New Zealand Postcards: Disaster Tourism; All Right?

DSC00965DSC01014DSC00994DSC00949Clearly I was an Ugly American Tourist/Professor stumbling (unprepared) into the Red Zone of Christchurch yesterday. After all, the New York Times lists Christchurch as #2 in its “52 Places to Go in 2014.” The article talks about things like seeing the “re-birth of a quake-ravaged city,” and shows a photograph of the inside of a transitional church made of cardboard tubes. What a good place to go on a Sunday afternoon stroll with a bunch of students, right?

I thought I had done my homework. I knew we would likely encounter some signs of the destructive earthquakes that hit Christchurch and surrounding areas in September 2010 and again in February 2011 (killing 185 people, including many international students.) But I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the still-raw destruction in the downtown core. It’s been almost three years and entire blocks of quaked-out buildings are propped up with shipping containers or just left in charred ruins.

Near the core of the central business district is this temporary memorial of ‘ghost chairs’ sitting out in a now-open field. The chairs are individualized to the people who died, so there are wheelchairs, armchairs, deck chairs, student desk chairs, toddler chairs, and infant seats. The plaque that describes the memorial encourages people to sit in a chair that speaks to them in some way and just spend a quite moment in reflection. This memorial reminded me of the shoe display room at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It is truly haunting.

The second to the top photo I’ve included here is of a former Starbucks store near the downtown ReStart shipping container mall that has sprouted up since the quake. If you look at the window of Starbucks it has “OK, TFI Clear 26/2,” meaning it was checked and marked as not having bodies to remove four days after the earthquake. How long does it take to clean up a city after a major disaster? More than three years? That is what I thought–and still think–although I recognize I really know very little about the politics and psyche of this country I am visiting.

There are ‘Up With People/We Will Overcome’ signs posted everywhere amidst all the rubble. My favorites were on the outside of a temporary Christchurch Art Gallery space (in modular shipping container-like structures), and the mental health/PTSD prevention banners tied to chain-link fences, like the one in the first photo here. The banners are part of the All Right Wellbeing Campaign, Healthy Christchurch, a social media campaign supporting community mental health and wellbeing.

But I keep asking myself, “Why are we here?” Are we inadvertently participating in trauma tourism–also called disaster tourism, dark tourism, thanatourism? In downtown Christchurch they even have those very British double-Decker sightseeing buses for “Red Zone Tours.” At least we didn’t pay to ride on one of those, but is it even worse to have walked around taking photos of destruction, peering into windows of what people left behind when they fled?

68 thoughts on “New Zealand Postcards: Disaster Tourism; All Right?

  1. Excellent questions. Can you tell us more about what had you in New Zealand with students? Your purpose for being in the country? Your purpose for the visit to Christchurch. For me, purpose helps me to figure out the ethics of these complicated narratives. Knowing you, I am betting that there was educational value for your students. Does that make it tourism? If a group of learners leave more committed to not being medical or disaster tourists, does that make it ok? No answers…just believe purpose matters, as I know you do also.


    1. Hi Sharon,
      Good point about the context. I’m co-leading a new study abroad program in New Zealand for winter quarter–on community and environmental health. My co-leader is in landscape architecture but most of our 17 students are undergrad juniors in health-related majors like global health, pre-nursing, pre-med. I think part of what makes this feel too much like tourism is the fact that we are traveling around both islands–staying in about 10 different places throughout the quarter. So there’s no real time to develop more grounding in NZ. I’m filling in for someone who had to drop out so I didn’t get a say in the schedule or much of the programming–and I’ve never been to NZ before. So—lesson learned for me is more careful and informed planning for study abroad programs. More structure, more grounding, more time for real reflection and debriefing for the students.


  2. I feel that you are getting a chance to develop a grounding, in particular of our health and mental health, by visiting Christchurch and our CBD as its a true sign of our strength, determination and pride. It’s not intended to cheapen what happened here, its intended to help us get back on our feet by bringing in the tourist dollars again which are desperately needed. Small businesses are dropping like flies. Earthquakes don’t just kill people and buildings, they kill business and spirit. We are not going to let it do any more damage to us. I’m sorry if you found it hard seeing what we live with daily and I’m sorry if you felt that we are making something devastating too touristy, forgive us, we are just trying to survive.


    1. Hi Fenella,
      Thanks for your comment on my blog post. That blog entry was my ‘raw (though considered) reaction’ to our first unanticipated walk through the Red Zone. I am really glad we have had the chance to return to Christchurch for an additional week to begin to see past the devastation to the signs of just how strong and resilient a city you have. We’re hoping to learn from you, especially given that we live in a major earthquake-prone city.


  3. The double decker buses also tour the harder hit suburbs for a look at the wrecked houses there. I admit I get annoyed as I’m stuck behind one of the double deckers as it crawls up the hill.

    That said, I am touched and reassured by your sensitive response to the state of Christchurch in 2014. Personally I’m pleased that tourists come here. It makes me feel our city is still a going concern, albeit on the disaster tourist map. Being a disaster tourist destination is just another factor in the surreality that Christchurch has been since the quake.

    I don’t know what tourists think, it’s not my concern in a way, but it is nice to read your reflection on your experience here.


    1. Thanks for your comment Jo. Yesterday as I was browsing through an AA tourist magazine on Christchurch I stumbled across a company selling charms for bracelets. I had seen this ad already many times and had merely glanced at it in passing, since I’m not a charm-bracelet sort of gal. But yesterday I noticed that they make/sell Christchurch earthquake commemorative charms in the shape of a wee house with a crumbled chimney and partial roof collapse! I saw that after attending the wonderful talk by the folks at the All Right? Healthy Christchurch Campaign–their talk and their work helps to put things like the ‘disaster charms’ and disaster tourism in more perspective. I am glad we’ve had the chance to return to Christchurch for a second week because we’re (hopefully) getting past some of the superficial toursity things. You do have a beautiful and resilient city. I only hope that if my hometown of Seattle ever experiences such a devastating earthquake we can have taken our lessons from your city to lessen the blows.


      1. The quake houses you speak of were a fundraiser for Red Cross and local charities post September quake. They sold out many times over. When the Feb quake – the deadly & most destructive of the bigger quakes – hit, many have not bought that as they feel that is not right- or do not not want to -commemorate that one.


      2. I mentioned this in my comment elsewhere, but feel a need to repeat it so it ties in with where it is mentioned.

        The Sterling Silver earthquake house beads were for the September Quake – made by a local wholesale manufacturing jewellery firm. We sold them in our jewellery store (Donnell Jewellers) in High Street (which has since been demolished). We do still have stock of them, as well as the other ones that were bought out to commemorate the February earthquake (ChristChurch Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals). We also have them as traditional charm bracelets. They still well after February, though to some extent it’s hard to gauge as we could not access our stock for two months because of the Red Zone Cordon, and the wholesaler, who was based in the CBD, also had a similar problem.

        They were not officially a fund raiser for any charity. Individual jewellery stores who sold them may have decided to donate a portion of the profits to a charity. We opted to donate to the Canterbury Earthquake appeal.

        Josephine, I have been to Seattle twice now – once in early 2010, and then in mid-2011. Lovely part of the world. I plan to return one day. Let’s hope the expected ‘big one’ for the North American Pacific Coastline does not occur, but if so, hopefully the lessons we have learned in Christchurch can be of some assistance.


  4. One thing to consider next time is building a service learning component into your program, where students could be involved in giving something back, alongside a community that has been affected by the earthquakes, while meanwhile learning about their experiences. We run study abroad programs for a number of U.S. universities in New Zealand, and find that incorporating a service component really helps students gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of such a disaster, while also feeling they are giving something back. If you are interested in learning more, I’d be happy to share what we do.


    1. Hi Laura,
      Thanks for this advice and it is something we have done in New Zealand–and something we considered doing here in Christchurch. In Auckland we did a service day (weeding and preparing a hillside for planting fruit trees) at the Orakae Marae, working alongside and learning from the Maori people there. The wonderful folks at the Auckland Council (specifically their Community Development Programme Manager) helped set that experience up for us. Since they have a longstanding and ongoing relationship with the Orakae Marae, I felt comfortable with this service-learning opportunity. Truthfully, I wasn’t so comfortable with our group volunteering with the Christchurch Greening the Rubble group–not because of anything they do/don’t do–but because we didn’t have a similar gatekeeper for them. As a community health person, I am not comfortable with one-off swoop in and out ‘feel-good’ service projects for students. I think they can send the wrong message about true community engagement and about building respectful/ethical and reciprocal relationships. Perhaps I’m a bit of a purist about that sort of thing. I understand some of the counter-arguments….. But nevertheless, I would love to hear more about the work you do in this area.


      1. Hi josephine. Good to read your sensitive reflection on your first visit here. I work for Healthy Christchurch and suggested to your colleague Iain to contact all right? and a project we’re doing with greening the rubble. This is all led by the public health unit. We would more than support and encourage to get back in touch with Rhys at GTR to undertake the service learning activity offered if it can be fitted in on your return. Michelle


      2. Oops–no–we are volunteering with the Gap Fillers. We contacted the GTR but they couldn’t use us this week. Gap Fillers is terrific though and will post something on that later.


  5. I think we all wonder why our city has still not recovered from that day and i’m not sure that the people capable of giving us an honest answer, ever would. I’ve heard rumours that our government plans to start pulling out funding to rebuild christchurch. We may never recover and they maynt plan to help us.


  6. Hi there, I’m one of the people involved in the All Right? campaign and I work for the Mental Health Foundation of NZ (the organisation responsible for promoting the Five Ways To Wellbeing in NZ – the campaign is rooted in this framework for population wellbeing/flourishing). I know you have spoken to Sue and will have gleaned mountains of insight from her. I just wanted to say that I will be in Vancouver/BC in July this year and if it’s possible (and you think it would be useful), I’d be interested to explore the possibility of jumping over the border to talk about the earthquakes/recovery/flourishing etc with any of your colleagues and students who were unable to be here in our city with you. Feel free to contact me :o)


    1. Hi Steve,
      Thanks for connecting and for the offer to try and cross the border in July for a possible visit/talk in Seattle. I’ve started up some conversations with public health/mental health-minded people back home about doing something like this, so I will keep in touch as things develop.


    2. Hi Steve; Since you have identified yourself as one of the people involved in the All Right campaign, I want to say thanks! I love the sentiments on those posters everywhere; sometimes they have brought me to tears, other times a bit of a grin; and just about always there is a moment of reflection and I come away encouraged. They make me feel understood and cared for somehow, and like I am part of this city and we are all in this mess together. I am usually quite the cynic, don’t like the emotional/sentimental stuff but somehow these posters (the majority of them, lol) resonate well with me. Great campaign!


  7. Hello,
    Thank you for coming to our City. It is not an easy thing to do – a good number of folk who live here have not been able to venture into the more badly affected residential areas as they do not want to intrude on others distress. This is not a criticism of your group being here but an understanding that it is not an easy choice to visit a disaster area.
    From the February earthquake my family lost 2 homes and we have now relocated to a township outside the City – not something we had ever planned for!
    I have always welcomed folk coming to visit in the Residential Red Zone (not the simple sightseers!) – how can people ever truly understand the devastation if they don’t see for themselves? Weekly we see disasters on our TV screens but usually within 24hours they have been replaced by another dose of bad news and we never get to witness the ongoing devastation. I have heard of major earthquakes with large aftershocks but never did I expect that we would have well over 10,000 aftershocks, so many that we could almost judge the level on the Richter scale and know when to carry on and when it was time to get under the table.
    I hope you and your students will take your stories back to your communities and encourage each and every family to prepare their homes in case of a disaster. It is too late once the worst has happened.


  8. Your’re right. I live here in Christchurch and its a terrible place to live. I’m not joking and over dramatizing about this, I hate it. Its very very depressing since even though the quakes were 3 yrs ago, you’d think it was yesterday. This city is still one of empty lots, smashed buildings and vacant houses. In some areas it looks like a ghetto. the vandals have come and whole communities which were places people were once proud of – are now just dumps.
    I wish someone would come along and sort this place out because really its the people that are meant to be doing this that aren’t!!
    The biggest problems here are with insurance companies. They just don’t want to pay!! So, nothing is getting done. Theres a house on a busy street with neon lights stating “WAITING 3 YEARS FOR EQC” in other words no one has come to agreement 3 YEARS LATER! So, its the insurance companies that are killing this city’s future and EQC (the gov funded agency meant to look after us in a disaster) that is holding us back.
    Meanwhile, we all have to live here.Dodging road works at every turn, streets shut, blocked and lanes closed. People still are living in caravans, hotels and rentals after all this time.
    Are we a third world country after all?
    Judge for youself.
    Ask the people still using the port a loos or a garden to go in. Ask those people whom after 3 yrs still can’t drink the water from their own tap. Ask me, in my uneven lop sided house that will get fixed – sometime.
    This gov is sh**t. It just it.
    L x


    1. Not a big post, and I was luckier than a lot who live in Christchurch, but totally agree with Lyndi.

      I also reckon the EQC , which every rate payer has paid money into out of our rates since 1945, is also at fault. Every home owner since that time, pays money into our earthquake commission.

      Between them and the insurance companies arguing over who is paying what, nothing is getting done. They are still too busy arguing, and if one engineer comes out and says, ‘rebuild’ the other company will send their own, (sometimes unqualified) person to say, no, just a fix job.

      Who wins? Certainly not the people of Christchurch who are still living in sub standard conditions, paying mortgages on homes they can’t live in, and exhorbitant rents to those who still have houses.

      I hope you found something in our city to make it worth the visit.


    2. This is a very angry, negative response, I am sure borne out of the frustration that many of us feel about the situation with EQC and the insurance companies. Many people are moving on with their lives in Christchurch, as roads and buildings DO get repaired. Perhaps you are in the sizable minority who due to no fault of your own is unable to do that, and if that is the case, I do hope your situation is resolved soon…. But how about focusing on some of the good things that are happening here? Such as the great festivals (the recent World Buskers Festival being only one of many), the quirky initiatives dotted around the city, the reopening of attractions and new bars and restaurants,

      As for tourists… please come! The tourism industry needs you here to help with the rebuild. Don’t gawk at the disaster but contribute to the recovery! Go to Quake City (in the Re:Start Mall) and find out more of what has happened. When I’m travelling around the world I am always touched by the number of NZers and others who with genuine concern ask if my family and I were affected by the earthquakes as soon as I mention I’m from Christchurch


  9. You are a witness…What happened to us needs witnesses. I was a witness. I worked just 3 hours after the building that many lives were lost in. I was a witness for family members that were not able to be there. A witness that everything, when no survivors were to be recovered…that every was respectful. That the people involved in the recovery prayed as they worked in their native language in whichever religion.

    We do not have to be tourists, we can witness. I know from my previous life experience that I was in the right place to help others because I had wisdom from experience. I also learned that when a disaster in another country is out of the headlines…it will take a long time to recover, the city, and the heart. And so now when I meet that person, I remember and ask about their family. And the last small piece is that when we witness years after the destruction of mother earth we should not be able to comprehend how, with so much ability to communicate, destruction due to bombs still is occurring.

    Thank you for coming to Christchurch and being a witness 3 years later to the reality of such a disaster on a first world country.

    How exactly do you tell your heart story now?


  10. Thanks for coming to Christchurch Josephine, and bringing others with you. All the comments above are real and accurate for those who posted them, this is our reality. The the landscape changes almost daily, and can raise all sorts of emotion, I love Christchurch, and the “allright” campaign. Those of us who live here, and the likes of yourself keep Christchurch alive and on the map. Perhaps some of the learning for your students will be to follow our progress in the months and years to come. Hopefully one day you will visit again to a stronger, more complete city, which respects it’s past and looks forward to it’s future… 🙂


  11. Thank you for coming to our city, my home.

    There are times when we feel terribly alone and forgotten, that the world has moved on and left us with our broken city, our empty spaces, our abandoned streets. You didn’t come to revel in the “disaster porn” of our loss; you’ve shown respect and empathy, and you and your colleagues and students are welcome here.

    My parents have accepted that progress is so slow that they will be dead and buried before our city is rebuilt; I’ll probably move on once I’ve got my kids through school here. In the meantime our city lies as a memorial to ill-prepared agencies in a sluggish bureaucracy with self-centred leadership. Amongst the ruins, though, are the bright flowers of Gap Filler. Learn from us, so that others may have a better time of it.


  12. I absolutely agree with Lyndi’s comments – 3 years and very little is happening in Christchurch. There is a lot of ‘talk’ about the rebuild, but homes very little is happening. Insurance companies are paying out very slowly, especially to the extremely damaged homes – no doubt in the hope that the longer they make people wait, the more desperate they will become to take lower settlements. In the suburbs (where most people don’t visit), people are still living with walls propped up, water damaged homes and sadly people are trying to heat these broken homes. There is a lot of ‘hype’ or ‘spin’ around a rebuild, but don’t believe it.


  13. Thank you for sharing your experience with the world.
    Due to the media here, even people in other NZ cities believe that we are recovering admirably and that the work is at a fast pace.
    Some even believe we are all fixed up.
    While there is a massive amount of work to be done still, a lot of the hold up is due to Insurance issues.
    Home owners are having to fight their insurance companies to get their entitlements stated in their policies, to the extent of having to spend thousands to get independent reports and take them to court, while the insurance companies try and get us to agree to lesser quality/lesser value payouts by …..

    games of denial…..
    *if i can not see the damage it does not exist
    *there are weeds in those crack, therefore they were there before the quakes(3 years later – come on now, how slow do you think weeds grow??)
    * your house is so old that it would have had this damage before the quakes….we have photos to prove it, you know, family occasion photos of kids birthdays etc….No – we will not look at photos…..?!?!
    * your house was not up to the current building standards, therefore we will not cover it……it was up the the current building standards at the time it was built AND it has been upgraded since…
    * the improvements you made to the house compromise its structural integrity(?!?!?!), therefore it is not covered

    games of ignore…….
    *refusal to answer direct questions, you know how some pepole can talk their way around anything…
    *ignoring emails
    *refusing to acknowledge errors in their own assessments
    *refusing to meet in person
    *refusing to acknowledge the home owners own independent reports that prove what the damage is.
    *Stating that “something” in a report is not covered by the policy, but not advising what that “something” is or what part of the policy it refers to

    games of torture
    * finally get a meeting with someone stating they are in charge and get told “a”. Get the report from the outcome of the meeting which states “b”. Query why there is a discrepancy and get told that “a” was never discussed. This has resulted in a large number of people having to resort to recording conversations, meetings and phone calls as proof of their games.
    *refuse to provide any information unless it is requested via official channels, then break all the rules of the official channels and delay the release of information. see

    We, who pay for all the services that are ripping us off, are left to our own devices to the extent that we have to employ legal services to get our entitlements.

    In 16 days, the 3rd anniversary of when my house lost an entire wall external wall(the whole length of one side of the house). It is covered by plywood, no insulation). They still have not assessed the house for the damage that the earthquakes did.
    I have asbestos in my ceilings which is cracked but they refuse to acknowledge that it is asbestos.
    We can not afford to move out to pay for rent and mortgage at the same time as because they say it is “safe” there is no accommodation allowance from our insurance policy available to us.
    So our entire family has a high risk of getting asbestosis in another 20 or so years. But they don’t care because they don’t have to deal with the consequences.

    They have a increased insurance premiums astronomically(in some cases up to 300%) and excesses on certain things(from $250 excess to $5000 excess for driveways, fences, paths damaged by earthquakes etc) , yet we see articles where their re-insurers are facing reduced insurance costs.

    The earthquakes were a piece of cake compared to the fight we are now in.

    Yet, still…a lot of us are still focusing on – we are still alive, we still have a house we can live in, there are others worse off, they are treating everyone this way….it is the only way we can get through.

    So please share more of our stories world wide – shame the government into standing up for the people who pay their wages.

    We pray that none of this torture happens to any of you who are reading this.



  14. Hi Josephine
    Like other Christchurch survivors who are still living here, I would like to first thank you for coming to our quake ravaged city, and for taking the time to write and share your first impressions as an international visitor. It is wonderful to see how our city now looks through an overseas person’s eyes.

    We were in High Street (not far from where you took photos of the containers propping up the building) at the time of the February 2011 earthquake. We lost our jewellery store of 35 years because of the earthquake, and my father had actually worked on High Street for all of his working life – 60 plus years. It was heart breaking to walk away from everything we as a family and a business community had built over our own and our predecessors lifetimes.

    I have written and published two Christchurch Earthquake Books which may interest you or others on the emotional/mental health impact on ordinary people:
    1. Cafe Reflections: Christchurch City, which shares the experiences of the central city small business owner-operators before, during and after the earthquakes.
    2. Responders: which shares the post-quake experiences of the volunteer NZ Response Teams (who assisted the New Zealand and international Task Forces (include CA-TF2 from the Los Angeles County Fire Department).

    I’m also working on a third book – you can follow the progress or learn more about them at my own blog. I also posted some articles on the mental health impact on myself and others post quake, and updates in the months/years afterwards.

    We sold the little sterling silver earthquake house commemorative beads for the bracelets in my family jewellery store and online. After September 2010 they sold like hot cakes. Our supplier, who is based in Christchurch, struggled to keep up with demand. From that first quake, they seemed to help people cope with the emotional/mental impact in some way. Sales dropped for us after the February 2011 quake, but this was mostly because we could not access our business premises – or the area around it – for two months because of the Red Zone Cordon. We have never operated from those premises again. Like so many of the central city businesses we now operate from home. Others have relocated permanently.

    There is so much I could share here! We spent five months having the house I’m living in repaired by the Earthquake Quake Commission’s contracted (EQC is a government dis-organisation who handles the claims). The repairs were a nightmare and only cosmetic. Structural damage is glossed over as being ‘pre-exisiting’. My own house is just around the corner from the one someone mentioned above, with the ‘3 years and still waiting for EQC’ sign. My house is just starting to go through the pre-repair preparations.

    To be honest – these repairs are the straw that could break the camels back. The level of ongoing stress that relates to the earthquakes, and dealing with insurance companies and EQC agencies has been said to be cancer causing. Our family have just lost a close friend to cancer which we believe was directly related to EQ stress.

    If you ever do return to Christchurch, I’d be happy to meet with you, and answer any questions you have about the impact on the central city business community survivors AND the responders. In the meantime, thank you again for sharing your first impressions.

    Kia Kaha

    Deb Donnell


  15. The rebuild is actually going along good focusing on people’s houses so far I’ve been with my building company for almost 1year there’s a crew of seven I have completed 8 houses so far and we currently have 26 rebuild houses on the go. The tourists also need to remember that we don’t have the resources and population to build the city as quick as other country’s have after a natural disaster. We are doing pretty good though


  16. I am really glad that you had emotions and thoughts about our city during your visit. To me , what perspective those thoughts and emotions take is far less important than the fact that you came . Everyone views our city differently, it means so much to us locals that people just come and experience. Personally , despite the difficulties I bond with my home now more than ever and the next few years are going to be not just challenging but very,very interesting . Please come again one day


  17. Thanks for coming to visit Christchurch, and sharing your experiences with the world through your blog. I know, even as someone who has lived in Christchurch for 18 years, I personally feel uneasy going into the city and taking pictures for my family and friends from the US and around the world who have been here.

    But we need people like you to tell the world what has happened here, what is still happening here, and what will happen here in the future.

    The recovery will take 20 to 30 years. I often don’t understand the “it-needs-to-be-done-yesterday” attitude (or optimism?) of Kiwis. Yes, we’re almost 3 years on from the most devastating (February 2011) of the quakes, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Christchurch won’t be rebuilt in one either.

    This year will still be hard on a lot of people. We’re being warned that this will be the year that the disaster will truly hit home for a lot of people who went through it. And, thank God we have a health system that will help many of those who need help get that help they deserve.

    I admit, sometimes I drive to work through Christchurch city (used to be down Durham Street but now it’s down Manchester Street) and think, “Scott: what the hell are you doing here?”

    I’m standing strong with a city that welcomed me, a naive young German-American male with the stars in his eyes, with open arms nearly 18 years ago. I’m helping rebuild in my way, and one of the legacies of my life, I hope, will be that I tried to stand strong with my fellow Cantabrians through some of our darkest hours.

    I’ve documented my feelings on the Christchurch quakes in a series I wrote last year on my blog, so if anyone is curious to read them, it starts off with and there are 7 parts in total.

    Thanks again for coming to Christchurch and sharing your experiences. It’s very important that the world knows and sees what we are going through.


  18. I am a Christchurch academic. I have survived the earthquakes and supported two young children through it. I have supported my students. Together we have risen through it. We are proud of what we have done. Initially I was terrified of reentering the cbd, but now I love it. It is full of quirky art and creativity. Gap filler golf and the sound garden are my favourites. It is also a place showing our resilience and strength. Kia Kaha Chistchurch.


    1. I work in tertiary education too, here in Christchurch, and I think, as educators or facilitators, it’s interesting how, in needing to be strong for our students, it has helped us through this experience. We lost our school and nearly 95% of our then-26 years’ worth of resources and history when our building was red-stickered in the June 2011 quakes, but we carried on and rebuilt because we felt we owed it to our students and our community. You should be proud of what you have done, and I know some of what you write about here is like!


  19. Interesting insight. I come from Christchurch but live in the UK. All of my family live there and all have been affected by the quakes. Dumb comment…everyone has. We have lost three houses but luckily no lives. I have been back 6 times since Sept 2010 and watched the ‘changes’ and fragility of my people. I want to believe Christchurch will rise as a great city. Despite the fact that many people are only there as they have no other option, my family wouldn’t consider leaving, ever.

    Tourism is very important to New Zealand and never more crucial to Christchurch. They have a story to tell and there is nothing like seeing it first hand. It is shocking, sad and sometimes unbelievable but without seeing it I couldn’t comprehend the level of destruction. Your blog alone has other people interested.


  20. “Clearly I was an Ugly American Tourist/Professor stumbling (unprepared) into the Red Zone of Christchurch yesterday.”
    “I thought I had done my homework.”
    Nothing will prepare you for what you see in the red zone, no amount of homework. Some things have to experienced to be understood.
    As for the ugly tourist comment, I think that comes down to attitude. Anyone who comes with the attitude of I have lots of money you should be grateful I’m even here should expect some ruffled feathers or to have people talk about them behind their back.
    Many people in Christchurch have jobs reliant on tourists visiting. They don’t want pity they want to work.
    Thanks for your blog and your honesty.


    1. Thanks for this Catherine. I had been asking myself if any kind of preparation would have really helped in terms of visiting the CBD Red Zone with my students. Someone commented that we shouldn’t gawk at it all, but well–I’m not sure that is preventable really.


  21. Hi. I’m one of the more fortunate residents – we live in the North West near the Airport. I lost some sentimental pieces that belonged to my late Mum and Dad and our house came out really well (just over $10,000 worth of damage) considering the major damage of others,. I’ve hated the earthquakes for ruining our city; I’ve looked at our home and have felt so deflated that our hard work over the years was for nothing; I’ve kept my eyes shut when we’ve driven past areas that were haunting for me; I’ve been angry with the politics and have wondered why the commercial areas have been rebuilt but homes haven’t; and I’ve cried. My hope is that something can be taken from our nightmare that will help others and in some way that makes what we are going through slightly easier – after all they say that there is always a positive in every negative……..even a nightmare like an earthquake. So you see that although the “tourism” seems tacky, it isn’t. It is showing people what can happen when you least expect it, the changes that one has to make to survive and how a community slowly (oh so slowly) can come out the other side. I used to want the nice house with the garden, the nice cars, nice furniture…….everything nice. After the earthquakes and still now, all I want in my life is to be beside my husband even if that is in a tent in the middle of nowhere. And of course I want to know that my adult children and their families are safe. Disaster does change you and for me I believe it has been for the better.


  22. Christchurch was devastated by two large earthquakes, the second one caused many loss of life. Rebuilding has been slow and not without it’s problems and politics. Thousands lost their homes and jobsNd many have relocated to other areas in NZ and overseas. The emotional trauma is ongoing every day with many having flashbacks, unable to sleep or work. Seeing the devastation close up brings it home that we Are vulnerable in our ‘shakey isles’ particularly to earthquakes. People are trying to eke out an income in any way they can to put food on the table and care for their families. It may be shocking to tourists. It it is the reality for those that live there and a constant reminder.
    Considering the background of your students and their future career choices, it is a reminder that they may well have to deal with a disaster like this. Perhaps it will also cause them to reflect and realise how fortunate they Are not to have gone through it.


    1. Thanks for this Moys. Yes, and it has also been interesting helping my students process some of this in terms of just how vulnerable we are as humans. For many, given their young age, this is the first time they’ve really thought about death. I suspect that some of that comes from them knowing that many of those killed here were students their own age.


  23. It would have been interesting to see how a different government might have handled thus disaster… The National government took a deliberately “neoliberal” approach – meaning, they did not raise a national tax to help with the rebuild – in Australia raising a special tax to deal with a disaster has been routine; instead, the minister of Finance started a charity to deal with the problem – by putting in $1 himself – he then left the rebuild of community infrastructure to (1) the charity of individuals and (2) luck (in terms of who was successful in applying for grants).
    The National government also expected the Christchurch City Council to rebuild core infrastructure by selling assets.

    I think it could have done so much better. I think the government has let Christchurch down by failing to show leadership and by failing to pull the country together to support Christchurch. It is the governments ideological opposition to tax that has resulted in the half-baked recovery we now have.


  24. Cycling to school through the residential red zone, to see buses of tourists taking photo’s is quite disturbing. Oh to have a day where I see no reminders of the quakes. To have a ‘normal’ day would be amazing. To have my house made watertight, to have no props in the middle of my dining room holding part of my second storey up, to have no hose bringing water into my house. This is what I want 3 years later. I no longer want a complete scope of damage to my house, I know this will never happen.


  25. Being someone from Christchurch I can tell you that you have asked the exact question we as residents have asked for the last 3 years – when? When are the poor people still suffering on the East Side going to be able to get their houses fixed (not just the East Side but they are the ones hardest hit), When are we going to stop demolishing all the beautiful buildings and look at other options (even a new temporary library that was by the bus station has just gotten demolished, would love to know why when it looked fine and could have been used!) And the big one I ask myself, when are we going to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and instead of making dismal tours of broken buildings and homes, band together and do something abot that fact that not alot has been done! I hate Christchurch now, I thought I would always be here, now I am working hard to leave it, as I dont see it getting better for a long time. I hope your article makes someone of importance (or who thinks they are) take notice that we are not complaining about nothing!


  26. My Josephine! You have started something 🙂

    I was the Co-author of Responders, referred to By Deb Donnell further up the page. I am not a Christchurch resident, but have kept as close an eye as I can on ‘developments’. As Im sure you know, recovery is a highly complex topic. Christchurch has a sizeable population, all of whom will be at a different stage on their personal road. Some are doing well, some are not! Some have positive stories, some do not.

    Trying to distil all of the stories down into a coherent impression of what is happening is really hard. Having said that, congratulations for visiting and trying to understand!


    1. Indeed. When I catch my breath here I hope to try to process all of these terrific comments from people, as well as read more about it all, including Responders. I know I am only scratching the surface here, but feel I’m getting a better sense of the ‘place’ that is Christchurch.
      But right now I’m listening to a great Latin band at the Gap Fillers. What a magical place.


      1. Hi Josephine. Thanks for your reply. ‘ Responders’ describes the initial events of Sept 2010 and Feb 2011, but concentrates on the work of the volunteer rescue teams during the days and weeks that followed. It therefore gives a good impression of what was the beginning of this massive journey we are all on.

        As an aside, when Deb, myself and a local contributor were sitting in ReStart mall going over an early draft, we were trying to locate where a photo of a row of damaged shops was taken. We then realised that we were sitting in the spot where the shop had previously stood!!

        And yes, we are all witnesses!


  27. Of course there are EQC and insurance issues which are seriously hindering our ability to make the progress we want to see in our city; there’s no denying that. But aside from that, in a more general sense, people’s (tourists and residents) surprise at the lack of central city development because “it’s been 3 years” annoys me a little.

    Yes it has been almost 3 years since the 22 February 2011 quake (6.3M) which took lives. Then there was 13 June 2011 (6.4M), 23 December 2011 (6M), 25 May 2012 (5.2M) – to name a few. There have been 8,512 quakes in those 3 years (12,590 since 4 September 2010). On 10 January 2014, that’s less than a month ago, there was a shallow 4.3M. Unlike fire or flood, an earthquake is not over in days or weeks, at which point the clean-up crew can move in. It can take years – and obviously here in Christchurch it is!


  28. Thank you josephine for your wonderful post and sensitive enquiry into what it is to be a visitor to christchurch, and especially for visiting here with your group of students. As all these comments illustrate there is no one simpke story here about what the quake and all its rearranging means to our lives. And no one response people will have to others walking around looking at the damage. Personally i am grateful to visitors and tourists, even ones that take photos and buy quake souvenirs. Well maybe some are insensitive but i haven’t encountered any myself. Please tell others to come and be part of our collective mess. Sitting side by side with all the pain loss and sufering is beauty and vibrant community and the precious gift of being alive.


  29. If you, and people like you, didn’t witness how far we haven’t come in 3-4 years then what we’ve been struggling through and with and for would not mean very much at all. We need ‘outsiders’ to point out the shocking fact that we have not moved very far. Maybe with enough of that the government will recognise that a once thriving and ‘important’ city in our small country deserves action rather than considered committee after committee


  30. Kia Ora. I am from Bryndwr in the northwest of Christchurch. We had very little structural damage and only minimal contents damage.

    It is important to note that whilst the 22 February 2011 earthquake was by far the worst, the 04 September 2010 event, which set the whole seismic sequence in motion was quite damaging in the rural hinterland around Christchurch. It should also be noted that the 13 June 2011 quakes killed one person and added about NZ$3 billion to the financial cost of the quakes.

    Contrary to popular opinion amongst many, no the Christchurch rebuild has not been managed as well as it could be. The Christchurch City Council released its blue print based on the ideas put forward by the residents in a “Share an Idea” project that was held in May 2011. That seems in large part to have been forgotten by the Government, which came up with its own ideas. The Government in large part ignored provisions under existing legislation for dealing with the earthquakes and passed into law under urgency the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act, which gave rise to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. The effectiveness of C.E.R.A. has raised questions, as has the lack of response from insurance companies, who seem happy to drag the chain, and from the Minister of Earthquake Recovery who seems to think that the market knows best on housing issues.

    Failure to address these issues, will probably cost the National-led Government of John Key precious votes at the 2014 election.


  31. The quakes were one thing and I cannot think of why anyone would want to come to christchurch at the moment. It used to be nice but now it is completely knackered and a testament to bureaucracy. However the quakes for most of us pale into insignificance when we consider the insurance fiasco since. The biggest lesson to be learned from christchurch by the rest of the world is this: Do not believe that there is any real thing called home insurance. When a disaster strikes, the quick, cheap repairs get done irrespective of need and the big money repairs to residents homes are denied and delayed. The ICs are not bothered, they display an arrogance in their delay tactics even in the face of evidence and leave the homeowner with two choices. Accept our offer or come and try to get your policy entitlement. Many people have given in,
    and for others the courtroom and the next question of how independent the justice system is from a government clearly in cahoots with insurance companies


  32. Mixed reactions- feelings of sadness – tears in my eyes – reality; had the best game of road cone chess in Tuam Street – best thing I’ve done in the city for a long time – a new memory, a smile, great feeling, good times.


  33. A great article and more real than many in our local paper The Press. If you take the Double Decker bus tour then your notice a house on St Andrews Hill with Southern No Response painted I very large letters on the roof. If you have time stop by and I’m happy to show you what it’s like to live in an earthquake house 3 years on and my family are the lucky ones as we have a source of heat and have not lost walls. Southern Response are the Insurance company set up by the NZ Govt to settle claimants. 60% of claimants are still waiting for action, either their homes to be rebuilt or repaired.


    1. Hi Judith,
      Good to hear from you. I imagine though that ‘Christchurchers’ would rather resent the comparison between the earthquake recovery here versus in Mexico City. First World, Second World, Third World as terms have an interesting history and use–but what I hear from people here is that they expected a ‘first world’ response from their government.


  34. Hi Josaphine,

    Your blog was emailed to me and I read it with interest. I am a tourism lecturer at Lincoln University, which is just outside Christchurch (I won the award for the most trashed office afer the September quake), and one of the things I teach is Dark Tourism.

    Your responses are not uncommon for Dark Tourists. There is often a sense of guilt about voyerism, and an understandable lack of appreciation of the scale of destruction along with a sense that things should have been put right by now.

    Interestingly, we held a major tourism conference at Lincoln last year, for which the planning had started before the quakes. Our first venue was destroyed, our second lost its safety licence months later after the engineers visited it, so we held it on campus with the delegates having to stay in student halls or residence. We got a fair amount of flack from some of the overseas delegates until we took them on the Red Tour just before the formal dinner. One foreign professor, who had complained the loudest, was in tears when appologising to us. Until you experience the destruction from a natural disaster it is difficult to comprehend it. I am sure the people of New Orleans are going through everything that we are experiencing, emotionally, including attitudes to tourists.

    I am pleased you visited and brought your students. It helps us feel less isolated.


    1. Hi David,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m sorry our paths didn’t cross as I just ‘lived’ at Lincoln University for two weeks with my students. And yes, I saw all the reminders/remainders there of the quakes. Our second week going back into the Christchurch cbd was quite healing in a way, as the students got the chance to volunteer with the Gap Filler’s Pallet Park, danced with some Christchurch little girls on the Dance-O-Rama, and some then went to church at the Temporary Cathedral. They told me that they were able to start looking past the destruction at the positive regrowth of the city.

      I still don’t understand the gold and silver ‘wee earthquake damaged houses’ charms for bracelets that some jeweler in Christchurch sells…. Well, OK, I don’t understand why people would buy them.

      I’m writing a longer essay about this and in the process I stumbled across another type of tourism we’re ‘guilty’ of: doom tourism (visiting the Franz Joseph Glacier before global warming melts it all away). The irony (of course!) is that we are doing an environmental and community health program of study here, yet we’re flying/driving/ferry-boat riding everywhere.


      1. Hi Josephine
        As one of the jewellers who sold the wee earthquake damaged house charms, I can help you get a bit more perspective on why people bought them, etc. If you want, you can contact me through

        Kind regards

        Deb Donnell
        Cafe Reflections: Christchurch City 1975-2012
        Responders: The Volunteer NZ Response Teams Christchurch Earthquake Deployments


  35. Hi, I am a paramedic in Christchurch. On duty after the Sep 10 EQ, and then on duty for the Feb, Jun and Dec 11 ‘shakes’.

    From my point of view, if you are visiting with your students to learn about the after effects on people that is great! Unfortunately, nobody seems to be interested in the effect of these shakes on those of us that were working, had no idea if we had a home or family to go home to! Yet still expected to give 110% to any and everyone around us. That’s fine, because that’s what we do.And when we did get home, up to 36 hrs later, to find a broken house unable to be accessed, no power, no water, no access to food etc. but still expected to turn up for work, in uniform and on time, to deal with other peoples problems.

    3 years on, we are still dealing with damaged homes, poor living conditions, poor health etc, and still not recognised specifically for what we did!

    If you want to learn about the effects on health workers ‘at the sharp end’ come talk to us who were there at the time! I know plenty of people who would be happy to talk to you.


    1. Hi Sheryl,
      The first responders and the hospital staff always bear a huge burden in disasters and that never really seems to get adequately acknowledged or dealt with. I try to do trainings and prepare my students for the difficulties of being on the front line in disasters, but I’m not sure any amount of good training can quite prepare anyone for things like you and your colleagues have dealt with.
      Thanks for this reminder.


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