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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Burning Attraction ? - Mayon Volcano

Tourism to the volcano a good idea? 

Burning attraction

Ominous posters around this city show the nearby Mayon volcano, erupting forcefully, shooting fiery sparks into the sky with blood-red lava dripping from its mouth. But the words on the poster are cheerful rather than frightening: "Visit Legazpi: Mayon Eruption 2006." The posters are part of an impromptu campaign to find some benefit from a looming disaster that has already forced the evacuation of nearly 40,000 people from their homes on the rumbling volcano?s slopes into overcrowded evacuation centres.
Burning attractonWhile initial estimates of tourist revenues are not available, officials say the volcano, which began oozing lava on July 15 and is on high alert for a full eruption, has helped bring in more local and foreign tourists to this city of about 400,000 people on the poverty-stricken Bicol peninsula. The posters are the brainchild of Legaspi City councillor Cerilo Chan who realised over a week ago that the tourism potential of the volcanic eruption was not being fully exploited.
He printed up the posters and had them placed in different parts of the city and also personally stuck copies at airports, hotels and at the tourism districts in Manila where potential visitors might see them. "I just noticed many foreigners were arriving," but that there were not enough people attending to them, he said. Since then, Chan has been getting many inquiries. He has been successful in attracting some 120 employees of the central bank to vacation here in late July where they personally got to see Mayon put on a fireworks show at night - from a safe distance.
The 8,070-foot (2,460-metre) high volcano has long been a tourist attraction, thanks to its near-perfect cone, its symmetrical slopes and its history of being the most active volcano in the country. But it has been overshadowed by other tourist attractions in recent years such as diving with whale sharks in the nearby coastal town of Donsol. Many of the tourists who pass through Legaspi City just use it as a jumping off point to somewhere else but the eruption of the volcano has revived interest in Mayon.
While government volcanologists warn people not to enter a six to eight kilometre (four to five-mile) danger zone around the crater, the city of Legaspi, located some 15 kilometres away, is well out of danger. Sightseers can watch the volcanic unrest while sipping drinks in the safety of their hotel rooftops. Bernadette Peralta, president of the Legaspi City Tourism Council, a private association, says there is some reluctance to exploit a disaster that is hurting their neighbours.
"We have to be prudent. An eruption would also mean destruction," she says, remarking that some people had criticised the effort to use the eruption to attract tourists. Ironically, the dangerous image of a volcanic eruption has also scared some tourists away.  "There is a perception of fear from other regions," of the Philippines, says Peralta, saying there had been some hotel cancellations.
Despite this, Maria Ravanilla, local director of the national Tourism Department, says there has already been a marked rise in tourist arrivals since the volcano roared into life. A survey of the five top hotels in Legaspi found they had a 62 per cent occupancy rate since mid-July, a time of the year when such hotels usually have a 20 per cent occupancy rate, Ravanilla said.
The survey also found that there were 1,683 foreign tourists who checked in from July 18 to August 7, the off-peak season, compared with 2,638 foreign tourists in the entire first half of the year. Clouds obscure the mountain top on some days, but foreign tourists are generally pleased they made the diversion. "At first, I was afraid to come because when you see the volcano on the TV, you get the wrong idea," says German Michael Lichtinger, sipping a beer at an open-air restaurant on a government-built viewing station. "I like it well enough but I wish it wasn?t this cloudy."

Major ash explosion feared
Mayon volcano in the Philippines could soon unleash a huge cloud of deadly gases and ash, experts warned yesterday, as 40,000 people prepared for a second week in crowded evacuation centres. Four powerful ash explosions rocked the spectacular 8,070-foot (2,460-metre) peak on Saturday, covering nearby communities to the northwest with a light layer of dust, government vulcanologists said.
Mayon, where activity has picked up over the past week, is now belching a more lethal "pyroclastic flow" of hot volcanic gas and dust, rather than slow-moving lava, said Ed Laguerta, head of the volcano monitoring observatory. Unlike the trails of lava that have been slowly flowing down the volcano?s slopes for weeks, so-called "pyroclastic flows" can cover a wide area very swiftly, moving at speeds of about 60 kilometres (35 miles) per hour.
"We want to give the volcano a wide berth," said Ernesto Corpuz, head of the volcano monitoring division of the Philippine Institute of Vulcanology and Seismology. The government has evacuated some 40,000 residents living in a six-to-eight-kilometre danger zone around the volcano, herding them into 24 overcrowded evacuation centres, most of them schools. Many residents, however, still enter the danger zone to work on their farms, guard their belongings and attend to other personal matters.
The full extent of the danger posed by the volcano is not readily apparent as its crater has largely been obscured by thick clouds for days, preventing the public from seeing the ash explosions. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, who visited Mayon on Saturday, has promised more aid for the villagers including the delivery of prefabricated homes and tents, in a bid to ease overcrowding at the evacuation centres.
Despite the dangers of Mayon, busloads of evacuees could been seen leaving the centre in Legaspi City yesterday to visit their homes in Bonga village, inside the danger zone, where people said they could hear a distant rumbling.

Be Joyful always, give Thanks in all circumstances

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