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On the edge – is thrill-seeking tourism really worth the risk?

  • Written by  RGS-IBG
  • Published in Tectonics
On the edge – is thrill-seeking tourism really worth the risk? Holuhraun lava flow (Image: Dr Amy Donovan)
20 Dec
Why unprepared tourists are putting themselves at risk in order to see live volcanic eruptions

New research, published today in the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) journal Geo: Geography and the Environment, reveals the dangers that thrill-seeking tourists are exposing themselves to, in the name of experiencing a live volcanic eruption.

The ethnographic study, carried out by geographer Dr Amy Donovan from the University of Cambridge, is the culmination of a four-year research project on transboundary volcanoes that included Iceland as one of several case studies.

Dr Donovan visited Iceland during the 2010 and 2014-2015 volcanic crises. The paper highlights the difficulties Icelandic civil authorities, like others around the world, face when managing tourists who are attracted by the country’s range of volcanoes, particularly during eruptions.

Group of tourists at Fimmvorðuháls EyjafjallajökullGroup of tourists at Fimmvorðuháls Eyjafjallajökull (Image: Dr Amy Donovan)

The research reveals that the key driving force for volcano tourists during an eruption is spectacle and awe; being near a live volcano was listed as being very appealing. Dr Donovan emphasises the visceral experience tourists have when experiencing an eruption: many people don’t realise there is a sound experience as well as visuals. Even if only at the stage of lava flows, a deep guttural noise is created that can be very impressive, sounding similar to breaking glass.

Interviews with people on the ground during eruptions revealed emotional responses to witnessing them at a close proximity and a heady mix of fear for other’s safety, sheer fascination, and powerlessness.

The paper also explores how eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which is referred to by locals as ‘the tourist eruption’, can attract tourist attention and be viewed as ‘adding value’ to a trip. At the time, the caldera of Katla volcano, submerged under more than 200 metres of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, became a motorway as tourists from Iceland and further afield crossed the glacier to reach the eruption site. Their treacherous journeys involved driving up steep slopes of ice, in snowmobiles or snow scooters, and crossing crevasses.

Dr Donovan argues that situations such as these, during which two tourists got lost on the glacier and froze to death, will only add to the frustration felt by local authorities, who already work hard to combat the risks. Yet for the tour companies involved, 2010 was a record year, helped by the eruption’s picturesque volcanic fire fountains.

Holuhraun fissureHoluhraun fissure (Image: Dr Amy Donovan)

While Iceland relies heavily on income from tourism, increased budgets and labour are needed to monitor and protect the growing number of visitors who are ill-equipped, and at times even ignore official safety advice. The Holuhraun eruption in 2014-15 resulted in one group of tourists hiring a private helicopter after dark and landing near to the eruption site. They purposefully disobeyed safety advice in doing so.

Dr Donovan said: ‘Many active volcanic countries face the dilemma of wanting tourists, but also wanting to keep people safe, which creates a difficult conundrum. In Iceland, we are witnessing an increase in road accidents even out of season, with tourists ill-prepared for the challenging driving conditions. This research highlights the careful balance that needs to be found between the positive impacts of tourism and ensuring that visitors are responsible, not putting themselves, or others, at risk.’

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