The dark side of adventure tourism

TESS MCCLURE
Last updated 05:00 02/08/2014
Helen and Bosco Peters
DEAN KOZANIC/ Fairfax NZ

GRIEVING: Helen and Bosco Peters lost their daughter, Catherine, 5 years ago in an adventure tourism accident.

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Tourism brought in $9.8 billion to the New Zealand economy in the last year, and about half of that spending comes from visitors who have come to take part in adventure tourism.

But the industry has a dark side: unregulated, unsupervised, and dependent on high risk for thrills, many of the country's adventure activities have also been sites of tragedy.

In 2009, after 37 deaths over four years, Prime Minister John Key, who is also the tourism minister, ordered an urgent safety audit of the country's adventure tourism providers.

Five years later, with the audit only partially complete, is the industry any safer? Will providers meet the deadline - and is the audit system tough enough to make a difference?

NEVER A THRILLSEEKER

Catherine Peters was scared of heights, her peers said.

Like so many of the bungy jumpers, sky divers and swing bridgers who visit New Zealand's precipices, she had chosen to face her fear in a controlled environment - to feel the adrenaline without the risk.

Alastair McWhannell had run the rope swing at Ballance Bridge, in Manawatu Gorge, for nine years without significant incident, accident or complaint.

But on this day, McWhannell was distracted.

As Catherine prepared for her jump, another woman had arrived. He had met her on an internet dating site, and they had shared a coffee earlier that day.

As Catherine walked to the edge of the bridge, he began putting a harness on the woman.

"Catherine's ready", her peers shouted.

It is not entirely clear what happened next. But along with two of her peers, holding her arms and legs, McWhannell swung Catherine and threw her off the bridge. The rope - never secured, never tied on - ran slack behind her. She dropped 22 metres to the shingle riverbed.

The coroner's report on Catherine's death reports a litany of failings in the system of the swing bridge.

McWhannell had no staff to assist him, no-one to give breaks, no-one to keep back crowds, no-one to double-check ropes or harnesses were secure.

The fact that the swing had operated for years without incident was a matter "more of good luck than good management", the coroner noted.

Five years on from her death, Catherine's parents haven't lost their sense of shock at the negligence that killed her - and how little has been done to stop it happening again.

"Catherine was never a thrillseeker. She never would have done anything she didn't think was 100 per cent safe," her father Bosco says.

"Before this happened, we had no idea this could be the case - that it was not safe, that the industry could be completely unregulated. We wouldn't even have thought of it. You just don't think it's possible someone could be so negligent."

The sheer preventability of Catherine Peters' fall from Ballance Bridge became a focal point for advocates calling for regulation of the adventure tourism.

McWhannell was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to 400 hours community work and ordered to pay the Peters $10,000 in reparations.

At court, Helen Peters recalls asking if there was any law that could have stopped McWhannell's operation or that would stop the same activity repeating. "There wasn't. There was nothing at all. Nothing in place that would have said no. And there is still nothing."

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After Catherine's death, coroner Tim Scott commented that McWhannell had packed up his business, the swing was no longer in operation, and all the equipment had been disposed of.

"In terms of this tragedy," he said, "that is a proper outcome."

But while the equipment was packed away, little changed legally to prevent the swing at Ballance Bridge reopening, to prevent equipment being rigged, or the same errors being repeated.

THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

Bosco Peters began looking into deaths in the industry after Catherine was killed. Now, he says even estimating the extent of the problem is close to impossible.

No single agency collects comprehensive data on adventure tourism deaths and injuries.

Worksafe NZ oversees the safety audit, but when information was sought for this article on fatalities and injuries over the past 10 years it could provide information only for after 2011, and did not include drownings, flying or boating deaths.

"Adventure tourism" falls under the jurisdiction of aviation, maritime, transport and labour bodies, making it difficult to piece together an accurate picture of how bad things really are.

"We silo our statistics, so no-one can look right over and see how many injuries and how many fatalities there are," Peters says. "The estimate is that there is a death every six weeks. But it's a total estimate.

"Because ballooning is one thing, swimming's another thing - those kids that were swept off the Paritutu rocks. That is separate from Catherine's death. Quad bikes are different. They silo them all off, so when they say 37 deaths in four years, who does that exclude?"

The Peters still wonder whether the failure to gather data on the risks associated with adventure tourism is laziness, incompetence, or deliberate concealment.

"I feel like one of the huge failings of the Government is trying to keep it all under the radar, to keep it all secret, they don't want anyone to know," Helen says.

The division of responsibility also means that some activities have escaped the audit's reach.

The skydiving plane, in which nine people died at Fox Glacier, would not have been inspected under the audit; nor would the Carterton company whose balloon crashed, killing 11 people in 2012.

The white water rafting company that killed Emily Jordan in 2008 would never have been visited under the scheme, and even Catherine Peters' fateful swing at Ballance Bridge is at the edge of the regulations.

Definitions of activities covered by the audit "do not include an activity provided by a sports club or recreation club to a member of the club" and Catherine was attending the rope swing with the Massey University Alpine Club, which provided the jump for free.

"It's just unbelievable," says Helen. "They're not taking it seriously. Somebody needs to take responsibility so everything's covered."

AUDITING UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT

In a speech last month to adventure tourism providers, Labour Minister Simon Bridges said it would be taken seriously, setting the bar for the audit high.

"What we will achieve is the professionalisation of adventure activities.

"Is it going to save lives? Yes, it is."

But out of the estimated 450 providers in New Zealand, in the past four years just 62 have been audited and registered - an average of about two a month.

With less than three months remaining to inspect and register the remaining 400, auditors will need to be assessing four every day.

But Bridges insists the deadline will not be shifted. "We are under the spotlight. The deadline can be met, and it is not going to change."

With hundreds to be inspected and limited auditors available, industry experts are concerned that the standard of inspection is giving way.

Speaking to a roomful of 40 adventure tourism managers from around the country, Worksafe chief executive Gordon Macdonald said the November 1 deadline was "immutable".

"I'm working on the basis that there will be no giving way," he said. "We will have the auditing capacity to get through the numbers without compromising the process or extending beyond the November deadline."

But Grant Davidson, chief executive of Worksafe-approved auditor Skillsactive, with 24 years' outdoors experience, says Worksafe has "stripped out" qualification requirements and "lowered the standard to meet a pragmatic November 1 deadline".

Cracks began showing in the audit system earlier this year, when the scheme's only registered audit provider, Outdoors NZ (ONZ), announced it was insolvent and halted all operations.

Davidson says there were initially four auditing bodies, all of which dropped out because standards of qualification for auditors were too high.

Outdoors NZ was the last one left standing.

ONZ chair Josie Ogden Schroeder said when other audit providers dropped out and the deadline approached, ONZ was flooded by so many requests for inspection it could no longer function.

Crucial financial support to increase capacity was promised by Worksafe, she says, and then withdrawn. "Worksafe used our vulnerable moment to create a convenient scapegoat for the problems they were having meeting the deadlines of their own regulations," Schroeder said.

Worksafe needed a way to attract new auditors, so the scheme was changed to require generic auditing or health and safety qualifications rather than outdoors expertise.

But can auditors without outdoors expertise really assess the risks and safety levels of adventure operators?

Or has the bar been lowered in the rush to meet the deadline in time?

"Absolutely, it's a drop in standard," Davidson says.

The industry's working group on the legislation, he says, had insisted the auditor would need industry knowledge and hold an outdoors industry qualification as well as an auditing one.

"That was taken out without consultation, by Worksafe, at the last moment.

"We objected strongly to that, saw that as a lowering of the standard, and contrary to the original inquiry into adventure tourism safety that Cabinet passed its recommendations on."

A Worksafe spokeswoman said "there are some minor changes we had to make to it", but the scheme requiring auditors to have outdoor qualifications was "always a draft", and the new requirements brought the scheme in line with international best practice.

Worksafe says auditors who don't have knowledge of the outdoor sector will be accompanied by "technical advisers" who do, a "team approach" that will ensure there's always enough expertise on site.

But Davidson believes "taking along a technical expert who's going to be looking at only part of the audit, not the whole audit" is insufficient.

Schroeder's concern is for the non-profit sector: Those non-commercial groups who are not covered by the legislation.

"Prior to the legislation, a lot of those groups were getting audits done voluntarily, because there was a genuine desire for safety. Now, the only possible audit available is one that costs a huge amount, so they won't get audited."

Schroeder says audits now begin at $2000 a day, and could soar up to $8000.

"Worksafe's decision not to fund [non-profit auditor] Outdoors Mark was really short-sighted."

BOXES TICKED?

A spokesman for Worksafe said, "the singular focus of the audit and registration process is safety," and any changes to the audit requirements have not dropped the bar.

Even with a drop in standard, though, Davidson believes many outdoor agencies will not make it through.

"Our experience at Skillsactive is many are still not audit-ready. I think it's a big ask that they will be ready. I doubt it, from the knowledge we have of the providers we've worked with."

Davidson agrees the audit will help make the industry safer, but says "it's not a panacea".

Schroeder says, "Having the audit in place will improve safety. In the commercial world, it will make a difference."

For the Peters family, any drop in standards is another letdown, and raises fears the industry may not really be safer than it was.

"Are they just going to water down the standards until everyone's ticked their wee box?

"If they're trying to tick boxes without doing it properly, that's not safety, it's auditing for its own sake. And that's not good enough."

Behind them, a digital photo frame cycles through photos of Catherine: on her first day of school, with cake on a distant birthday, out tramping.

After five years, it's difficult to believe the Government is finally making this a priority.

"It seems like the attitude is, well, there are sad mums and dads dotted around the world, but what can they do really?" Helen says.

A sense of disbelief and anger at the complacency, negligence, and institutional failure that killed their daughter remains.

Bosco Peters pauses. "I don't like to say ambulance at the bottom of the cliff any more, because that's what happened to Catherine.

"But that's the mentality."

- Stuff

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