APSN Banner

Despite recent tragedies, Indonesia's volcano tourism continues to grow in popularity

ABC News - January 17, 2024

Bill Birtles –- On the rim of an 800-metre volcanic crater, tour guide Junaedi is shielding his face from the sulphur dioxide wafting from below.

The seasoned hiker isn't too bothered by the rotten egg smell, but some tourists are coughing, spluttering and even vomiting from it.

Junaedi, though, thinks it is a small price to pay. "Each time I stand here, it feels like a reminder to us of how small we are. It feels incredible," he says.

Junaedi makes a living taking tourists up to Mount Bromo, one of Indonesia's most famous active volcanoes, situated in East Java.

At 2,329 metres, it's both accessible for visitors and, according to Junaedi, safe to visit.

"The volcanic movements that occur inside are monitored every second, so authorities can quickly anticipate if there are dangerous changes occurring," he said.

As it happens, eruptions are relatively common.

The last major one, in 2019, prompted authorities to declare a one-kilometre exclusion zone near the crater.

But most of the time, a thriving tourism industry attracting visitors from across Indonesia and abroad ensures a steady flow of people to the top.

"The risk of an eruption in an active volcano is never going to be zero," said Ana Casas Ramos, a volcanologist at Australian National University.

'Raining with hot rocks'

The danger of volcano tourism has come into focus after Indonesia had its worst volcano tragedy since 2021 last month.

Twenty-four hikers, most of them young university students, died when their weekend hike to another active volcano, Mount Marapi in Sumatera, went terribly wrong.

The 2,884-metre volcano erupted, spewing ash four kilometres into the air, as 75 hikers were making their way up the mountain.

"When the eruption first happened, Marapi sounded like it coughed, twice," said Bima Pratama Nasra, a student who survived only after his friend carried him down the mountain on his back.

"We ran, but less than a minute later, we heard rumbling sounds and then it was raining with hot rocks.

"The rocks were big – about the size of our heads, and they kept falling for ages."

He said clouds of black ash then washed over his position halfway up the mountain, and despite his best efforts, he breathed in hot ash, which also burnt his skin.

While Bima was carried to safety by his friend, many higher up the mountain perished.

Another 19-year-old student named Zhafira was rescued, but she succumbed to burns injuries later in hospital.

Despite the ordeal, the lure of volcanoes still lingers for Bima.

"I have no trauma about climbing volcanoes. What happened was an accident, it was God's plan that we couldn't escape from," he said.

Tragedies not fuelling a decline in volcano tourism

Indonesia isn't the only country that's seen lives lost due to sudden volcanic eruptions.

An eruption in 2019 on New Zealand's White Island killed 22 people, mostly tourists, and left others with severe burns.

In a subsequent workplace safety investigation, the company that ran tours to the island was found guilty of not carrying out adequate risk assessments for trips to the island.

In Indonesia, home to more than 100 active volcanoes – the most of any country in the world – safety issues continue to arise.

"In the case of Indonesia, my understanding is they have a good monitoring system, good capabilities and a solid network of monitoring," said Dr Casas Ramos.

But local authorities acting on the advice from geological monitoring agencies appear to be less certain.

At Mount Marapi, authorities had since 2011 implemented a ban on people going within three kilometres of the crater due to ongoing volcanic activity.

Despite that, hikers were able to routinely climb up the mountain in defiance of the ban and checkpoints.

"People are either too used to volcanic activity, where they pretty much neglect the risk, or there have been disasters where a volcano has not erupted for hundreds of years. So there's no way people can have that notion of risk," said Dr Casas Ramos.

"So what happened in Marapi is a bit of both perhaps – people lost that notion of risk."

Having studied volcanoes up close around the world, the Canberra-based geochemist is well aware of why people continue to take the risk.

"Once you're on the top, the feeling you get is very humbling," she said.

"You understand the earth is alive, you understand how small humans truly are compared to earth forces."

She said hikers can still enjoy volcanoes as an experience but proper research and consultation with authorities needs to be undertaken.

It's a sentiment shared by Junaedi, who says the Marapi tragedy isn't putting people off climbing other volcanoes.

"It's not declining at all; even more tourists are coming," he said.

"As a guide, it's our responsibility to make sure that they return home safely."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-01-17/indonesia-volcano-tourism-growth-despite-tragedy/10335931