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Asia

Disaster tourism in Indonesia

One of the world’s most dangerous volcanos, the Indonesian Merapi, attracted international attention last November with its biggest eruption in one hundred years. Now tourists are coming to see the devastated areas.

Mount Merapi spews gas as seen from Cangkringan village, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Merapi's last eruption was the biggest in a century

Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain" in Indonesian, has always been a popular tourist site, with people going there to enjoy the beautiful view, idyllic villages or the relatively cool temperatures. But the eruption has left its mark.

As around 400,000 people who had to spend weeks in emergency shelters return home, many find nothing but ash or mud where their villages once stood.

With a lack of social security systems in the country, the victims of Merapi have to struggle to get their normal lives back.

Mount Merapi spews volcanic material as it erupts as seen from Deles, Central Java, Indonesia

Tourists used to come to Merapi to enjoy the idyllic villages

Suparlan from WALHI Jogjakarta, an environmental NGO that is helping the locals in Merapi to build up their lives again, says that from the promised 800 shelters, only 400 have been built in the last five months. He adds that bad sanitation is also an issue that the locals have to deal with. Up to 100 people have to share public toilets that are supposed to be used by around 15 people each.

High demand to see the disaster area

Now local tour and travel agencies are trying to attract tourists to visit these disaster sites with slogans such as "Lava Tour", "Merapi Eruption Special" or "Full day volcano tour".

Dwi is a nurse from Jakarta and has just spent a few days there, visiting one of the destroyed villages. She says all the houses are totally ruined. "Only the bottom parts are visible, like parts of the floor," she explains, "I also saw what used to be a small mosque, now you can only see the ridges."

A rescue worker searches for victims of Mount Merapi eruption at a village that is hit by pyroclastic flows

Many locals who come back home find nothing but ruined villages covered in ash

She also illustrates how all the trees are burnt. "It’s different than if a fire had burnt the trees, these trees are dry to the core," she says further. "They said the hot cloud caused it."

Dwi says that seeing the destruction reminds her of how small human beings are and that there is a higher power above.

The demand to visit disaster areas is high, says Edwin Ismedi Himna from the association of the Indonesia Tour and Travel agency Jogjakarta. Although there are no official numbers, Himna mentions thousands of local and international tourists have been visiting the post-eruption Merapi.

Tourists boosting the local economy

Local tourists walk as Mount Merapi is seen on the background

Tourists have a good impact on the inhabitants

Himna says the locals are grateful for tourists because they "feel the economic impact coming from the tourists." Himna tells Deutsche Welle that people in the villages around Merapi sell drinks, snacks and T-shirts to earn extra money. Some of them also rent their motorcycles because the traffic is bad during the weekend due to many people coming, Himna adds.

"The tourists have a good impact on the locals," Himna says further. "They are thankful for every single tourist."

Himna adds that special programs have been developed to help the tourists make donations. One such program is called the "Go Green Campaign", which encourages visitors to buy seeds or small trees from locals and plant them in the villages.

Cold lava can cause landslides

While there is profit in this kind of tourism, some observers are wary. For Suparlan from the NGO WALHI, it is important that the locals are not overly focused on getting help from the tourists by "selling" their devastated villages. He does not think that this trend would last long, and they certainly wouldn’t make enough money to rebuild their villages.

An unidentified man looks at cold lava from Mount Merapi

Volcanic ash can cause eye and lung irritation

Subandrio from the Volcano Investigation and Technology Development Institution says that although at the moment there is no immediate threat that the volcano will erupt again, there is always the danger of cold lava being washed away by rain, which can cause landslides. Apart from that, volcanic ash often contains sharp elements, which can cause eye irritation, as well as lung problems.

Thus Subandrio is worried that tourists who are not familiar with the areas might run into troubles. He says there are some regulations concerning the safety of the visitors, but he doubts its effectiveness.

For Dwi, the nurse from Jakarta, the trip to Merapi has been an impressive one. She is amazed by the high spirit of the locals who are trying to rebuild their villages. Despite the difficulties, Dwi said, they still look strong and happy.

Author: Anggatira Gollmer
Editor: Sarah Berning

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