‘Like a new planet’: Volcano draws visitors to Spanish isle

When the volcano erupted in La Palma last year, Teodoro González Pérez rushed to the Spanish island to see the lava flows with his own eyes - now he's back for another look.

'Like a new planet': Volcano draws visitors to Spanish isle
Volcano tourism in La Palma. Photo: Juan MAZA CALLEJA / AFP

This time, he’s here to see the volcano closer up now it has quieted down. “It’s like walking on the surface of a new planet,” said the 54-year-old nurse from the nearby island of Tenerife while hiking through a lush pine forest carpeted with black ash to reach the site.

“Visiting a volcano which recently erupted is an opportunity that only arises once in a lifetime,” he told AFP.

Since the volcano erupted on September 19th, 2021, spewing rivers of molten rock and ash plumes into the air, interest in visiting La Palma is booming.

The island is normally one of the less visited ones of Spain’s tourism-dependent Canary Islands off Africa’s northwestern coast.

In August, the average hotel occupancy on the island hit 90.9 percent, well above expectations, with visitors from the rest of Spain accounting for the bulk of the overnight stays, according to local hotel lobby group ASHOTEL.

“Before the eruption, we struggled to make the island known,” ASHOTEL’s vice president Carlos Garcia Sicilia told AFP.

“On the one hand, the volcano has been a misfortune, a huge blow to the island’s economy. On the other, I think half the planet has now heard of La Palma.”

While the images beamed around the world during the 85-day eruption focused on the destruction caused by the volcano, news reports also highlighted the tiny island’s charms – which has helped whet the appetite for travel to La Palma.

Nicknamed “La Isla Bonita” or “The Beautiful Island”, La Palma is a UNESCO-recognised biosphere reserve replete with verdant forests, rocky peaks and desert.

‘As close as possible’

Since the eruption, the number of cruise ships stopping at 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.

Business is also booming for tour companies offering day trips by ferry from Tenerife, the largest and most visited island of the Canaries.

Excursiones Jesus, based in Tenerife, runs its €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 where the eruption happened,” company founder Jesus Molina told AFP.

The ash and rivers of lava spewing from the volcano swallowed up more than 1,000 homes, cut off highways and suffocated lush banana plantations.

On a recent weekday, small groups of tourists could often be seen snapping pictures of excavators removing giant chunks of solidified lava from the centre of La Laguna, a town where the molten rock swallowed up a gas station and a supermarket.

Among those flocking to the island are regular visitors, one of whom is Rita Ley, a retired German woman who said she wanted to see what it looked like after the eruption.

“It is terrible to see that everything is destroyed, but it’s interesting to see how the earth is alive,” said the 59-year-old.

Travel vouchers

The government now sees tourism as key to the recovery of the island’s economy. It has spent heavily to promote travel to La Palma and has given away 20,000 travel vouchers worth €250 to residents of Spain that can be used in hotels and restaurants on the island.

To help draw more tourists, the authorities have inaugurated a new zip-line and a visitors’ centre at the Roque de los Muchachos astronomical observatory. It is also helping restore the tourism infrastructure.

Around 3,000 of La Palma’s 8,000 tourist beds were either destroyed in the eruption, or are located in areas that remain off limits due to dangerous levels of volcanic gases, mainly in Puerto Naos on the southwestern coast.

Hawaii and Iceland saw a similar increase in tourists after they experienced volcanic eruptions but visitor interest eventually waned and some tourism operators in La Palma expect the same to happen.

Jonas Perez, founder of Isla Bonita Tours, predicted the volcanic eruption “won’t be as fresh in people’s memory” in a few years. “La Palma will no longer be as popular,” he said.

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Spanish islanders struggle one year after volcanic eruption

"Our plan now is... there are no plans," said a tearful Leticia Sánchez García, a year after her house was buried under lava from a volcano that erupted on the Spanish island of La Palma.

Spanish islanders struggle one year after volcanic eruption

After living with friends for months, the 34-year-old was finally able to move in May, along with her partner and three young children, into a prefabricated wooden house provided by the government.

Yet for her and many others on the tiny isle, part of the Canary Islands chain off Africa’s northwest coast, life remains difficult.

On Monday, it will be a year to the day since the Tajogaite volcano – previously known as Cumbre Vieja for the ridge on which it sits – erupted.

A year on, Sánchez and others like her face an uncertain future. Sánchez works as a geriatric nursing assistant, but her contract expires in December.

Her partner lost his job when the banana plantation where he worked was destroyed by the volcano. Now he is employed by the local government as a street sweeper but his contract too ends in December.

The family can stay in the three-bedroom house for one year for free. “I am still in denial,” she admitted, sitting on the patio of her new house in Los Llanos de Aridane, the economic centre of the island of around 83,000 people. “I still think I will return one day.”

From the patio, Sánchez can see the volcano that upended her life and the mountain slope where her house once stood. But she avoids looking in that direction, she said. She missed her “garden, her chickens, making plans with friends”.

‘Rather be dead’

The volcano rumbled for 85 days, ejecting ash and rivers of lava that swallowed up more than a 1,000 homes.  It also destroyed schools, churches and health centres, cut off highways and suffocated the lush banana plantations that drive the island’s economy.

So far, the government has provided more than €500 million towards temporary housing, road repairs, clearing ash and financial support to people who lost their jobs.

But many locals complain that the pace of reconstruction is too slow. Applications for public aid are complex, they say: craftsmen are often booked out, building materials scarce and construction permits too slow in coming.

So far, only five of the 121 prefabricated houses bought by the government have been allotted to people left homeless by the volcano, says the regional government.

Around 250 people whose homes were destroyed are still living in hotels, according to the Platform of Victims of the Volcano, which lobbies for those who lost their property. Another 150 are staying with friends and family.

“No one died in the eruption,” said the group’s president, Juan Fernando Pérez Martín, a 70-year-old former high school teacher who has polio.

“But some of us would rather be dead than suffer all these strong emotions, all these problems we are facing.”

His house, which was adapted for his wheelchair, was buried under more than 20 metres of molten rock.

Frustrated by the delays in getting government aid, he took out a bank loan to buy a more modest house in the central town of El Paso and adapt it for his disability. He lives there with his Mexican wife.

‘In limbo’

One of the few items they were able to take when they fled their previous home was a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which now features prominently in their kitchen. Everything else is gone, including Martin’s prized collection of nearly 6,000 books.

“I can never recover that,” he told AFP in the patio of his new home where he likes to smoke cigars.

While the eruption was officially declared over on Christmas Day, the volcano will continue to release toxic gases for a long time.

That is why some 1,100 people are still unable to return to their homes in and around Puerto Naos, a resort town on the southwest coast of the island.

The gas levels in the area are considered too dangerous. Signs featuring skulls and crossbones at the entrance to the town warn of the “risk of asphyxiation”.

“We are in limbo,” said Eulalia Villalba Simon, 58, who owns a restaurant and flat in Puerto Naos to which she no longer has access.

She now rents an apartment on the other side of the island, surviving thanks to aid from the government and charities.

“We don’t know when we can go back or even if we will be able to return because we have been told it could last for months or years,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen.”