Ngāti Awa only welcomed a new purpose-built passenger boat for its Whakaari/White Island tours earlier this year, indicating then the business of taking tourists to the volcano was expanding.
Tuesday's tragedy on the island now brings into question the viability of tours continuing, with chairman Paul Quinn saying yesterday the immediate focus was on dealing with the tragedy.
Earlier this year, Ngāti Awa Group Holdings said the addition of new boat Te Puia Whakaari to the fleet reflected the continued growth and investment by the commercial arm of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa.
That business was in expansion mode, buying the boat so it could run those tours more regularly.
Six people are now confirmed dead, eight missing and 30 in hospital after the volcano erupted on Monday.
There were 47 people in total on the island, 38 from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.
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Ngāti Awa Group Holdings declared total assets of $149 million in the year to June 30, 2019. The rūnunga is a registered charity and files annual accounts online.
Quinn said in April that the new vessel represented another milestone in the commitment to ensuring White Island Tours offered even better experiences and "supports the holistic wellbeing of Ngāti Awa, and grow our capacity as a world-class iwi tourism venture".
Lawrence Hohua and Takutaimoana Harawira, Ngāti Awa artists, were commissioned to develop designs with kōrero or narratives.
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The vessel is a hydro-foiling 19m catamaran, allowing the business to cut tour cancellations due to rough sea conditions.
It was designed by Teknicraft in Auckland and constructed by Q-West in Whanganui and has indoor seating for 49 passengers, an expansive upper-viewing deck, state-of-the-art stabilisation technology and a cruising speed of 27-30 knots.
The business took morning and afternoon tours and operated every day of the year except for Christmas Day.
Adults were charged $229 and children under 15 $130, the company said.
Tours to Whakaari/White Island were at the heart of a tourism sector the Whakatane-Ohope tourism authority says is worth about $100m a year.
AUT professor of tourism and director of the NZ Tourism Research Institute Simon Milne said the impact of the devastating event needed to be looked at through the filter of scale.
At a national scale, the impact on visitor numbers and overall visitor spend was likely to be negligible.
''While current international news media coverage is not positive, the impact on visitor decision-making is unlikely be long-lasting. White Island is not the primary purpose of visit for the bulk of visitors – they will come regardless of this disaster.''
Visitors will be aware that this event occurred at an off-shore island location and will also understand that the likelihood of experiencing similar volcanic danger as they travel around New Zealand is extremely remote.
Milne said the impact would be felt most acutely at a local and regional level.
Regional visitor flows would shift to some extent as the White Island attraction goes through an ''inevitable period'' of re-evaluation and re-focus.
The greatest impact will be felt at a local scale, with Whakatāne and surrounding areas, feeling the most economic loss.
The short-term local impact will be significant as both visitors and operators re-evaluate their options. The downstream impacts on those businesses that support the White Island visitor experience – ranging from accommodation and food services through to a broader range of services and activities - would be significant.
In the longer term there must be questions raised about the viability of a tourism experience focused on White Island, Milne said.
''The questions that will need to be addressed include: what are the acceptable limits in terms of risk? how easy will it be to rebuild visitor confidence? how can new experiences be developed?''
Port staff feel impact of White Island horror
Meanwhile, Tauranga is unlikely to lose its popularity as a call port for cruise ships if local tourism is impacted in the aftermath of the White Island eruption tragedy, says chief executive Mark Cairns.
The volcanic island was a major drawcard for cruise ship visitors to the Bay of Plenty and most of the dead and missing were passengers on the Ovation of the Seas which tied up at the Port of Tauranga just hours before the eruption.
The vessel, the biggest cruise ship to call at New Zealand, left Tauranga this morning.
Cairns said Tauranga had long been considered among New Zealand's most attractive port calls for cruise ships and he did not expect visits to fall off if the local tourism economy is impacted by the loss of the island as a visitor destination. The island attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year.
The Port of Tauranga had 116 cruise ship visits in the 2019 financial year - 40 per cent up on the previous year's number.
Frontline Port of Tauranga staff who dealt with inquiries from affected passengers' relatives and friends were visibly affected this week, he said.
They were also kept busy rejigging vessel berths for new big ship arrivals, including another cruise liner and bulk carriers at the busy port, to ensure no one on the Ovation of the Seas was further disrupted, Cairns said.
He was a familiar figure on the cruise ship wharf after the eruption, and was among 200 city leaders and others who attended a poignant karakia by Tauranga iwi Ngāi te Rangi yesterday at the port to farewell Ovation of the Seas.
The eruption was the second calamity affecting the port that Cairns has experienced as chief executive. In October 2011 the MV Rena grounded on the Astrolobe Reef off the coast of Tauranga, spilling up to 2500 barrels of oil in what was at the time called New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster.
However, unlike with the eruption, there was no loss of human life.
Cairns said chief executives are on call 24/7, and the White Island tragedy hit home for him when saw the all flowers left at the cruise ship wharf and learned a 7-year-old boy was among the missing.
But he said he had been most concerned for his frontline staff who were upset after dealing through the night with the aftermath of the eruption.
- Additional reporting Andrea Fox and Grant Bradley