Is volcano tourism ever safe?
Tourists were allowed to visit White Island in New Zealand despite warnings of imminent eruption
The deaths of at least six people in the New Zealand volcano eruption this week have fuelled concerns over the safety of so-called “volcano tourism”.
The White Island volcano, around 30 miles off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, violently erupted while tourists were in the vicinity, prompting questions over why the victims had been allowed to visit during a period of known volcanic activity.
Why were people allowed to visit White Island?
For weeks prior to the eruption, volcanologists had been reporting increased seismic activity at the site, and warned in mid-November of a possibility of “eruptions of steam, gas, mud and rocks”, reports NPR.
in an article for The Conversation, Michael Lueck, professor of tourism at the Auckland University of Technology, says: “Hindsight is always 20/20, but any visit to an active volcano, or volcanic field bears a certain amount of risk, and usually it is managed by governmental bodies generally, and the tourism industry in particular.”
But White Island is privately owned, and only permitted operators are allowed to take tourists on guided tours of the volcano. As such, the decision over whether or not to welcome tourists on any given day is entirely in the hands of the tour operators.
Geologist Alan Clewlow, who has been running volcano tours across the globe for decades, told CNN recently that White Island was the most dangerous volcano he had been to.
Clewlow said he was offered a gas mask and hard hat when he visited the island, and was warned about its eruption status. And Ray Cas, an emeritus professor in geosciences at Monash University, Melbourne, said it “has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years”, adding: “Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter.”
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Are other volcanoes dangerous to visit?
Despite the huge flow of tourism at active volcanoes perhaps lulling visitors into a false sense of security, there are always risks associated with visiting active volcanoes.
While extinct volcanoes pose little risk to human life, some active or even dormant ones are notoriously unpredictable and can be extremely dangerous, and experts have warned that some thrill-seekers are taking excessive risks in order to get a good view when visiting them.
A 2018 report from the Royal Geographical Society found that such tourists often “fail to understand the seriousness of the risk” associated with volcanoes, such as being hit by chunks of rock or lava bombs.
The BBC notes that people may also attempt to get close to a “fire fountain” and not realise there could be poisonous gases in the vicinity.
Even some of the most popular volcanoes for tourists pose a major safety hazard, such as Vesuvius near Naples in Italy, which is decades late for its next expected eruption, and Costa Rica’s spectacular Arenal volcano, where visitors have to rely solely on park rangers to rope it off in the event of an eruption.
But even these popular sites can experience dramatic and fatal eruptions. In July this year, the island volcano of Stromboli off Italy’s south-west coast erupted violently, killing one visitor.