<span class="t-location">La Palma Island (Spain) (AFP) – </span>When the volcano erupted in La Palma last year, Teodoro Gonzalez Perez rushed to the Spanish island to see the lava flow with his own eyes - now he's back for another look. </p><div> <p>This time he's here to get a closer look at the volcano now that it's calmed down.
“It’s like walking on the surface of a new planet,” said the 54-year-old nurse from the neighboring island of Tenerife as she hiked through lush pine forest carpeted with black ash to reach the site.
“Visiting a recently erupted volcano is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he told AFP.
Since the volcano erupted on September 19, 2021, spewing rivers of molten rock and ash plumes into the air, interest in visiting La Palma has been on the rise.
The island is normally one of the least visited of Spain’s tourism-dependent Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.
In August, the average hotel occupancy rate on the island reached 90.9%, well above expectations, with visitors from the rest of Spain accounting for the bulk of overnight stays, according to local hotel lobby ASHOTEL .
“Before the eruption, we were struggling to publicize the island,” ASHOTEL vice-president Carlos Garcia Sicilia told AFP.
“On the one hand, the volcano was a misfortune, a blow to the economy of the island. On the other, I think half the planet has now heard of La Palma.”
While images broadcast around the world during the 85-day eruption focused on the destruction caused by the volcano, news reports also highlighted the charms of the small island, which helped to sharpen the appetite for a trip to La Palma.
Nicknamed “La Isla Bonita” or “The Beautiful Island”, La Palma is a UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserve teeming with verdant forests, rocky peaks and desert.
‘As close as possible’
Since the eruption, the number of cruise ships calling 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 a week to three Spanish cities as well as Milan.
Business is also booming for tour operators offering day trips by ferry from Tenerife, the largest and most visited island in the Canaries.
Tenerife-based Excursiones Jesus runs its 135-euro ($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.
Ash and rivers of lava spewing from the volcano have engulfed more than 1,000 homes, cut off highways and smothered lush banana plantations.
On a recent weekday, small groups of tourists were often seen snapping photos of excavators removing giant chunks of solidified lava from the center of La Laguna, a town where molten rock engulfed a gas station and a supermarket.
Among those flocking to the island are regular visitors, including Rita Ley, a retired German who said she wanted to see what it looked like after the eruption.
“It’s terrible to see that everything is destroyed, but it’s interesting to see how the land is alive,” the 59-year-old said.
The government now sees tourism as the key to the recovery of the island’s economy.
He has spent heavily promoting travel to La Palma and has distributed 20,000 travel vouchers worth 250 euros to Spanish residents which can be used at hotels and restaurants on the island.
To help attract more tourists, authorities have inaugurated a new zipline and visitor center at the Roque de los Muchachos Astronomical Observatory.
It also helps to restore tourist infrastructure.
Around 3,000 of La Palma’s 8,000 tourist beds were either destroyed in the eruption or located in areas that remain off-limits due to dangerous levels of volcanic gases, primarily in Puerto Naos on the southwest coast.
Hawaii and Iceland saw a similar increase in tourist numbers after experiencing volcanic eruptions, but visitor interest eventually waned and some La Palma tour operators expect the same to happen.
Jonas Perez, founder of Isla Bonita Tours, predicted that the volcanic eruption “won’t be so fresh in people’s minds” in a few years.
“La Palma won’t be as popular anymore,” he said.
© 2022 AFP