Deep craters, glowing lava, high peaks. While volcanoes may be dangerous, they increasingly are tourist attractions in their own right.
They offer travellers an incomparable experience of nature – while at the same time possessing the ability to paralyse air traffic, cover the landscape with ashes and destroy villages. In short, an eruption is a life-threatening spectacle.
There are about 1,500 active volcanoes throughout the world. And as more of the world has taken up travelling, the risk of travel being affected by volcanic eruptions has correspondingly grown as well.
There are around 450 active volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire – 127 in Indonesia alone. In 2010, the Merapi on Java erupted, shooting clouds of ash 18km up into the sky. The area surrounding the volcano had already been evacuated days before, saving many thousands of lives.
“This is a very dangerous volcano,” says Thomas Walter, from a German research centre for geosciences.
But the risks posed by volcanoes aren’t limited to the Ring of Fire: In Europe, for example, there’s Mount Etna in Sicily. In December 2018, there were several small eruptions and quakes. At the same time, the volcano attracts many tourists. “It’s become very easy to get up there, there are bus tours from the hotels,” Walter says.
"During eruptions, volcanologists are also involved in informing tourists and keeping them away from the volcano. But tourists want to see the lava fountains at night,” he says.
Responsible volcanic tourism is important, says the expert. Holidaymakers should ensure they are well-informed. Germany’s Foreign Office, for example, mentions the dangers associated with visiting volcanoes in its travel and safety instructions for the countries concerned. Its website is also a useful resource on the topic.
How worried tourists should be depends on where exactly they are in a particular region. The recent eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii – one of the most active in the world – caused lava flows and damage on the Big Island. But those who wanted to spend their holidays on another Hawaiian island could do so without restrictions.
In fact, the risk of tourists being harmed by a volcanic eruption is relatively low in relation to other hazards while travelling. “The height and bad weather are most often underestimated,” says Walter.
This applies, for example, to the popular Teide volcano on Tenerife, which is almost as high as Austria’s highest peak, the Grossglockner. “Many want to go up there, but the mountain is more than 3,700m high. It’s not possible to climb it in flip-flops,” he says.
And then there are scenarios in which not just tourists are affected. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland erupted in 2010 and paralysed all air traffic in northern and central Europe for several days.
Nevertheless, volcanoes are still popular tourist destinations in Iceland. “We recommend discovering the volcanoes with a guide who can share knowledge, history and interesting facts,” advises Sigridur Dogg Gudmundsdottir of Visit Iceland.
Outside of Europe, volcano trekking is also a popular tourist attraction. This is especially true in Central and South America. In the Andes, impressive volcanoes more than 5,000m or even 6,000m high line up like a string of pearls stretching north to south. There are 80 active volcanoes in South America’s Chile alone.
The Cotopaxi in Ecuador is particularly beautiful – it is also active from time to time. The ash has frequently found its way to the nearby capital, Quito.
Why are people so fascinated by volcanoes anyways? “They make the dynamics of the planet tangible,” says geologist Walter. “You can’t see that a tectonic plate is slowly shifting – but you can see a volcanic eruption.”
And perhaps there is also some kind of ancient thinking behind it: “Fire awakens interest in mankind.” – dpa