Could the volcano tourism boost the devastated La Palma?

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INVOLCAN technical team members walk through the ash of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on their way to the crater in Cabeza de Vaca on the Canary Island of La Palma, Spain, January 21, 2022. Picture taken January 21, 2022. REUTERS /Borja Suarez

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  • The demand for volcano-themed tours has risen sharply
  • The authorities invest heavily in tourism promotion
  • La Palma is one of the poorest areas of Spain, less visited islands
  • The 85-day eruption destroyed 3,000 buildings

EL PASO, Spain, February 7 (Reuters) – The devastating volcanic eruption on the island of La Palma could have a silver lining for one of Spain’s poorest areas.

Scenes of solidified lava walls up to 70 meters high and gases still seeping from the crater attract tourists to the island who want to see the aftermath of an 85-day eruption for themselves.

Demand for volcano-themed tours has risen sharply and authorities are investing heavily in promoting La Palma, one of the less visited of the tourism-dependent Canary Islands off West Africa, in a bid to rebuild its economy.

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But they must balance their future visions for the island with the very urgent needs of thousands of people whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, and for whom the sight of tourists marveling at the destruction could be profoundly insensitive.

They must also keep any new volcanic activity in check.

“Although the volcano has caused so much destruction, it has created opportunities and tourism is one of them,” says Mariano Hernandez Zapata, the island’s prime minister.

Iceland and Hawaii saw similar increases in visitor numbers after experiencing volcanic eruptions.

For example, the number of cruise ships stopping on the island has increased, says Zapata, and more tourists could help La Palma diversify from agriculture.

The Spanish government last week announced a €9.5 million ($10.85 million) plan to boost tourism to La Palma after arrivals more than halved in the last four months of 2021 .

“The volcano must give back to this island and its inhabitants what it took from them,” says Sergio Rodriguez, mayor of El Paso, one of the most devastated cities with areas engulfed by endless ash mountains and riven by jagged lava flows.

He’s optimistic about potential projects aimed at exploiting the eruption — volcano trails, a science-focused convention center, or a cable car overlooking devastated areas.

PHOTOS FROM THE ASHES

Travel company Get Holidays is already booming, offering tourists from the nearby island of Tenerife an 11-hour trip around the volcano for €125 per adult.

A year ago, around 30 people per week came from Tenerife for a general tour to La Palma. That number rose to 1,200 during the outbreak and is now around 150 a week, says the company’s Italian founder, Basso Lanzone.

“Even though the volcano has stopped, it is very impressive,” said German tourist Ulrike Wenen on a recent tour. “If the people who live here are okay with it, which is the most important thing, it’s ideal to see.”

Visitors were taken by bus to an area surrounded by cinder hills where a lava flow had engulfed several houses. Several posed for photos.

The astrophysicist and Ana Garcia, 47, who lives on La Palma, conducted four tours a week before the pandemic and showed visitors the clear night sky of the island. Now she is considering taking a course in volcanology.

“We have to think first about how to survive and how to transform our business,” she says.

She makes less than 10% of her pre-pandemic income and is struggling to gather enough people for one astronomy tour a week, but hopes the lure of the volcano can help her revive her fortune.

DESPERATE LOCALS

The volcano’s tongues of molten rock, up to 4 kilometers wide, spread over 1,219 hectares and destroyed about 3,000 buildings and farmland. Of the island’s 84,000 inhabitants, 7,000 had to be evacuated. La Palma also lost 690 of its 16,400 tourist beds.

Teacher Esmeralda Martin, 39, had just two minutes to flee her 10-year-old home, which she shared with her husband and two young children. It is now buried under 40 meters of lava. Her parents’ house and the banana fields have also disappeared.

She is frustrated that authorities have ruled out rebuilding homes on lava for now, as they could take years to cool and the area now lacks water and electricity.

“A lot of families have lost everything and it’s very difficult to start from scratch,” says Martin, looking at the blanket of black lava covering their home.

Her husband Enrique Perez, 36, says the volcano can help boost tourism but believes it shouldn’t be a priority.

“The lives of the people who have lost everything are more important,” he says.

“We have to outmaneuver the volcano and look for ways to give people hope, dreams and a future again,” says his wife.

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Reporting from Joan Faus and Horaci Garcia, additional reporting from Borja Suarez Writing from Joan Faus; Editing by Alexandra Hudson

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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