Those reflecting on the aftermath of the White Island eruption might take a little time to study this article in Discover Magazine by Erik Klemetti.
Published in August 2012, he asked the question “How Dangerous is Visiting New Zealand’s White Island?” and offered some sober opinions.
On the inherent risk of volcano tourism, he said:
“people (tourists and tour operators) should also be able to make choices on their own rather than being told what is and isn’t safe by the government. However, a line needs to be drawn somewhere about what can be permissible and what represents such a high danger [sic] than allowing underprepared (and potentially oblivious) tourists into an area.”
His take on the general NZ approach:
“New Zealand definitely leans towards the side of letting people make this decision – when I visited the Waimangu Geothermal Valley, I was taken by how close they allow people to come to active hydrothermal features, with boiling, acidic waters and active steam vents (as compared to the careful shepherding of tourists at Yellowstone, for example).”
His conclusion seemed to be that there should be a level of knowledge and acceptance of the risk in this sort of activity (one thinks for example of the level of understanding of those who take up a sport like mountaineering). And he offered a view at that time on the particular nature of the White Island risks:
“By making the visits to the White Island crater seem routine, it can lull the tour operators and tourists into a false sense of security, much like what happened with Stanley Williams and the other volcanologists who visited the crater of Galeras in January 1993.”
Of course, his is a view before the event and can in no way prejudge the actual facts and issues in advance of any formal inquiry.
But in the wake of the tragedy the government will need to make a decision which somehow takes into account the grief and the need for a reasoned and proportionate response. These decisions test governments. Indecisive ones reach for scapegoats and bolt as many stable doors as they can find (a general crackdown on going anywhere near active volcanos would, as Erik Klemetti points out, have an impact on how we live in our islands). More confident governments try to balance the risks and protect the unwary. It’s never easy.