Whakaari/White Island Tours must continue due to their local, regional and national importance, a former civic chief says.
Ex-Whakatāne District Council mayor Tony Bonne said today tours of Whakaari/White Island were too important to those economies to be banned entirely in the areas where visitors were hugely important for jobs and business.
"I would hope tours would continue because it has major ramifications if they're shut. It's a big contributor, not just for Whakatāne but the Bay of Plenty, then New Zealand," said Bonne, who was mayor from 1995 to 1998, then from 2010 to this year.
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Bonne is also a former dive tourism operator near Whakaari/White Island via his former business White Island Dive. He expects some modifications to the island tour operation.
"It's a private island but has been operating organised tourist for nearly 30 years. Maybe there needs to be a look at the warning systems. Maybe we need better monitoring," Bonne said, recommending tours continue when the volcano registered level one "but level two, maybe we don't land but take tourists around the island".
Bonne compared Whakaari/White Island tours with the Tongariro Crossing, saying it was between two volcanoes and the Ruapehu ski field had continued to operate during a level 2 event.
The number of people who have died as a result of last Monday's devastating eruption is now 16, after two more victims died in hospital at the weekend. One person died at Waikato Hospital on Saturday and a second victim who was transferred to Concord Hospital in Australia died yesterday.
Meanwhile, 14 people are being treated at hospitals in New Zealand and 13 others have been repatriated to Australia. The country will observe one minute's silence today for the victims at 2.11pm.
So far eight bodies, including one Kiwi, five Australians and two Americans residing in Australia, have been formally identified.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the operation to recover the two remaining bodies from White Island could take "days and weeks". Navy and police dive teams are gathering today to plan for another attempt at a search tomorrow. An aerial search with a helicopter will continue today.
Bonne said the tour company was a major investor in the region, with four passenger vessels, the newest the 49-passenger capacity Te Puia Whakaari worth around $1 million.
"It's easy to say 'let's close it down', but the reality is let's be practical and look at monitoring system," he said.
An Infometrics report said Whakatāne area tourism spending rose 5.5 per cent in the September 2019 year to reach a record $144m. Guest nights in the district were up 3.3 per cent to hit 264,701, it said.
Whakatāne's economy was continuing to strengthen, with GDP rising 2.3 per cent in the year, the highest growth rate since 2015. The area's forecast dairy payout was $245m, 11 per cent higher than last year. Rising dairy prices were driven by tightened milk supply internationally.
"Whakatāne's population has been growing slightly faster than previously estimated. Following the release of the 2018 census, Statistics NZ has revised the district's 2018 population to 36,800 from the previous estimate of 35,700. By June 2019, Stats NZ estimate that the district's population had increased a further 0.8 per cent to reach 37,100," Infometrics said.
House prices rose 9.7 per cent in the September 2019 year, it said.