EL PASO, Spain – The devastating volcanic eruption on the island of La Palma could have a silver lining for one of Spain’s poorest regions.
Scenes of solidified lava walls up to 70 meters high and gases still escaping from the crater lure tourists to the island eager to see for themselves the aftermath of an eruption that lasted 85 days.
Demand for volcano-themed tours has skyrocketed and authorities are investing heavily in promoting La Palma, one of the lesser-visited Canary Islands off West Africa, to rebuild its economy.
But they must balance their future visions for the island with the very urgent needs of the thousands of people whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, and for whom the sight of tourists agape at the destruction could be deeply insensitive.
They must also control any new volcanic activity.
“Despite so much destruction, the volcano has created opportunities and tourism is one of them,” said Mariano Hernandez Zapata, the island’s head of government.
Iceland and Hawaii have seen a similar increase in visitors after suffering volcanic eruptions.
The number of cruise ships calling on the island, for example, has increased, says Zapata, and bringing in more tourists could help La Palma diversify away from agriculture.
The Spanish government last week announced a 9.5 million euro ($10.85 million) plan to promote 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 people what it took from them,” says Sergio Rodriguez, mayor of El Paso, one of the most ravaged cities with areas engulfed by endless mounds of ash and fractured by jagged lava flows.
He is optimistic about potential projects to exploit the eruption – volcanic trails, a science-focused convention center or a cable car high above devastated areas.
Photos by Ash
Business is already booming for tour operator Get Holidays, which organizes an 11-hour trip around the volcano for tourists from the neighboring island of Tenerife at €125 per adult.
A year ago, about 30 people a week arrived in La Palma from Tenerife for a general visit. That number jumped to 1,200 during the eruption and is around 150 a week now, says the company’s Italian founder, Basso Lanzone.
“Although the volcano has stopped, it is very impressive,” said German tourist Ulrike Wenen during a recent tour. “If it’s okay with the people who live here, which is most important, it’s great to see it.”
Visitors were taken by bus to an area surrounded by mounds of ash and where a lava flow had engulfed several homes. Several posed for photos.
Astrophysicist and La Palma resident Ana Garcia, 47, ran four tours a week before the pandemic, showing visitors the island’s clear night skies. She now plans to take a course in volcanology.
“We first have to think about how to survive and think about how we can change our business,” she says.
She earns less than 10% of her pre-pandemic income and struggles to muster enough people for one astronomy visit a week, but hopes the lure of the volcano can help her revive her fortunes.
The volcano’s tongues of molten rock – up to 4 kilometers wide – spread over 1,219 hectares, destroying around 3,000 buildings and farmland. Of the 84,000 inhabitants of the island, 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. His parents’ house and the banana fields are also gone.
She is frustrated that authorities have ruled out rebuilding houses on lava for now, as it could take years to cool down 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 black lava blanket that covers his house.
Her husband Enrique Perez, 36, says the volcano could help boost tourism, but he thinks it shouldn’t be a priority.
“The lives of people who have lost everything are more important,” he says.
“We need to outsmart the volcano and look for ways for people to have hopes, dreams and futures again,” says his wife. —Reuters