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Disaster Tourism – is it for us?

26 February 2012

Perception is all, and the “danger of falling rocks” signs just before the Shag Rock corner haven’t done the Sumner business community any favours.

Rightly or wrongly those signs give motorists the impression that they’re at risk of bombardment from above and while locals may be hardened to the towering container wall, outsiders find it intimidating.

Unfortunately some potential visitors still give Sumner a wide berth because they believe the road past Peacocks Gallop is too risky, or they fear getting trapped here in the event of major aftershocks causing further rock falls.

The truth is that in 18 months the road has been closed about three times and has always reopened quite quickly, moreover the containers do a great job stopping falling rocks, as anyone who has snuck behind them for a peek can testify.

We need to get that message across because Sumner businesses can’t survive on local custom alone, especially since our resident population has fallen due to home evacuations.

Attracting visitors back into the area is more important than ever and personally I don’t see why we shouldn’t exploit our quake-battered status to get visitor dollars into local tills.

Disaster tourism is not new. The Chinese government encouraged it after the devastating Sichuan earthquake, bus tours ran through parts of New Orleans ravaged by hurricane Katrina and tour companies offered trips to view eruptions of that Icelandic volcano with the un-spellable name.

Pre-quakes, tour groups and independent travellers could include Sumner as a convenient stopping point en route to Lyttelton or as part of a loop trip around the Summit Road, something that is no longer an option with Evans Pass closed.

Tour buses are again making regular trips out here, but the reality is that Sumner now has to establish itself as a destination in its own right, so we have to promote the things that make us unique.

Those things include the combination of a nice beach, good cafes and restaurants, a cool little movie theatre and some interesting shops. Like it or not, our container collection makes us unique too.

I am not for one minute suggesting that we encourage rubberneckers to go poking around residential areas of Sumner that have sustained damage: the containers, the damage around Cave Rock, and the cracks in the sea wall provide plenty of highly visible quake damage in public areas.

One day our new museum will undoubtedly feature a quake display, but in the meantime why not put together a photographic display in a shop window showing before and after shots to give visitors some appreciation of what the village used to look like.

But if we are going to encourage disaster tourism we sure need to lay down some rules – like don’t park your car in the middle of Wakefield Avenue or slow down to 15 km/hour to take photos! The council could also do us all a favour by erecting “No Stopping” signs down the seaward side of the main road past Peacocks Gallop.

PS: Thanks to all those who attended the launch of my book Shaken, Not Stirred: Family Survival in a quake zone. It was a great party at Clink and for those who couldn’t make it the book is available in bookshops or from me direct (phone 021-252-9645).

Links to other quake stuff I’ve written recently:

Banging heads against EQC wall (The Press)
My year of living warily (The Press)