When I went to Whakaari/White Island, it was to write about it, ironically in hindsight, as an awesome place for tourists to go. And it is truly awesome, in the old meaning of the word: "Arousing or inspiring awe; that fills someone with reverential fear, wonder, or respect".
The first time, we flew in on a helicopter, which provides the clearest sense of how alien the place is. As you come nearer, an innocuous rock topped with a wisp of steam turns into Mars. The rolling clouds of smoke billowing from the surface, the acid-yellow pillars of sulphur and the garishly coloured, towering cliffs of the crater walls are the elements of a terrain for which "hellish" is too mild a description.
I asked the pilot what I thought was an obvious question: "Have you ever had anyone get this close and then ask you to turn around and take them back without landing?"
Just one, he said, which surprised me.
At the conclusion of the visit, I was very glad I'd done it, and I very didn't want to do it again.
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There is nothing unusual about taking visitors to volcanoes. In Italy you can climb Etna and Vesuvius. You can visit Hekla in Iceland – our sister country in terms of its volcano population – and in Vanuatu, at Mt Yasur, "a 10-minute ash-dune climb will see you at the crater's edge where one of the most breath-taking natural experiences of your life awaits".
The safety message everywhere is pretty much the same: "In spite of its volatile nature, Hekla can still be considered a safe place to visit".
Visitors to Whakaari were warned of the dangers. But it was a bit like the safety demonstration on a plane – it has to be done but no one really takes it seriously. The eruption and its tragic consequences show how seriously it should have been taken.
While the tourism industry has taken a big hit from the eruption, two less prominent industries have come into their own – the told-you-so industry and the hindsight industry.
It turns out a surprising number of scientists knew all along that visiting Whakaari was foolhardy. The tragedy was "unfortunate but not completely unexpected" according to University of East Anglia lecturer in geophysics Jessica Johnston, managing to get that tone of scientific callousness just right.
And Ray Cas, an emeritus professor in geoscience at Melbourne's Monash University, said Whakaari had been "a disaster waiting to happen" for years. "I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
Johnston and Cas obviously feel comfortable making their feelings known now. What a shame thy weren't louder earlier No editor would have turned down a story from a respected scientist saying that one of our major tourist drawcards was a mass fatality waiting to happen.
As so often, the most productive approach here is to follow the money. Tourism is our biggest export industry and a lot of it is based on providing "thrills" and adventure. The Whakaari tragedy comes unsettlingly close to the anniversary of the Erebus disaster – another thrilling travel opportunity that went horribly wrong.
Tours to the island were one of several tourist initiatives that have brought benefits to the once economically lacklustre region centred on Whakatāne. So it's understandable that the mayor wants travel to the island to resume "if it is safely able to continue". Although, "the nature of adventure tourism is that there is a degree of risk", according to Judy Turner.
The slow-learner industry also seems to be picking up. Is it really that hard to choose between the certainty of tourist dollars and the possibility of people being killed?