‘Like a new planet’: Volcano draws visitors to Spanish island

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An aerial photo shows tourists walking down a path amid ash from the eruption of the Tajogaite volcano. AFP

When the volcano erupted on La Palma last year, Teodoro Gonzalez Perez rushed to the Spanish island to see the lava flowing with his own eyes – now he’s back for another look.

This time he’s here to get a closer look at the volcano now that it’s calmed down.

“It’s like walking on the surface of a new planet,” said the 54-year-old nurse from the neighboring island of Tenerife as she hiked through a lush pine forest covered in black ash to reach the site.

Volcano Spain 3 An aerial view of the Tajogaite volcano, in the Cumbre Vieja mountain range. AFP

“Visiting a recently erupted volcano is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he told AFP.

Since the volcano erupted on September 19, 2021, spewing rivers of molten rock and ash plumes into the air, interest in visiting La Palma has been booming.

The island is normally one of the least visited of Spain’s tourism-dependent Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.

In August, average hotel occupancy on the island reached 90.9%, well above expectations, with visitors from the rest of Spain accounting for the bulk of overnight stays, according to the lobby group of Ashotel hotel.

Volcano Spain 1 Jtrees emerging from ash covering a hill a year after the Tajogaite volcano erupted. AFP

“Before the eruption, we were struggling to publicize the island,” ASHOTEL vice-president Carlos Garcia Sicilia told AFP.

“On the one hand, the volcano was a misfortune, a blow to the economy of the island. On the other, I think half the planet has now heard of La Palma.”

As images beamed around the world of the 85-day eruption focused on the destruction caused by the volcano, news reports also highlighted the charms of the tiny island – which helped sharpen the appetite to get to La Palma.

Nicknamed “La Isla Bonita” or “The Beautiful Island”, La Palma is a UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserve filled with verdant forests, rocky peaks and desert.

As close as possible

Since the eruption, the number of cruise ships stopping at the island has increased, as has the number of direct flights from mainland Spain and elsewhere in Europe.

Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair opened its first La Palma base in March and offers several direct flights a week to three Spanish cities plus Milan.

Volcano Spain 4 Graja-Tours owner and guide Lotte von Lignau (R) talks to hikers as they go on a tour to visit the Tajogaite volcano. AFP

Business is also booming for tour operators offering day trips by ferry from Tenerife, the largest and most visited island in the Canaries.

Tenerife-based Jesus Tours runs its 135-Euro ($135) 11-hour tour of La Palma three days a week now, up from just one before the eruption.

“People want to get as close as possible to where the eruption happened,” company founder Jesus Molina told AFP.

Ash and rivers of lava spewing from the volcano have engulfed more than 1,000 homes, cut off highways and smothered lush banana plantations.

On a recent weekday, small groups of tourists could often be seen snapping photos of excavators removing giant chunks of solidified lava from the center of La Laguna, a town where molten rock has swallowed a gas station and supermarket.

Among those flocking to the island are regular visitors, one of whom is Rita Ley, a retired German woman who said she wanted to see what it looked like after the eruption.

Volcano Spain 2 Slava flows covering banana plantations near Puerto de Naos on the Canary Island of La Palma. AFP

“It’s terrible to see that everything is destroyed, but it’s interesting to see how the land is alive,” the 59-year-old said.

Travel vouchers

The government now sees tourism as the key to the recovery of the island’s economy.

He has spent heavily promoting travel to La Palma and has given away 20,000 travel vouchers worth 250 euros to residents of Spain which can be used at hotels and restaurants on the island.

To help attract more tourists, authorities have inaugurated a new zipline and visitors center at the Roque de Los Muchachos Astronomical Observatory.

It also helps to restore tourist infrastructure.

About 3,000 of La Palma’s 8,000 tourist beds were either destroyed in the eruption or located in areas that remain off limits due to dangerous levels of volcanic gases, primarily at Puerto Naos on the southwest coast.

Hawaii and Iceland saw a similar increase in tourists after experiencing volcanic eruptions, but visitor interest eventually waned and some tourism operators in La Palma expect the same to happen.

Jonas Perez, founder of Isla Bonita Tours, predicted that the volcanic eruption “won’t be so fresh in people’s minds” in a few years.

“La Palma won’t be as popular anymore,” he said.

France Media Agency

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