By Erin Kirkland
For Senior Voice 

Risk is inherent in travel: What can we learn?


January 1, 2020

The accounts and photographs from New Zealand’s White Island are grim. Tourists on day excursions to the country’s most popular attraction were one minute hiking to the rim of the active volcano, enjoying the landscape’s awe-inspiring sights; the next, they were fleeing for their lives as ash and rock came pouring from the cone. With nowhere to run but toward the shoreline, many were overcome by toxic sulfur dioxide and the intense heat, and were terribly burned. At least 14 died, and probably more who survived the initial explosion but suffered horrific injuries will die in the coming days. The eruption of White Island, also known as Whakaari, was not totally unexpected and yet managed to catch a tour company, a cruise line, and even a nation, off guard.

While questions remain in the face of this disaster about who, exactly, is to blame (and ultimately, blame may be the least of the tourism industry’s worries) and what the ramifications of the event will be to New Zealand’s thriving tourist economy, a larger question looms. What responsibility did the guests have?

Surely, by the very nature of the site they chose to visit as part of their expensive excursion — an active volcano — they must have at least considered the fact that it might actually erupt, or at the least, spew some hot mud or ash in their general direction. Or, were they taking on faith the tour company’s assurances that a Level 2 alert, stating “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest” was not enough to cancel the trip?

When do we say “When?”

Risk is inherent to many outdoor activities, and Alaskans perhaps know this better than anyone. We fly small planes, we climb mountains, we float in tiny watercraft, and hike among giant bear tracks. But we still go, and so do many of the nearly two million people who visit Alaska every year.

On vacation, humans might feel as if they are in a protective bubble, untouchable, as it were, from any harm. Yet we know that things can and do happen, including natural disasters like the White Island eruption on Monday. Vacationers, no matter the style to which they play, do have a level of responsibility to manage their own personal risk. Here are some ideas:

Be informed. Know everything from emergency exits on an airplane to the lifeboat locations on a cruise. Take a bit of time to absorb information provided by tour operators’ websites and literature, their standards and safety practices on site, and talk to others who have gone before you. Signing forms? Know exactly what you are signing, and why.

Ask questions. Not sure about how a piece of equipment works? Unclear why the company is venturing out on a bad weather day? Ask for verification and validation. More than once I’ve asked a small boat operator about fire extinguishers and personal flotation devices because he didn’t tell us, first.

Inspect equipment. Visitors to White Island were assigned gas masks and hard hats, a clear assumption of risk, and a perfect opportunity to ask questions (above) and take a look at the equipment to make sure filters were new and hard hats fit properly. Also consider flotation devices and a proper fit, especially for children and elderly.

Trust your gut. Everyone’s level of risk is different, and listening to your own inner voice is more important than that of someone sitting next to you. Refuse to be intimidated by other people and instead practice saying “no” if something doesn’t feel right. You know your own abilities better than anyone else.

Use the resources provided. If something does happen, know how and where to find a company’s care team to assist with everything from medical care to flights home. In Alaska, the travel industry has partnered with the Family Assistance Foundation to support Alaska tourism, employees, and families of affected guests in the event of an emergency. Everything, from internal communication and logistics for victims and their families is provided, thanks to a comprehensive two-day training provided by the foundation. The value of an emotional liaison can’t be understated in situations like the one facing New Zealand right now.

Erin Kirkland is an Anchorage-based travel journalist and author.


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