a staged approach.
Tourism Bay of Plenty chief executive Kristin Dunne told councillors making the falls a paid attraction helped weed out unwanted visitors.
"We are trying to change the face of visitors to the region - people who want to understand the cultural history of the place, people who want to hear from local hapū about their history, and eco-travellers who want to explore those places. We are not looking for the Instagrammers who want to take a selfie," she said.
"This will work very quickly to change who is coming here because they will see it as wonderment and positive, compared to something to tick off a bucket list or post on Instagram."
Whether local residents would need to pay, and where that money would go, was a discussion yet to be further explored, she said.
Ngamanawa Incorporation general manager Tim O'Brien said the staged approach was a practical and exciting solution for the Ngāti Hangarau hapū and wider community, which was encouraged by the review and the tourism potential.
"Understandably, addressing health and safety is a priority concern and of equal importance to Ngāti Hangarau is the ability to manage the cultural and environmental awareness of the area, which to date has suffered and consequently led to the ongoing desecration of the falls area."
Mayor Greg Brownless said he was concerned at the possibility residents would be forced to pay for an attraction on reserve land.
"That's one thing Tauranga lacks, paid visitor experiences. But at the same time ... there's got to be free experiences for local residents."
Cr Larry Baldock said he believed the decision was the right thing and it needed to be done with urgency "before the onslaught of summer".
However, Morris said banning access to the water would not work.
The falls were a hidden treasure and "the longer it remains that way, the more people will want to go down there".