Prince William to tour N.Z., Australia disaster zones
Prince William will take time out from wedding planning to visit disaster-stricken areas of New Zealand and Australia later this month, royal officials said Wednesday.
Earthquake-devastated Christchurch, where hundreds died in a 6.3-magnitude tremor that flattened swathes of New Zealand's second largest city last month, will be the Prince's first stop, St James's Palace said.
The 28-year-old will also represent Queen Elizabeth II in other New Zealand and Australian communities hit by a string of catastrophes in recent months including cyclones, flooding and a deadly mine explosion, the Palace said.
It said the Prince would use the March 17 to 21 trip, which comes just over a month before his April 29 wedding to Kate Middleton, to meet victims and thank those involved in emergency and support services.
"The royal family wanted to show solidarity with the Australian and New Zealand people at this time of devastating natural disasters," a Palace spokesman told Australian Associated Press.
"They've watched the unfolding tragedies, first in Australia and then in New Zealand, with great sadness and disbelief."
The Palace said the visit followed invitations from New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard.
Middleton was not expected to accompany him because the trip was an official royal visit, reports said.
Prince William will arrive in Christchurch on March 17 and attend a national memorial the next day for those killed in the February 22 quake that Key has said left the city where he grew up resembling a war zone.
The second in line to the throne will also visit Greymouth, where 29 miners died late last year when a gas explosion tore through the Pike River colliery.
Key said the visit would comfort New Zealanders as the country faced "its darkest hours".
"This is a heart-warming gesture that will mean a lot to the thousands of people whose lives have been forever changed by these events," he said.
"I would like to personally thank The Queen for thinking of New Zealand in its darkest hours and very much look forward to seeing Prince William again, even though it is in very sad circumstances."
A national state of emergency declared after the Christchurch disaster remains in place and many in the city are without basic services such as power and sewerage, more than two weeks after the tremor.
In Australia, Prince William plans to spend two days touring cyclone-ravaged areas of Queensland from March 19 to 20, then travel to northwest Victoria, which was hit by severe flooding in January, before departing on March 21.
The Australian disasters killed at least 35 people, swamping thousands of homes and businesses in the worst-hit areas.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said the visit would help the state's struggling tourism industry.
"I hope that he sends the message back to his friends and colleagues in the U.K. that Queensland is open for business and that while he's here he gets an opportunity to see that himself," she told the state parliament.
Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu echoed the sentiment, saying the visit "will provide immense support and comfort to communities and families stricken by these floods".
Queen Elizabeth II remains the official head of state in New Zealand and Australia, which are both former British colonies and members of the Commonwealth.
Prince William last visited New Zealand and Australia in January 2010.
© 2011 AFP