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Visiting volcanoes big business in Indonesia but safety in spotlight after several eruptions including Marapi

Channel News Asia - December 7, 2023

The dangers of visiting volcanoes have been thrown sharply into focus in Indonesia after the deadly eruption at Mount Marapi and subsequent ones at other well-known volcanoes, while also drawing attention to the limitations of the country's early warning systems.

The eruption of Marapi in West Sumatra on Sunday (Dec 3) spew ash more than 3,000 metres into the air and blanketed nearby villages with volcanic debris. Twenty-three people were killed.

Since then, eruptions have been logged at four other volcanoes nationwide: Mount Merapi in Central Java, Anak Krakatau in the Sunda Strait, Ili Lewotolok in East Nusa Tenggara and Mount Dukono in North Maluku.

No casualties have been reported in these incidents; nearby residents have been told to be vigilant and watch out for volcanic ashfall.

Still, it is a reminder of Indonesia's geographic reality along the so-called 'Ring of Fire'.

All these highlight the need for both tourists and travel agencies to strictly follow the safety recommendations as predicting eruptions remains imperfect, say officials.

"We cannot predict when volcanoes will erupt, we can only predict when an eruption occurs, what is the safe distance," said Ms Heruningtyas Desi Purnamasari, Head of the Volcano Observation Sub-team of Indonesia's Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation (PVMBG).

Volcanoes as tourist destinations

Visiting mountains, which includes volcanoes, is big business in Indonesia, particularly at well-known peaks. According to local media, 150,000 foreign travellers and three million domestic tourists climbed mountains in Indonesia in 2020, based on the records of the Indonesian Mountain Guides Association.

Mount Merapi in Central Java is one of the top volcanic destinations, despite being one of the country's most active volcanoes. A fresh eruption took place just on Monday (Dec 4).

While climbers are advised not to approach within a 7km radius from the crater, there are many tourist sites in the area.

A popular tour package for Merapi provides a jeep ride and sunrise viewing. Jeep rental services there can see up to 10,000 tourists daily during high seasons such as the Eid holiday.

Even then, local tourism officials are aware that things could go south very quickly, and have introduced measures to manage the risk.

Powerful eruptions at Merapi in 2010 devastated local communities; 353 people were killed and more than 61,000 displaced.

"We have 34 early warning system points located up to 20km from the peak of Merapi... (while) on the west side there are lava barriers," said Mr Wasita, head of tourism destination development and creative economy at the Sleman tourism office.

There have also been ongoing efforts to build up a culture of vigilance for both travel companies as well as tourists, pointed out Mr Wasita, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

One is an appeal for tourists to park their cars facing the road for a quick getaway in the event of an emergency, he said.

Notable volcanic eruptions in Indonesia in past years

Nov 2017: Mount Agung – Bali. Successive eruptions prompted evacuation orders for more than 100,000 people in the area. Ashfall forced the closure of the island's main airport, grounding flights and stranding travellers.

Dec 2018: Mount Anak Krakatau – Sunda Strait. The eruption partially collapsed the volcano's flank, triggering a tsunami that hit the coasts of Java and Sumatra. More than 400 people were killed and around 14,000 others injured. Thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Dec 2021: Mount Semeru – East Java. The eruption produced pyroclastic flows which engulfed nearby villages. More than 50 people were killed and dozens more injured.

Limitations of early warning systems

Indonesia is home to 127 active volcanoes as it straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire. More than half of them are deemed prone to eruption, and have early warning systems in place.

This includes Mount Marapi in West Sumatra, which has been on the second alert level of the country's four-step warning scale since 2011. People are not allowed to approach within a 3km radius from the peak.

"For volcanoes classified under alert level two, we send observation evaluation letters every two weeks to stakeholders," said Ms Purnamasari from PVMBG.

The information provided includes the volcano's current status and the center's recommendations, she added. A press statement is also pushed out on social media if an increase in seismic activity is logged.

"We also send an emergency response team if the mountain is on a heightened alert status," Ms Purnamasari told CNA.

But predicting a volcanic eruption is not an exact science, as Mount Marapi has made painfully clear.

The major eruption on Sunday (Dec 3) was not preceded by a significant increase in volcanic earthquakes, noted Mr Hendra Gunawan, head of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation as reported by the Associated Press.

Volcanic earthquakes are an indicator that an eruption could be on the horizon.

"Marapi eruptions are always sudden and difficult to detect using equipment because the source is near the surface," Mr Gunawan said.

Visiting a volcano: What precautions to take

Because of the challenges in predicting eruptions, it is vital for people to heed the authorities' advice, say analysts and officials.

"Active volcanoes can erupt at any time. When there is a recommendation not to approach the safety radius, abide by it as much as possible," said Ms Purnamasari from PVMBG.

Tourists should ensure they engage the services of a certified travel agent or tour guide, said Mr Sapta Nirwandar, chairman of the non-profit Indonesian Tourism Forum.

It's important to get information about the latest weather and terrain conditions before setting off, he added.

"Don't be reckless because it involves lives. Now all information can be checked on the internet," Mr Sapta told CNA.

"If the risk is high, look for other mountains to visit; there are still many inactive volcanoes in Indonesia."

[Additional reporting by Denny Armandhanu.]

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/indonesia-tourism-volcano-safety-marapi-early-warning-397185