Stirring volcano's fatal attraction

LEGAZPI CITY, THE PHILIPPINES - Mayon volcano, famed for its near-perfect cone and brutal volatility, has begun to stir again.

But, even as the authorities rushed to evacuate thousands yesterday ahead of a possible deadly eruption, locals involved in the tourist industry expect Mayon's latest burst to be a mini-boom.

"This will boost local tourism… It's like a party. People are out at night watching," said Marti Calleja, who runs all-terrain-vehicle tours near Mayon for as many as 100 tourists per week.

"It's dramatic, like a fireworks show… When there's nothing happening, it's all dark around here, but now, it's picture-perfect," Mr Calleja told AFP.

He said that when Mayon became active in the past, his clients often requested night tours to see the glowing crater.

Aljon Banares, who works for a backpackers' inn 12km from the volcano, was also preparing for more visitors.

"We have more guests in situations like this. Tourists want to see the lava flow," Mr Banares said.

The area, about 330km south-east of Manila, is already a draw for visitors who want to see Mayon's cone, sample the region's spicy cuisine and visit its beautiful beaches.

Four foreign tourists and their local tour guide were killed when Mayon last erupted, in May last year.

However they were on the volcano's slopes at the time, and Mr Banares said tourists would not be in danger if they acted sensibly.

"We tell our clients that it's safe, as long as they follow the government's warnings," he said.

Lava cascaded down Mayon, the Philippines' most active volcano, yesterday and the authorities moved to evacuate thousands.

Mostly women, children and the elderly carrying bags of clothes were hauled out of farming villages near Mayon's slopes on board army trucks and minibuses.

Soldiers went from house to house asking residents to evacuate, after the authorities on Monday raised the third-highest alert in a five-step scale, meaning a full-scale eruption is possible "within weeks".

Before dawn yesterday, Mayon's crater glowed red, as molten rocks flowed as far as halfway down its slopes.

The volcano's world-renowned perfect cone appeared to have been deformed, swollen with lava that had risen from the earth's core.

At least 8,000 of the target 50,000 people had been moved to temporary shelters, with the operation expected to run for three days, regional civil-defence director Bernardo Alejandro told AFP.

The 2,460m Mayon has a long history of deadly eruptions. In 1814, more than 1,200 people were killed when lava flows buried the town of Cagsawa.

An explosion in August 2006 did not cause direct deaths, but four months later, a passing typhoon unleashed an avalanche of volcanic mud from Mayon's slopes that killed 1,000 people.

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