Tourists return to the earthquake-shattered New Zealand city
Tourists dressed in high visibility vests cycle their way through New Zealand’s second city, Christchurch, riding past closed roads, traffic cones and no entry signs.
Faded shipping containers are stacked five high to shore up the facades of earthquake-damaged buildings. Chain-link fencing cordons off dangerous buildings and vacant lots.
Christchurch was known as the Garden City before a devastating series of earthquakes struck, including a 6.3 quake on February 22, 2011, which killed 185 people. It is now commonly referred to as a “transitional” city.
Christchurch Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter acknowledges the city looks desolate in places, particularly in the city’s heart, Cathedral Square, which was out of bounds until the end of June, when the final central city cordon was removed.
“There are some big gaps,” he muses. “It’s a bit like someone’s front teeth falling out.”
With tourism as the country’s second biggest export earner (after dairy products), the city is on the whole eager to welcome tourists back.
There are “rebuild” tours of the inner city by bicycle, bus or restored vintage tram.
Tour guides take visitors to see the new Cardboard Cathedral designed by Japanese emergency architect Shigeru Ban, to visit artist Peter Majendie’s white-chairs memorial, which features 185 white chairs in remembrance of each life lost, and to the now vacant site where the Canterbury Television (CTV) building collapsed, killing 115.
Visits to the sites where people died are a sensitive issue for some.
One local, responding to a story on a new bus tour, said on the Christchurch Press website, “I think it’s a bit disrespectful showing every Tom, Dick ‘n Harry the places 100+ people died on that day. Show them the 185 white chairs instead.”
Australian tourist Benji Gersh, who did a cycle tour around the city, felt it was voyeuristic to visit certain areas.
“Some places I didn’t like taking my camera out, because it seemed pretty weird.”
The owner of Christchurch City Bike Tours, Stephanie Fitts, says most of the visitors who choose the “rebuild tour” instead of her less earthquake-focused “original bike tour” are New Zealanders.
“When we first started doing the rebuild tour, we had a couple of German ladies and they had no idea that the city was like that, and they felt they’d just gone into a war zone. We were in there for about half an hour and they said, ‘Oh actually, is it okay if we go and have a look at something else?’”
When Lonely Planet named Christchurch as one of the top 10 cities to visit in 2013, it said it was because of residents’ inventiveness, creativity and resilience in the face of rebuilding the entire central city.
On the rebuild cycle tour, there are glimpses of creativity and humour.
Guide Jackie Sheehan takes visitors to a tree wrapped in orange high-visibility material to match the thousands of rebuild workers.
A Homer Simpson figure is visible beside an abandoned toilet through an open first floor wall and a filing cabinet and office chair survive in an upper-storey office among the ruins of a partially collapsed hotel.
As construction workers set to work on rebuilding the city’s underground infrastructure (hence the closed roads), the head of the city’s tourism agency, Hunter, works at persuading tourists to come to Christchurch, while making sure they know what to expect.
“It is a transitional city. We have got to make sure we pitch that honestly to people before they come.”
He says tourists from New Zealand’s nearest neighbour Australia, who watched the earthquakes unfold on live television, have been slowest to return after the quakes.
“There is a view that perhaps I shouldn’t come to Christchurch because I will get in the way of the recovery or (that it might be) somewhat voyeuristic ... and none of those things are true. We are happy to talk about our recent past, even though it has been a bit of a challenge.”
He cites the launch of pop-up bars around the city, and the Gap Filler project, which has livened up vacant city spaces with mini golf courses, temporary saunas and an outdoor dance mat as evidence of the city’s resurgence.
“Those things are a sign of a city that has got a bit of vitality and really wants to get going again ... and (time) has passed. I think the issue about respect for the dead, it’s just no longer relevant to the situation we are in, we have moved on ...
“There will be some significant memorials created in the city that do justice to the gravity of the event, but it is a big city of 360,000 people, it needs to get on with its life, and people need to see that vitality.”