Hooked on volcanoes? Tourists vie to catch Iceland's eruptions

Hooked on volcanoes? Tourists vie to catch Iceland's eruptions
Lava seen spewing from an eruption near Grindavik, Iceland, on Dec 19.
PHOTO: Reuters

LONDON/BUDAPEST - As the glowing river of lava from a volcano that erupted last week in Iceland ebbed, not everyone was happy.

Madam Hazel Lane, a 49-year-old dental practice manager in London, had booked a ticket to Reykjavik as soon as she saw footage of the eruption on television, hoping to witness spectacular lava flows beneath molten red skies.

She had already visited Iceland the previous month, but it was too soon. Although the authorities had by that time evacuated the nearly 4,000 inhabitants of the nearby town of Grindavik, weeks passed before the volcano - which lies about 40km south-west of Reykjavik - erupted on Dec 18.

"I had a crazy notion of going to Reykjavik for the day to fly over the volcanic eruption," she said. She arrived with her son and his girlfriend on Dec 22 to find that lava flows had already diminished.

"We're disappointed that the volcanic activity has ceased, but we will still have a beautiful day in Reykjavik."

Madam Lane will probably not have to wait long before the next eruption. Iceland, which is roughly the size of the United States' state of Kentucky and has fewer than 400,000 residents, boasts more than 30 active volcanoes.

That makes the north European island a prime destination for volcano tourism - a niche segment that attracts thousands of thrill-seekers every year to sites in places ranging from Mexico and Guatemala to Sicily, Indonesia and New Zealand.

The decreased activity of the volcano near Grindavik quelled worries of a repeat of the travel chaos caused by ash from a major eruption of the island's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010.

But for local tour agencies planning to take tourists to the site, it was a missed opportunity. Recent eruptions - like the ones in 2021 of Fagradalsfjall volcano in south-west Iceland - have drawn thousands of visitors.

Troll Expeditions - which offers tours to Iceland's ice caves, glaciers, geothermal pools and a range of volcano trips - said tourist bookings to Iceland dropped before the Grindavik eruption owing to the earthquakes preceding it. But the eruption itself quickly brought back interest.

"People are very excited to see the volcano. Unfortunately, the eruption has paused for the moment," the company said by e-mail, noting that it was the fourth eruption in the area in the past three years.

"The other eruptions have been great for tourism, as they have been so-called 'tourist eruptions' where you can get quite close to the crater and witness the lava flow."

Iceland's former president, Mr Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, was already encouraging visitors to get ready for January.

"The predictions are that in two weeks the eruption might start again! Book your flight now so you can witness the earth being created!" he said in a Dec 23 post on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

For dedicated 'lava chasers', nothing beats an arduous climb to the top of a volcano, the walk around a crater and the smell of sulphur in the air.

Often eruptions can be predicted well in advance, leaving plenty of time for evacuations and warnings.

When Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the world's largest active volcano, erupted in late 2022 for the first time since 1984, thousands of awestruck onlookers flocked to see its glowing lava streams. Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency had already said there were no signs that lava would threaten populated areas.

But in some other cases, tourists have paid with their lives.

At the start of December 2023, Indonesia's Marapi volcano erupted, killing 22 climbers who perished near the crater. Marapi is one of the most active volcanoes on Sumatra island and previously erupted in January and February 2023.

Indonesia, which straddles the so-called "Ring of Fire" around the rim of the Pacific Ocean, is home to more than 100 active volcanoes.

White Island in New Zealand, which is also known by the Maori name of Whakaari, has been closed since a disaster in 2019 when a volcanic eruption killed 22 people, mostly tourists. It used to regularly host visitors, though eruptions were not uncommon.

Despite such incidents, visiting volcanoes remains popular and, by managing risks properly, the chance of accidents can be minimalised, said Dr Tom Pfeiffer, a geologist and volcanologist who runs VolcanoDiscovery, a company in Germany.

It organises tours to volcanoes around the world in small groups, taking about 150 people a year to places such as Java, Sulawesi, Sicily, and Iceland. Dr Pfeiffer said interest in visiting volcanoes fluctuates a little, depending on how much media attention they get, but is generally pretty steady.

"I'm sure the average number of accidents of volcano tourists is much lower than the average number of mountain sport accidents," he said by e-mail. "This also holds despite the fortunately very rare cases of big disasters like the recent one at Marapi."

Dr Pfeiffer said many of the accidents that did occur were due to a lack of preparation or information, or excess risk-taking. Relying on local advice from the authorities, volcano observatories and relying on guides with extensive experience could all mitigate the chances of anything going wrong.

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"In case of doubt, we never take the risk," he added.

Iceland has witnessed diverse eruptions in recent years, from ones where lava flows from fissures - like the one last week - to explosive ones of ice-covered volcanoes that spew ash plumes, where fire meets ice. Many of them have been major tourist draws, with the risks well flagged by the local authorities.

The area around Grindavik remains closed off for now, and the Icelandic Meteorological Office said on Dec 27 that magma continued to accumulate under Svartsengi on the Reykjanes peninsula, meaning there is a chance of a fresh eruption.

Mr Arnar Mar Olafsson, director-general of the Icelandic Tourist Board, said some travellers had not respected the closure zone around the eruption site and had to be turned away because they were heading towards the volcano.

"People really want to get close and to go closer and see, but they don't really realise often how dangerous it is," he said. 

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