Christchurch Faces Task of Rebuilding After Quake Strikes

Almost 700,000 visitors a year flock to Christchurch’s 130-year-old cathedral to admire its stained-glass windows or climb the spire. As many as 22 bodies may be entombed in its rubble today after New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake in 80 years, police say.

More than 140 people were killed last week by the 6.3-magnitude temblor that devastated New Zealand’s oldest city and toppled the cathedral’s tower, according to police estimates. Restoring Christchurch’s reputation as one of the nation’s top travel destinations will take as much rebuilding as its stone and concrete landmarks, business leaders say.

“The central city has changed forever,” Peter Townsend, head of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, said in a telephone interview. “I can relate to the fact that people will not want to come to Christchurch while we have this specter of earthquakes and aftershocks.”

The city, modeled after Oxford in England by mid-19th Century settlers, drew 519,000 tourists who flew in from abroad last year, or 21 percent of all visitors to the country, according to Tourism New Zealand. Tourism generated almost 10,000 jobs and almost NZ$800 million ($600 million) for Christchurch and the surrounding region in 2009, Tourism Industry Association of New Zealand figures show.

A third of all those who visited Christchurch last year said they did so to look at heritage sites such as the cathedral, the old Provincial Chambers on Durham Street and the former municipal chambers built in 1887, according to Tourism New Zealand.

History’s Appeal

All three sites are damaged, as are dozens of smaller brick and masonry buildings built in the early 1900s and now used to house shops, businesses, bars and restaurants.

About 755 buildings in the city center, or about a quarter of the total, have been condemned, according to the Christchurch City Council website. More than 40 percent of the buildings have been cleared by inspectors and about a third can be entered though more analysis is needed.

“Without question, the tourism industry is severely disrupted,” Tim Cossar, chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of New Zealand, said in a telephone interview. “The cold hard facts of it are that central city Christchurch is closed down and that’s the main part of the visitor experience.”

Historic churches in the central city, some of which were surrounded by scaffolding for repairs after an earthquake on Sept. 4, are among the buildings most badly hit. St Luke’s, an Anglican church on Kilmore Street, partially collapsed, though a separate white wooden bell tower remains intact.

Disaster’s Toll

“I don’t think a lot of people are going to want to go anywhere near the city,” said David Paterson, a 69-year-old taxi driver who was sitting in his taxi north of the city center when the latest quake struck. “The historic buildings are a draw card when people visit and I’m afraid they’re gone.”

The most recent quake adds to a mounting toll of disasters on New Zealand’s South Island, where 29 men were killed when an explosion ripped through a coal mine in November.

The Feb. 22 quake could cut New Zealand’s gross domestic product by at least half a percentage point, ANZ National Bank Ltd. said last week. The local currency approached a decade low against its Australian counterpart on concern the fallout may tip the country into a recession. The Christchurch region accounts for about 15 percent of GDP.

Economic Costs Mount

The economic costs of this week’s temblor will likely put more strain on consumer confidence, tourism revenue and public finances already facing an estimated NZ$5 billion ($3.7 billion) cleanup bill from the September quake. Both quakes may cost more than NZ$10 billion, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee told reporters on Feb. 25.

For Christchurch, the disasters threaten its image as a quiet city proud of its English heritage.

Since the Feb. 22 quake, many local events have been canceled and hotel operators say tourists are going elsewhere.

The Ellerslie Flower Show scheduled for next month was scrapped. The city may also be unable to host its 2011 Rugby World Cup matches scheduled for Sept. 9-Oct. 23 at AMI Stadium, Hamish Riach, chief executive officer of the Canterbury Rugby Football Union, told Television New Zealand on Feb. 23.

“We were getting full days and then this happened,” said Grant Kelly, owner of the Alcala Motor Lodge, which is located three blocks from the city’s cathedral. “Hopefully people have short memories.”

Square Falls Silent

Since the Feb. 22 quake, the cathedral square that once bustled with tourists and shoppers has fallen silent and is deserted except for rescue workers crawling over the rubble of the collapsed spire. The statue of John Godley, founder of the province in 1850, lies collapsed on the ground.

Shop fronts are broken. Wine bottles, books and souvenirs are strewn across the ground. Mannequins displaying woolen clothing are overturned.

Bridges over the Avon River, which meanders through the city center, are cordoned off, their supports riddled with cracks. Edwardian-style boats normally used to carry visitors on a 30-minute river trip sit unattended. Cracks can be seen in the city’s 87-year-old Bridge of Remembrance, built to commemorate soldiers killed in World War I.

“There’s going to be a big step to get back to business as usual,” said Townsend of the chamber of commerce. “Tourism is an extraordinarily important industry for Christchurch and we have to make sure we do everything we can to encourage people back.”

Back at the cathedral, a crane lowers rescue workers through a hole in its roof. A car lies crushed beneath a pile of the landmark’s rubble.

“If we rebuild, we rebuild the spirit of the community,” Rev. Peter Beck, dean of the Christchurch Cathedral, said in a telephone interview. “Every community needs its icons, and that’s what the cathedral is.”

(Adds number of condemned buildings in seventh paragraph.)
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