Hitchhiker attack could impact tourism

NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 12:02 01/04/2014
Injured hitchhikers
Kirk Hargreaves/Fairfax NZ

ARRIVAL: One of the two injured hitchhikers attacked near Franz Josef on Sunday arrives at Christchurch Airport last night after a flight from Greymouth. Both women were flown to Christchurch.

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An attack on two foreign hitchhikers on the West Coast by a man believed to be connected to a murder in Christchurch could impact New Zealand's reputation overseas, tourism experts say.

A 28-year-old German woman was found with stab wounds to her neck and a 27-year-old Japanese woman was found with a broken pelvis in Franz Josef on Sunday afternoon after the pair were picked up while hitchhiking at Whataroa.

The women were transferred to Christchurch yesterday after spending a night in Greymouth Hospital. Police said the pair remained in Christchurch Hospital this morning in a stable condition.

A Nelson man told Fairfax yesterday that he met the women recently and understood they had been on their way to Queenstown when they were attacked.

The younger woman had not hitchhiked before, but the 28-year-old had done so extensively in Australia.

Matt Bridge, who owns the Noahs Ark Backpackers in Greymouth, said he helped a tourist who wanted to hitchhike to Franz Josef find a ride with a local yesterday.

He did not discourage people from hitchhiking unless they were women travelling alone.

"It's still reasonably common. You see people thumbing a ride quite a lot, especially during the summer."

Sunday's attack was "tragic", but Bridge had not heard of any other assaults on hitchhikers visiting the West Coast before.

"You feel for the two girls," he said.

A staff member at Greymouth's Duke Hostel, who did not want to be named, said the incident had shocked locals and visitors who thought of the West Coast as a safe place.

''Some people did change [their] plans to buses. People understand there are horrible people all around the world . . . but it was a relief that they caught him.'' 

University of Otago tourism lecturer Tara Duncan said New Zealand was consistently cited as one of the safest places in the world.

The Global Peace Index, which weighed crime and civil unrest, ranked New Zealand at number three last year, behind Iceland and Denmark.

Duncan said there were always risks with activities like hitchhiking, but incidents like Sunday's attack were uncommon.

"These are isolated incidents, as horrible as they are."

Hitchhiking's popularity tended to have "ebbs and flows" but was currently undergoing a boost, particularly in Europe.

Duncan did not think hitchhiking was the "preferred" method of travel for most people, but was an option for tourists and locals looking to travel on a budget.

Sunday's attack could have an affect on how New Zealand was perceived overseas, especially if international media picked up the story, she said.

In 2009, the Netherlands issued a warning about the danger of travelling in New Zealand after a Dutch backpacker was forced to watch a sexual attack on his girlfriend in Southland.

Duncan said the warning was a "kneejerk reaction", as New Zealand was "actually a really safe country".

Auckland University of Technology researcher Simon Milne said attacks on overseas tourists also hurt the communities where they happened, potentially affecting local economies and their own perceptions of safety.

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"I think we're all deeply shocked when these things happened. You can see that in the way communities often rally round [the victims]."

Milne, who was also the director of the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute, said the incident highlighted the need for New Zealand to collect statistics on what happened to its visitors.

"I think petty crime has always been a bit of an issue, but the bottom line is we lack any real statistics on what is happening.

"It's impossible to really quantify the impact [on our reputation], but it certainly does," he said.

- The Press

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