Thursday, August 26, 2010

Excerpt from my North and South magazine article, August issue

New Zealand’s outdoor and adventure tourism industry has copped its share of bad press lately. Rightly or wrongly, the media’s spotlight has focussed firmly on recent guiding and instructing tragedies as indicators that companies aren’t operating safely. Even Prime Minister John Key waded into the issue, requesting a national review of the entire industry in an attempt to reduce the number of deaths.


So, what’s going on here? Is our outdoor industry rife with cowboys not giving a damn about safety standards? Has enough emphasis even been given towards understanding what safety standards should be? Or is this another example of society continuing to head down the road of a so-called ‘Nanny State’ where any risk is seen as bad and, regardless of a seemingly random accident, someone must surely be at fault?

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It’s another clear autumnal day in Queenstown. Cirrus cloud veils the sky to the northwest, indicating a potential change in the weather, but for the time being all is settled. And by mid-morning, the town is well into its practised repertoire as New Zealand’s, and quite possibly the world’s, adventure capital.

Australian tourists Elise Thompson and Adam Wright lean over the stone wall at the edge of Lake Wakatipu, sipping from cups of takeaway coffee, feeding the ducks, watching all the comings and goings, and wondering what to do with their day. Wright wants to go bungy jumping, but Thompson isn’t so sure.

‘I think jet boating is better value for money,’ she says, pointing as another commercial trip speeds around into the Queenstown Arm, throws a finishing pirouette, and chugs back to the town berth. The display seals it for Thompson, and she looks toward Wright who shrugs his shoulders, figuring he can still go bungying later in the day.

‘It’s all here,’ Thompson rightly observes, ‘and that’s why we chose Queenstown. We wanted to come to a beautiful place that has plenty of fun and exciting things to do, and Queenstown certainly is that’.

There’s no discussion over whether the adventure activities are dangerous, or indeed whether any of them have had fatalities. Either Thompson and Wright, both in their early 20s, are unaware of the potential risk involved or they accept it as contributing to the thrill. When I mention the possibility, they glance at each other. ‘Well none of these things can be that dangerous,’ Wright finally answers. ‘That’s what we’re paying for. I mean, it’s all pretty tightly controlled isn’t it?’

If I’d had the opportunity to talk to English woman Emily Jordan, Chinese tourist Yan Wang or Australian Llynden Riethmuller – who all came to New Zealand with the desire to see firsthand our natural beauty and to experience a world-renown adventure tourism industry – I’m sure I would have got a similar response to that given by Thompson and Wright. How dangerous can it be?

Tragically, Jordan drowned on a 2008 commercial river boarding trip on the Kawarau River near Queenstown, the same year that Wang died when the commercial jet boat she was a passenger in flipped, also on the Kawarau. Riethmuller was killed in 2009 by an avalanche during a commercial heliski trip in Mid Canterbury. And then, two weeks later, one of the guides who had tried to rescue him – Johnny Morgan – was also killed by an avalanche in a similar location.

And these deaths came after a catastrophic outdoor education incident in the Tongariro National Park in April 2008. A teacher and six students were part of an Auckland Elim Christian College group on a river canyoning trip. The group, along with Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre instructor Jodi Sullivan, were caught by rising floodwaters in the Mangatepopo Gorge. Despite a desperate bid to escape the torrent, teacher Anthony McLean and students Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Huan Hsu, Anthony Mulder, Floyd Fernandez and Tara Gregory drowned.

Rightly so, whenever tragedies like this occur, questions need to be asked. How robust are the operating systems of the outdoor and adventure tourism industry? Does it even have any systems in place, or is every adventure operator essentially left up to their own devices?

Between July 2004 and June 2009, 29 fatalities were recorded in the outdoor commercial sector, along with another 450 reported accidents resulting in serious harm. Given that New Zealand attracts around two million international tourists each year, contributing $15 billion or 9% to our GDP, the industry is certainly worth protecting. Almost 40% of international visitors try at least one of the 39 recognised adventure activities during their stay, ranging from abseiling to zorbing. Jet boating is popular, attracting around 200,000 international tourists per year, just ahead of glacier walking and trekking.

Adventure tourism is increasingly recognised as a valuable sector, if not the valuable sector, of our tourism market. At least 900 commercial operators are distributed throughout New Zealand, notably in Queenstown and on the South Island’s West Coast. But this figure could be much higher, as little if any controls are currently in place to regulate new operators. They must meet certain criteria before being granted concessions for Department of Conservation managed estate, or resource consents from various local bodies, but this information is not managed nationally. And in terms of meeting recognised safety standards, often these concessions and consents only require an audit of documentation, rather than an ongoing physical assessment process.

Does this rather ad hoc system work? Outdoor operator and safety specialist Mark Smith doesn’t think so. ‘Things have come a long way in the last 10 years,’ Smith says, ‘but, until safety management is seen as more than a tick in the box requirement by everyone in the outdoor industry, there’s still a long way to go.’

Smith believes that while some operators are proactive at keeping their safety systems current, and applying them to the daily running of their businesses, others are less inclined to do so. ‘There needs to some incentive or requirement for all operators to use safety plans as they are meant to be used, rather than just letting them gather dust on the shelf. Look at river rafting. A decade or so ago, their sector was hit by a number of accidents, but more recently they’ve managed their risk better.’

As a member of the Register of Outdoor Safety Auditors (ROSA), Smith independently assesses outdoor safety management plans before DOC concessions or local body resource consents are issued. ‘If the requirement was for a field audit and ongoing checks, I’m sure that safety systems would be more fully integrated within the workplace. No one in the industry wants a bad safety record. If nothing else, it’s bad for business.’

Smith points out that, until a national register or licence exists for all outdoor operators, there is no way of ascertaining the size of the problem. ‘Generally, the big companies are pretty switched on in terms of internal reviews and safety auditing, but some of the smaller operators are probably too busy trying to survive financially. They don’t have the time or inclination.’

Most commercial outdoor adventure companies operating in New Zealand are small, employing between one and five staff. And there is no specific legislation that covers the safety of participants in these activities. The sector is regulated by the Health and Safety in Employment Act (HSE), while the Maritime Transport Act and the Civil Aviation Act cover water and air based activities.

Smith feels that a number of operators are confused about their requirements in complying with HSE. ‘Understanding their regulatory obligations, identifying and implementing best practice is not easy, especially for small operators,’ he says. ‘There needs to be plenty of upfront assistance to ensure that operators know what they need to do, as well as appropriate penalties if they don’t stick to the requirements.’

Many in the outdoor industry believe that the HSE Act tends to focus on bottom of the cliff rather than the top of the cliff scenarios. Rather than clearly defining requirements beforehand, it only regulates after incidents have occurred. This means that operators are left to implement a best practice approach, often without any assistance from external sources. What is deemed reasonable is judged on the likelihood of an incident occurring, the severity of harm if it occurs and the cost involved in preventing it occurring.

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The motto ‘it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ still rings true. This was probably something Sir Edmund Hillary reminded himself of during those arduous and often dangerous ascents of Himalayan mountains. As a nation, we held Hillary and his exploits in high regard. But, how many of us appreciated the risky situations he put himself in to achieve those climbs? We applauded his achievements yet didn’t acknowledge the conscious choices he made exposing himself and climbing partners to the inherent dangers that come with climbing mountains.

Life is risk. From the moment we rise from our beds, we deal with risk in its various forms. To eliminate risk is to eliminate the opportunity to learn through experience. Yet some of us are more inclined to expose ourselves to a higher level of risk than others. As American author and environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, “a venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for God’s sake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned,… buried alive under avalanches - that is the right and privilege of any free [person].”

On the other hand, choosing not to manage risk is obviously foolhardy. The rather extreme notion that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger is something that most of us don’t want to test firsthand. Risk is a multi-faceted idea and, while a good climbing friend of mine once said ‘the dignity of risk should be afforded to everyone’, choosing where to step on to the risk spectrum is itself a judgement call.

Unfortunately, New Zealand society is becoming increasingly risk averse, according to Chris North a lecturer in outdoor and environmental education at the University of Canterbury. And incidents like the Mangatepopo tragedy do not help.

‘This obsession with safety is one of our social panics,’ North explains. ‘Risk is seen as something we need to protect our children from rather than teaching them how to deal with it. Yet this comes at a time when our children are safer than they’ve ever been.’

North, a father with two young children, disagrees with the stance taken by journalist Rosemary McLeod. McLeod writes that outdoor recreation is ‘faddish thinking…where kids may well feel forced to push themselves to limits that may prove unsafe, frightening, and fatal’.

While admitting that any outdoor activity has a certain level of risk, North believes that the debate about outdoor education has become too focused around risk. ‘We are missing the point by having this narrow focus. The feeling of achievement and connection that comes from participating in these types of activities can make us better able to deal with daily pressures back home. They help to put everything in perspective.’

McLeod, after criticising the principles of outdoor recreation in her Christchurch Press article, then goes on to comment about a group of teenagers who attack an off-duty policeman in Tuakau. ‘Hopefully the future for this pack of feral kids will be better than it’s looking now, and life will teach them the merits of kindness, conscience and consideration’, McLeod writes.

These values and skills are not acquired by chance, North points out, explaining that this is an example of where targeted outdoor education can help. ‘Outdoor experience isn’t a panacea, but used in the right context, it may help teenagers through their difficult years. Concepts like responsibility and consequence become apparent, helping make that progression through to adulthood.’

North, who describes himself as a ‘former mountaineer and wannabe mountain biker’, hopes that society doesn’t continue to head down the road of over-protectionism. ‘We’ve become so focussed on the idea of risk in outdoor education that we’ve forgotten all the other good things connected with it. Matching personal competence against challenges is a recognised way of learning and personal growth. Natural settings are also ways to build connections to the world beyond humanity and realise we are part of something bigger. Within this context, outdoor recreation can be powerful, and a healthy avenue for those looking for challenge. ’

North accepts that there is a fine line here. ‘In education, if you are putting people into situations that have higher levels of risk, there needs to be sound educational principles behind the reasoning for it. The point of an outdoor experience is not the risk itself, but other aspects that come with the experience. And, while too much risk is unacceptable, the elimination of risk is impossible and in fact undesirable.’

We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can make our lives risk free. Some risks are more obvious than others; swimming in shark infested waters versus flirting with death by another hamburger. Few people break a sweat when ordering take-aways, but many of us worry about what lurks beneath us in the sea. And statistics show that we have a much higher chance of dying from cancer or driving to the local dairy than from participating in most outdoor adventures.

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