La Palma Island (Spain) (AFP) – When the volcano in La Palma erupted last year, Teodoro Gonzalez Perez rushed to the Spanish island to see lava flowing with his own eyes – and now he’s back for another look.
This time, he’s here to see the volcano up close now that it has calmed down.
“It’s like walking on the surface of a new planet,” said the 54-year-old nurse from nearby Tenerife while walking through a lush, black-carpeted pine forest to reach the site.
“Visiting the recently erupted volcano is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he told AFP.
Since the volcano erupted on September 19, 2021, sending rivers of molten rock and ash plumes into the air, interest in visiting La Palma has been growing.
The island is usually one of the less visited in the tourism-dependent Spanish Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.
In August, hotel occupancy on the island averaged 90.9 percent, well above expectations, and visitors from the rest of Spain accounted for the bulk of overnight stays, according to local hotel lobby group ASHOTEL.
“Before the explosion, we struggled to publicize the island,” Carlos Garcia Cecilia, vice president of Achotel, told AFP.
“On the one hand, the volcano has been an ordeal, and a huge blow to the island’s economy. On the other hand, I think half the planet has now heard of La Palma.”
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While images broadcast around the world during the 85-day eruption focused on the devastation caused by the volcano, news reports also highlighted the small island’s charm—helping whet the appetite for travel to La Palma.
Known as “La Isla Bonita” or “The Beautiful Island,” La Palma is a UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserve filled with lush forests, rocky peaks, and desert.
‘As close as possible’
Since the eruption of the volcano, the number of cruise ships parked on the island has increased, as has the number of direct flights from mainland Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
Irish low-cost airline Ryanair opened its first base in La Palma in March and offers several direct flights per week to three Spanish cities as well as Milan.
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Business is also booming for tour companies offering daily ferry trips from Tenerife, the largest and most visited of the Canary Islands.
Jesus Tours, based in Tenerife, runs its €135 ($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 the site of the explosion,” company founder Jesus Molina told AFP.
Ash and scattered rivers of lava swallowed more than 1,000 homes, cut off highways and choked green banana plantations.
On a recent weekday, small groups of tourists can often be seen snapping photos of excavators removing giant chunks of hard lava from the center of La Laguna, a town where molten rock has swallowed a gas station and supermarket.
Among those who flock to the island are regular visitors, including Rita Lee, a retired German woman who said she wanted to see what she looked like after the eruption.
“It’s horrible to see everything destroyed, but it’s interesting to see how the Earth lives,” said the 59-year-old.
The government now sees tourism as the key to the island’s economic recovery.
It has spent large sums promoting travel to La Palma and has given 20,000 travel vouchers worth 250 euros to Spanish residents that can be used in hotels and restaurants on the island.
To help attract more tourists, authorities have opened a new zip line and visitor center at the Roque de los Muchachos Astronomical Observatory.
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It also helps restore tourism infrastructure.
About 3,000 of the 8,000 tourist beds in La Palma have been destroyed in the eruption, or are located in areas that remain off-limits due to dangerous levels of volcanic gases, particularly in 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 La Palma tourism operators expect the same to happen.
Jonas Perez, founder of Isla Bonita Tours, predicted that the volcanic eruption “will not be fresh in people’s memory” in a few years.
“La Palma will not be as popular,” he said.
© 2022 AFP