Hot topic: should volcano tourism be banned?

Following the catastrophic eruption of New Zealand’s Whakaari, volcano tourism is under the spotlight and we’re asking — is it ever safe?

Tuesday, February 11, 2020,
By Simon Usborne
Lava and plumes from the Holuhraun Fissure Eruption by the Bardarbunga Volcano, Iceland
Lava and plumes from the Holuhraun Fissure Eruption by the Bardarbunga Volcano, Iceland
Photograph by Getty

What happened?
Shortly after lunchtime on 9 December 2019, White Island, also known as Whakaari, suddenly erupted. The rocky peak of a giant underwater volcano lies about 30 miles off the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It had been increasingly active yet was a popular destination for licensed tour groups, including those from cruise ships. Of the almost 50 people who were on the privately owned island when it erupted, 19 died. A further 25 were seriously injured.

In the days after, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, announced a year-long investigation to determine if any individual or company was at fault. In the meantime, a burgeoning sector of adventure tourism that uses the spectacle and risk of eruption to market destinations all over the world was facing serious questions about safety. 

Why are volcanoes so popular?
We’ve been bewitched by the elemental beauty of volcanoes for as long as they have spewed lava into the sky. Vesuvius fascinated the Romans before erupting in AD 79 and covering Pompeii and Herculaneum in rock and ash. The discovery of those cities in the 18th century turned Vesuvius into an early tourist hotspot. More recently, the rise in adventure tourism has boosted the profiles of active volcanoes, including Kīlauea in Hawaii, Mount Merapi in Indonesia, Mount Nyiragongo in DRC and Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

Don’t eruptions lessen interest?
Devastating eruptions only boost the appeal of volcanoes. “After the 2010 ash crisis in Iceland we saw a massive increase in tourism,” says Amy Donovan, a geographer and volcanologist at Cambridge University who specialises in volcano tourism. In Whakatane, the town closest to White Island, a boat guide told the New York Times he was receiving enquiries only days after the eruption. One woman who’d visited volcanoes in Hawaii wanted to see White Island close up “to feel the fury”.

Volcanoes can be vital to the local economy. Judy Turner, mayor of Whakatane, described White Island as the anchor of the town, adding: “It’s still the backbone of our economy, and there would be an impact if it closed to the public.” 

The spectacle and financial potential of volcanoes can lead to excessive risk-taking of different kinds. When Icelandic authorities shut down access to the Holuhraun volcano after eruptions in 2014, one group of tourists hired a private helicopter to take them there under the cover of darkness.

Should we shut down tourism to all active volcanoes?
The White Island blast is only the most deadly of a string of recent tragedies and close calls. Last summer, an Italian hiker died when he was struck by a falling rock after an eruption at Stromboli in Italy. 

The challenge for regulating safe passage to craters is that eruptions are almost impossible to predict. Donovan says scientists are working on this, but the relative scarcity of active volcanoes makes it difficult to capture sufficient data. 

Patricia Erfurt, an independent volcano researcher who runs a consultancy called Geotourism Australia, says a blanket ban is not the answer. She says: “Accidents can always happen and volcano tourism can only be as safe as the people in charge of this tourism sector are prepared to make it.”

Ways to visit volcanoes and still stay safe
Do your research

“Tourists tend to assume that if they’re on a tour it must be safe, but it’s not straightforward with volcanoes,” Donovan says. Adventurers should be confident that safety steps have been taken. Visitors to Stromboli have to join an expert guide and wear hard hats, for example. There should also be information about activity levels. In Iceland, the safetravel.is website includes such warnings.

Check for infrastructure 
Erfurt says White Island should have had concrete shelters, which would have offered visitors some protection from falling rocks. Such shelters, or bunkers, are present at several volcanoes. They are, however, no defence against gas or steam. There should also be evacuation plans and marked escape routes.

Come prepared 
The rise in cruise tourism to volcanic sites means many visitors aren’t used to wild environments. “Even geography undergrads have been known to turn up to active volcanoes in heels,” Donovan says. Sturdy shoes are a must — at the very minimum. But the only way to avoid risk at all is simple: stay well away.

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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