Why were tourists allowed on White Island?



The volcanic alert level on Whakaari/White Island remains at three, one rung higher than it was when the eruption took place.
AAP/GNS Science, CC BY-ND

Michael Lueck, Auckland University of Technology

Emergency crews have retrieved six bodies on Friday and continue to search for two further victims of Monday’s volcanic eruption at Whakaari/White Island.

The people on the island were tourists and tour guides, including visitors from Australia, the UK, China and Malaysia, along with New Zealanders. Several of the tourists were passengers from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

There is a 50% chance the volcano will erupt again in the next 24 hours.
Michael Schade, CC BY-ND

GeoNet, which operates a geological hazard monitoring system, says there is still a 50-60% chance of an eruption occurring that could impact outside of the vent area within the next 24 hours.

But the question being asked now is why tourists were allowed on such a dangerous island. This will probably feature prominently in investigations – both by police and WorkSafe.




Read more:
Why White Island erupted and why there was no warning


Safety guidelines for volcano tours

White Island is privately owned, and only permitted operators are allowed to take tourists on guided tours. White Island Tours is one of the main operators in Whakatane, a township on the east coast of the North Island, and they had people on the island yesterday.

This operator has stringent safety checks and was even named New Zealand’s safest place to work in a workplace safety award last year.

But earlier this month, GeoNet had raised the alert level to two (out of five), due to “moderate and heightened volcanic unrest”. Should that have caused enough concern to discontinue tours to the island?

Hindsight is always 20/20, but any visit to an active volcano, or volcanic field bears a certain amount of risk, and usually it is managed by governmental bodies generally, and the tourism industry in particular.

The management, or lack thereof, varies by country and jurisdiction. Commonly, organisations such as GeoNet provide real time updates on volcanic activities and issue warnings of potential hazards. In the case of White Island, it falls ultimately to the operators to decide whether or not to send tours to the island on any given day.

Leading geo-tourism researcher Patricia Erfurt-Cooper notes there is a “distinct lack of safety guidelines for volcano tours at most sites, which is compounded by language problems”.

Management strategies include multi-lingual signage, such as in Japan, and the closure of active sites, such as in Hawaii.




Read more:
Trouble in paradise: eruptions from Kīlauea volcano place the Hawaiian island on red alert


Often, volcanic geologists are able to read early signs of activity, and predict eruptions hours, if not days in advance. But this is not always the case, as we saw yesterday and in the 2007 eruption of Mount Ruapehu.

History of accidents in adventure tourism

Volcano tourism is a subset of adventure tourism, and New Zealand has had its fair share of incidents in this sector. Many will remember the collapse of a viewing platform at Cave Creek in 1995, where 14 people died. After the collapse, the Department of Conservation (DOC) inspected more than 500 structures, resulting in the closure of 65.

A commission of inquiry found a number of shortcomings in the building of the platform and DOC took responsibility for the accident. Since then, New Zealand law has changed so government departments can be held responsible and liable for negligence in offences under the Building Act.

Worldwide, there have been several deadly volcanic eruptions, including Japan’s Mount Ontake in 2014. This steam-driven eruption occurred without clear warning and killed 63 people hiking the mountain, in what became the country’s most deadly eruption in nearly 90 years.

In 2013, the eruption of Mayon volcano in the Philippines killed five climbers. Last year, one tourist died in an eruption of Italy’s Stromboli volcano, which has become a resort island.

Assessing risks

New Zealand promotes itself as the adventure capital of the world, and it is a fine balance for an operator to provide the (often advertised) excitement the thrill-seeking tourists are looking for, and the safety of everybody involved.

Research shows the majority of thrill-seekers are looking for risk, but in a controlled way. The adrenaline rush is paramount, but they don’t seriously want to be at risk of injury or loss of life.

The tragic events of White Island reiterate that we must be vigilant, and have excellent risk management strategies in place. Perhaps it is time for the tourism industry, government and volcanic experts to review current rules. We can minimise the risk, but we can never totally rule it out.

Any adventure tourist must be aware of the potential risk they are taking and should check the tour operator’s website for information about the risk they’d be undertaking, and how the tour operator plans to manage it. If the operator doesn’t have this information available – choose another one.The Conversation

Michael Lueck, Professor of Tourism, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Call for clearer risk information for tourists following Whakaari/White Island tragedy



The Royal New Zealand Navy during a recovery operation on Whakaari/White Island, on December 13. Rescue and recovery efforts have been hampered by hazardous conditions on the island, and the danger of another eruption.
EPA/Royal NZ Navy, CC BY-ND

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia and James Higham, University of Otago

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Whakaari/White Island on December 9, many are analysing the risks of adventure tourism, particularly volcano tourism, and asking pointed questions.

It is a sensitive time, with 15 people now confirmed dead, many hospitalised in critical condition, and two bodies yet to be retrieved from the disaster zone.

We question whether the tourists caught up in the events actually knew the risks they faced, and whether other tourist groups may be unaware of the potential risks that their travel decisions may carry.

Although geologists are monitoring Whakaari/White Island, some volcanic activity cannot be predicted.



Read more:
Why were tourists allowed on White Island?


Risk assessment and visitor safety

The websites for White Island Tours and the promotion pages on the Bay of Plenty website are currently not viewable. But the Trip Advisor site for Whakaari calls it “New Zealand’s most active volcano”. It mentions the need for gas masks and hard hats and describes conditions of a still active volcano, including steam vents and sulphurous fumes.

But it is doubtful that cruise ship passengers, such as those from the Ovation of the Seas, would have done such research. Cruises offer a variety of shore excursions when in port, ranging from passive sightseeing to adventure activities.

Many tourists will assume endorsed excursions have been properly vetted by their cruise company and assume there is negligible risk to personal safety. But this may not be the case.

Major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean visit multiple destinations with very different regulatory environments. The assumption that shore excursions will be safe may be misplaced, both by the cruise line and the visitors they book on such excursions. This is now clear from the events at Whakaari but also in previous incidents, such as last year’s fatal bus crash in Mexico.

Local supporters gather on the quayside as a boat that carried families for a morning blessing at White Island returns during a recovery operation to retrieve the remaining bodies.
AAP/David Rowland, CC BY-ND

Adventure capital

New Zealand is known as an adventure tourism destination, but its regulatory systems have undergone recent change. After 37 deaths over four years, then prime minister John Key ordered an urgent safety audit in 2009.

This resulted in a shift, from 2013, from a voluntary system under Outdoors New Zealand and the regulatory system under Worksafe NZ to the New Zealand adventure activity certification scheme. Some tour operators have found this audit system too onerous. Striking the right balance between risk management while allowing the adventure tourism sector to thrive has proved difficult.

But the case of Whakaari/White Island is unique in many ways. The island is privately owned. GeoNet monitors volcanic activity and rates the threat level. The tour companies then assess the risk and determine if visits can proceed or should be temporarily suspended.

Three companies have operated tours to Whakaari/White Island, including the Māori-owned White Island Tours (owned by Ngāti Awa). The other two are helicopter companies Kahu and Volcanic Air Safaris. White Island Tours was accredited under AdventureMark, which is a Worksafe NZ approved certification body.

We must await the Worksafe investigation to know whether it was reasonable to allow the tours to go ahead when volcanic risk rating had risen from level 1 to level 2. We also still await the full human toll, knowing that recovery for survivors may take years. It is also clear that the impact on Ngāti Awa and the Whakatāne community has been profound.

Inherent risk in active environments

In laying out these complexities in which small private tour companies and large internationally owned cruise ships took thousands of visitors to Whakaari each year, we underscore how difficult an assessment of risk might be for some visitors.

Adventure tourists typically make an assessment weighing up risks against the thrills they seek to achieve. New Zealand’s reputation for adventure tourism is built in part on well developed policy settings and regulatory regimes, and an expectation among visitors of high adventure safety standards.

Risk – both perceived and actual – is carefully managed to ensure that perceived risk is high but actual risk is as low as humanly possible. The reputation of the sector and, indeed, the interests of the wider New Zealand tourism industry hinge on high safety standards. For example, bungy jumping appears to be very high risk, but its commercial viability comes from the highly controlled operation, which means actual risk is in fact very low.

Set against this are longstanding activities that take visitors into spectacular settings to experience firsthand the wonders of nature. Such environments do present inherent risk even if many decades may pass between natural events.

The Pink and White Terraces – the largest silica sinter deposit on earth – were a spectacular visitor attraction in the mid-19th century, and the centrepiece of Māori tourism development. That was until they were completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.

New Zealand’s most stunning natural vistas – Aoraki/Mount Cook, the fjords of Te Wahipounamu world heritage area, towering glaciers and raging rivers – are the result of millions of years of seismic activity on the Pacific and Australian tectonic plate boundary. These environments are dynamic and, at times, very destructive.

These settings contrast adventure tourism activities. Risk may be perceived as low or non-existent given that these environments may be largely inactive for years.




Read more:
Why White Island erupted and why there was no warning


Informed consent

In a complex international environment, the ultimate decision to participate in activities in dynamic and potentially destructive environments rests with the visitors.

Ultimately, visitor welfare depends on informed visitor choice. This case highlights the need for consent forms to be signed in many more cases, beyond those already used in adventure tourism and medical tourism.

Such documents should make clear the nature of the possible risks. Elevated risk levels on the day of the visit as well as changing risk levels in the days prior to the scheduled visit should be clearly communicated. Participation should only proceed after informed consent is secured.

Such an approach does not obviate the need for accreditation, audits, regulations and strict oversight by relevant authorities. But it does ensure that tourists play their part in deciding what risks are worth taking on their holidays.

We cannot undo the events that unfolded at Whakaari/ White Island, but we can honour lives lost by making absolutely sure that we learn from this tragedy.The Conversation

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia and James Higham, Professor of Tourism, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NASA and space tourists might be in our future but first we need to decide who can launch from Australia


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, US, May 2019.
NASA Kennedy , CC BY-NC-ND

Melissa de Zwart, University of Adelaide

In a sign the Australian Space Agency is already opening up new doors for Australian industry, NASA says it will be launching rockets from Arnhem Space Centre, in Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory, in 2020.

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews has also indicated she will encourage space tourism from Australia. She wants passengers to experience zero-gravity from the convenience of a domestic airport.




Read more:
Five ethical questions for how we choose to use the Moon


But who gets to decide what can be launched into space? That depends on where the launch takes place, and in the case of Australia those rules are currently under review.

International treaty

The authority for who approves, supervises and grants permission for launch of space objects is based on UN treaties that provide a framework for international space law. The most important is the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which entered into force in 1967.

Article VI of the OST provides that nation states (that is, countries) bear “international responsibility” for “national activities” undertaken in outer space by government and commercial users alike.

States remain responsible for activities undertaken by commercial entities – for example, companies such as SpaceX – and are obliged to undertake ongoing supervision of such activities.

How individual countries choose to conduct such supervision is left entirely up to them, but in most cases it is done by way of domestic space law.

Another international treaty, the Liability Convention provides that the liability of the state extends to all launches that are made from that state’s territory. For example, the US is legally responsible for all launches that take place from that country as well as for launches elsewhere that it procures.

This imposes a significant burden on the state to ensure that international requirements are complied with.

Domestic space law regulates matters such as the granting of launch permits, and insurance and indemnity requirements. In Australia, this is achieved through the Space Activities (Launches and Returns) Act 2018. In New Zealand, the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017, applies.

The Starlink network

In the US, it’s the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that gave Elon Musk’s SpaceX permission to launch thousands of Starlink satellites as part of a plan to create a low-orbit internet network.

The licence is for one constellation of 4,409 satellites and a second constellation of 7,518 satellites. The FCC requires launch of half of the total number planned within six years.

The first 60 satellites were launched into orbit last month, and have already given rise to a number of concerns.




Read more:
Lights in the sky from Elon Musk’s new satellite network have stargazers worried


Scientists and astronomers are worried such a large constellation of satellites will be visible to the naked eye in the night sky. In response, Musk has already agreed to make the next batch less shiny.

Penalties apply

As well as granting launch licences, the FCC can also issue fines for any unlicensed launch by US operators.

Swarm Technologies launched four SpaceBee satellites from India in January 2018, after having been denied a licence from the FCC. The FCC was concerned the satellites were too small to be effectively tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network.

FCC subsequently fined Swarm US$900,000, partly as a way to spread the word that licensing of launching is a serious business but because the company had also performed other activities that required FCC authorisation.

In addition to presenting issues for tracking, new satellites also presented a hazard in terms of their potential to create large debris fields.

Notably, there are no binding international laws with respect to the creation of space debris. There are non-binding Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines issued by the UN Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. But these are only guidelines and are frequently overlooked in the interests of commercial expediency.

The 2018 Australian Act does require the applicant for various Australian licences (such as a launch permit) to include “a strategy for debris mitigation”. This may include, for example, a plan to de-orbit the satellite after a certain number of years.

Launches from Australia

Australia’s first claim to fame as a space-faring nation was the launch of WRESAT (the Weapons Research Establishment Satellite) from Woomera, South Australia, in 1967.

But the launch platforms on nearby Lake Hart were dismantled following the departure to French Guiana in 1971 of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) – whose name ELDO still graces the sole hotel in Woomera, in outback South Australia.

The ELDO hotel in Woomera.
Flickr/kool skatkat, CC BY-NC-ND

From this time until the late 1990s there was little interest in space launches from Australia.




Read more:
Lost in space: Australia dwindled from space leader to also-ran in 50 years


The Space Activities Act 1998 was enacted in response to a brief interest in US company Kistler Aerospace developing a spaceport at Woomera, SA.

But no spaceport was constructed nor any launches conducted. A review of the Space Activities Act and of the Australian space industry in 2016-2017 led to the new Space Activities (Launches and Returns) Act in 2018.

This Act envisions a broader role for domestic space industries, including but not limited to, launch.

The rules which flesh out the details of the application of that licensing regime are currently open for public review and comment. The deadline for making a submission closes at the end of this week.The Conversation

Melissa de Zwart, Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia could house around 900,000 more migrants if we no longer let in tourists



File 20180815 2900 xsnr42.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
International tourists use many of Australia’s resources, including adding to fossil fuel consumption.
from shutterstock.com

Raja Junankar, UNSW

Many who fear Australia’s population boom believe we should be cutting down on immigration. They blame immigration for congestion and expenditure of environmental and other vital resources. They say Australia’s cities are becoming overcrowded and cannot sustain more people.

But if Australia were to cut down on immigration, it would also then make sense to introduce policies that limit numbers of international tourists and students. Why single out one group of people? If any person living in Australia drains a certain amount of resources, it stands to reason this is also the case with short-term visitors arriving year after year.




Read more:
Migration helps balance our ageing population – we don’t need a moratorium


Not only do tourists and international students add to crowded trains, trams and buses, think of all the environmental resources they consume – such as the water hotels spend on frequently washing their sheets.

Just as with migration, tourist numbers are on the rise in Australia. The number of international tourists (blue line) increased from just over 4 million in 1997-98 to nearly 8 million in 2015-2016. Settler arrivals (people living in Australia who are entitled to permanent residence) increased from 81,000 in 1998 to 135,000 in 2016.

Tourist numbers are on the rise in Australia.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Author provided

My crude calculations show that if Australia were to allow zero tourism, it could accommodate roughly 900,000 more migrants. As a comparison, Australia’s total migration intake is around 190,000 per year.

But of course curbing tourism, or immigration, isn’t a feasible option. Tourists, international students and migrants all add positive value to Australia.

Our calculations

As a general rule, the monetary amount spent across a group of people in a population is considered a rough approximation of the amount of resources that have been used. So, to get an idea of the resources short-term visitors to Australia (which includes tourists and international students who stay for less than a year) might use, I extracted data on how much they spend on goods and services.




Read more:
FactCheck: is Australia’s population the ‘highest growing in the world’?


Then I calculated the approximate number of migrants who would be spending the same amount of money. This gave me a rough indication of how many extra migrants we could let into the country per drop in tourist numbers.

I was a bit generous in terms of working off the assumption that migrants spend the same amount on goods and services as “native” Australians. I used ABS data for my calculations, which were:

  • First, I subtracted the amount international tourists spend (which includes students who stay less than a year) in Australia (this was A$33,917 million in 2015-16) from the total spend in Australia (A$940,822 million in 2015-16). This gave me an idea of the amount spent by Australian residents only (A$906,905 million in 2015-16).
  • I then worked out the average consumption of residents per capita by dividing it by the population (around 24 million in 2015-16). This came to A$37,680 million for every 1,000 people.
  • Then I divided the total spend of international tourists by the per capita amount (per 1,000 residents) spent by residents. This came to 900,213 in 2015-16.
  • I also did similar calculations assuming tourists consumed 10% and 20% more than migrants.

The fact we could have 900,000 extra migrants if we had no tourists is a very rough number. The point is not the exact number. Even if the more accurate number was 400,000, that number is large. The purpose of this exercise is to show that migrants, as one group of people, don’t pose the most significant risk to our population in terms of resources drained.

These numbers are based on crude calculations, and assume that migrants spend the same way as Australian-born residents.
CC BY-SA

It’s a rough guide

As already mentioned, my calculations were crude. More detailed calculation of resources consumed by both groups (immigrants and international tourists) would compare the different impacts on growth and employment of immigration. But for the purposes of this exercise, I’ve carried out more limited calculations.




Read more:
‘Sustainable tourism’ is not working – here’s how we can change that


The demographic profile of immigrants is also different from that of international tourists. And the spending patterns of immigrants would be very different from those of the tourists. Immigrants would be buying white goods, for instance, such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners. Tourists would be buying these services indirectly through renting rooms in hotels, Airbnb and the like.

But we wouldn’t shut down tourism, as we know it has a positive impact on our economy. And research generally shows that immigration has a slightly positive effect on Australia’s employment rate and gross domestic product (GDP). A recent government report also shows that cutting Australia’s migration rate would cost the budget billions of dollars, lower living standards and reduce jobs growth.

<!– Below is The Conversation's page counter tag. Please DO NOT REMOVE. –>
The Conversation

Both tourism and migration make a positive impact to our economy, and no one group should be blamed for draining our resources.

Raja Junankar, Honorary Professor, Industrial Relations Research Centre, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nepal Christians Fight for Burial Rights


Nearly 200 graves face demolition.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, January 25 (CDN) — Three years after the death of a Christian who was a captain in the Nepal Army, his widow, Gamala Guide, faces fresh grief.

The grave of her husband, Narayan Guide, is threatened with destruction as authorities of Nepal’s most powerful Hindu temple are reclaiming the forested land where it is located.

“What kind of strange country is this that doesn’t allow its own citizens to rest in peace?” the 55-year-old recently asked leaders of the Christian community in Kathmandu. “Please do something to stop the desecration, or my husband will die a second death.”

At least 200 graves, many of them unmarked due to Christians’ fear of discovery and destruction, could share the same fate. The Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, the organization administering the Pashupatinath temple that dates back to the fourth century AD, has begun renovating the shrine as Nepal celebrates 2011 as its “tourism year” with the goal of attracting 1 million visitors. The temple has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.

“In the late 1980s, the government gave us 292 hectares of land to develop the Pashupatinath temple,” said Ram Saran Chimoria, director of the trust. “We have accordingly drawn up a five-year plan that will renovate the main shrine and beautify its surroundings. The forested land adjoining the temple will be used to grow plants considered sacred by Hindus.”

Chimoria said part of the forest is also meant to be used for Hindu burials.

“A Hindu sect called the Dashnami, which has 10 sub-groups under it, buries its dead here, as Muslims and Christians do,” he said. “Since Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple, the 10 sub-groups are allowed to bury their dead here. But other communities also began burying their dead here, first pretending to be the Dashnami and then clandestinely. This is against Hindu traditions, and the temple is seeking to reclaim what belongs to it. It is the responsibility of the government to allot burial grounds to non-Hindus, not the trust’s.”

The burial ground lies opposite Arya Ghat, a cremation ground at Pashupatinath, where bodies are burned on pyres according to Hindu tradition. Known as the Sleshmantak Forest, it is a steep and nearly inaccessible wooded tract where monkeys and foxes roam. Locals advise visitors not to wander into the forest alone, even during day time, for fear of robbers.

“I attended several burial rites there,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Catholic Assumption Church of Kathmandu Valley. “They were all low-key. Many of the graves are unmarked to avoid detection. The burial ground is used as a garbage dumping site, and at times foxes dig up the buried bodies. There are also cases of bodies being dumped on top of one another.”

An increasingly angry Christian community, tired of petitioning the government for an official burial ground, is now seeking stronger measures.

“Nepal became secular in 2006, and two years later, we petitioned the prime minister, the culture minister and the top human rights agency in Nepal, saying that in a secular democracy Christians should have the same rights as others and should be given their own burial ground,” said C.B. Gahatraj, general secretary of a Christian committee formed to provide recommendations to parliament, which is drafting a new constitution. “We understand the temple’s position. But the state should understand ours too.”

The committee had identified forested land on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, in an area called Duwakot, and proposed that it be given to them.

“We would make it one of the most idyllic sites in Nepal,” said Gahatraj. “It would have gardens and would be an attractive destination for tourists as well. But so far, there has been no response from the state.”

Believing the time has come for stronger action, Christians plan to discuss the issue with 22 major parliamentary parties on Sunday (Jan. 30).

“At the meeting, we will present our case again,” Gahatraj said. “We also want the trust to suspend the demolition drive till we are given our own land. If there’s no result, we will internationalize our case by taking our problem to international rights organizations and the United Nations.”

As the first such public protest, on Feb. 15 at Maitighar Mandala, one of the most prominent areas of the capital, the Christian community will begin a “relay hunger strike.” Christians are also beginning the first-ever Christian census this year to ascertain their true position in society.

“We estimate there are about 2 million Christians now [out of a population of nearly 29 million],” Gahatraj said.  

Catholics, however, form a tiny fraction of the Christian community. Satyal assessed there were about 7,500 Catholics. In 2009, three women were killed at the Assumption Church when a militant underground organization planted a bomb there. All three had to be cremated.

“Land is a premium commodity in Kathmandu Valley,” said Anthony Sharma, Nepal’s first Catholic bishop. “When the living don’t have land, it is futile to seek land for the dead. We have accepted cremation for Catholics in Nepal in keeping with acceptance worldwide.”

But even the cremation is dogged by discrimination.

“The Arya Ghat cremation ground at Pashupatinath distinguishes between upper castes and lower castes,” the bishop said. “If Christians are taken there, they would be treated as lower castes. So we have organized our own cremation site in Teku [in a different part of the town].”

Madhav Kumar Nepal, who resigned as prime minister on June 30 but leads a caretaker government, was regarded as having a soft spot for Christians. After the attack on the Assumption church, he was among the first state officials to visit the injured in the hospital and kept his promise to bring the culprits to justice, with police managing to arrest the blast mastermind.

Nepal resigned last year under pressure by the largest opposition party, and since then the turbulent republic has remained under a powerless caretaker government, unable to make any major decision.

With the squabbling political parties unable to form a new government and a political deadlock spilling into its seventh month, there are now new fears about the prospective constitution, which is expected to consolidate the secular nature of the nation. The constitution was to have been completed last year, but as the bickering parties failed to accomplish the task, the deadline was extended to May 28.

The delay has enabled a spurt in activities of Hindus calling for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. If Nepal’s May deadline fails as well, Christians fear it could be impossible to obtain their own official burial site.

Report from Compass Direct News

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

NEW SOUTH WALES NATIONAL PARKS UNDER THREAT???


The New South Wales government is now considering some level of development in the national parks of New South Wales. Just what level of development that may be is yet to be made clear. It is understood that the development may include accommodation projects, various commercial enterprises and guided bush walks.

Tourism Minster Jodi McKay, a former news reader with NBN television, is waiting on a report from a government commissioned taskforce looking into ways that tourism can be increased in the state’s national parks.

The planned tourism development of national parks is a major step away from the ‘wilderness’ goals of recent times and represents a threat to the wilderness values of national parks and world heritage listed areas.

However, a certain level of development may be appropriate, given the serious deterioration of many of the amenities and signage within New South Wales national parks. Many access routes are also seriously degraded following years of poor management.

Perhaps a quality New South Wales national parks and reserves web site could be developed, with the current web site being quite dated and not particularly useful for visitors to the national parks of New South Wales. Quality information on the attractions and access to each national park would greatly improve the tourist potential of New South Wales national parks.

If quality visitor brochures/leaflets on such things as camping facilities, access routes, walking trails and park attractions could be developed and made available via PDF documents on the web site, potential visitors could plan their trips and this would certainly increase visitor numbers to the national parks.

Quality content and relevant up-to-date information on each national park, as well as well maintained access routes and facilities would encourage far more people to visit the national parks and give visitors a memorable experience.

BELOW: Footage of the Warrumbungle National Park in NSW.

FUEL PRICES CONTINUE TO RISE


The price of unleaded petrol in Australia reached 173.9 cents a litre this past week, with expectations that it may well reach $2.00 a litre by the end of the year. A report from the CSIRO stated that petrol prices may well reach $8.00 a litre by 2018.

With the way that fuel prices are continuing to rise, petrol is rapidly becoming a luxury item that low income earners will soon be unable to afford, if they can still afford it now.

There are various ways that Australians are trying to cope with the rise of fuel prices – use less petrol, ensure you do everything you need to do with the one car journey, use petrol reduction dockets when possible, no longer purchase some items or take part in certain entertainment, etc.

What does the future hold for ordinary Australians? Surely there will be a major shift in the way we live our lives should there be no alternative to petrol in the near future. There may well be major economic consequences with various industries collapsing (such as tourism) and staff being unable to get to their jobs, etc. Perhaps there will be employer funded transport (such as company bus runs, etc). It is likely that public transport will soon be under major stress and the need for increased public transport infrastructure will soon become apparent.

One thing is sure – something will soon have to give. Things cannot continue the way they currently are.

Petrol Bowser

Petrol Bowser