Hiking across a charred landscape, steam coiling from the horizon into a lifeless sky, I could have been in a dystopian nightmare. Darkness, rubble, sulphurous gases: not quite the triumvirate of sun, sea and sand that governs most people’s choice of holiday. But, like thousands of eager tourists, I’d come for a tantalisingly rare glimpse of the fire inside Iceland’s belly.
Silent for more than 6,000 years, Fagradalsfjall was the first active volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula for eight centuries. On March 19 2021, a 180 metre-long fissure appeared in the ground and lava began spewing from two craters. Activity in the area has been bubbling away ever since.
Volcanic explosions typically signal an evacuation, but Fagradalsfjall was declared a “tourist eruption” and safe for the public to visit. Less than an hour’s drive from Keflavik international airport, it has attracted more than 680,000 tourists to date, according to data gathered by the Icelandic Tourism Board. Sightseeing helicopters glided above rivers of molten magma and hikers in gas masks lined hillsides after dark to witness electric night displays.
So, unsurprisingly, signs before Christmas that another eruption might occur on the peninsula caused ripples of seismic excitement beyond the Richter scale. “Book your flights now so you can witness the Earth being created!” wrote the former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson on X, formerly Twitter. But this time the earth wasn’t so amenable. Houses have been engulfed by lava and the threat to human lives is very real.
“I guess this is the beginning of an unknown future – five eruptions in four years,” wrote Asa Steinars, a content creator, in her Instagram broadcast channel. Clearly, this is no longer a “tourism eruption”. But it does beg the question: what is?
Even when Fagradalsfjall was open, there were concerns over safety and independent travellers disobeying rules and guidelines set by authorities. Footage circulated on social media showed spectators almost bathing in a shower of hot rocks, and Steinars posted her own warning to followers: “People are getting wayyy to [sic] close to this thing. I’ve seen craters like this break with a waterfall following.”
I, too, witnessed some idiotic kamikaze-grade behaviour. People were running over steaming lava vents with drones to fill their social media feeds. It was ridiculous.
Increasingly, people are willing to take greater and greater risks. And not only in Iceland.
There are currently more than 1,500 active volcanoes in 81 countries and around 60 erupt each year. Lava chasers can monitor the latest eruptions on a website Global Volcanism Program, set up by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Volcano tours regularly feature in holiday packages, tourist board marketing campaigns and cruise ship itineraries.
Ten years ago, as part of a voyage around New Zealand, I visited Whakaari (also known as White Island), a fume-blasting cone rising from the ocean. Disembarking at the foot of the crater, we were handed gas masks and guided through a toxic mosaic of swirling sulphurous colours. It was beautiful and thrilling, but I was relieved to leave. When I asked whether it was safe, a guide reassured me the scientists in charge knew what was going on. But even science can be confounded by nature. Tragically, 22 people were killed in an eruption in 2019, and the site has been closed ever since.
So, what is it that attracts us to these potentially dangerous places?
The thin line between passion and madness was explored in the National Geographic documentary Fire of Love, the story of the French volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft who dedicated their lives to better understanding volcanoes and had outlandish dreams of kayaking along a lava flow.
Not everyone is that extreme, but many of us share a fascination for the power of nature.
“[Volcanoes] are primal and, ultimately, they’re nature at its purest and most raw,” says Georgina Hancock, a marketing director for tour operator Discover The World, which offers a ‘volcano hotline’ notifying guests of potential trips to see eruptions as they happen. “Even once a volcano has stopped erupting and there is no longer molten lava, our clients are still intrigued to see the newly changed landscape. The Icelanders’ ability to live and thrive on this continuously evolving island produces deep fascination for visitors.”
One of the tallest active volcanoes in Europe, Mount Etna, lures visitors with its “magnetic power”, according to Alberto Ciarallo, the founder of Sicily travel specialist Cognoscenti Travel. “It has a special energy and presence,” he says. “Volcanoes bring travellers back to a prehistoric age.”
His itineraries range from hiking along with a volcanologist to an e-bike tour of the wooded foothills. “A healthy respect for the environment is absolutely essential,” Ciarallo insists. “I work with expert guides and volcanologists who are trained to ‘read’ conditions before any excursion is planned, and to err on the side of caution, always.”
Done properly, responsible volcano tourism can be much safer than many other outdoor adventure pursuits. “Can skiing be safe? Can paragliding be safe? Can driving a car be safe? Nothing is safe, strictly speaking,” says Dr Tom Pfeiffer, a geologist and volcanologist who runs dedicated volcano viewing tours through his company Volcano Adventures.
Joining an organised tour is undoubtedly the safest way to view and enjoy a live volcanic event. Discover the World insists their clients only visit sites with a qualified guide and are unlikely to offer trips to the latest eruption. Using a licensed operator is also essential for insurance cover.
“There’s no specific exclusion around cover for travelling for volcano tourism or participating in volcano tours, but cover could be invalidated if travellers fail to take reasonable care or act in a manner that might risk one’s own safety or property,” says Jonathan Frankham, the general manager for UK and Europe at the travel insurance company World Nomads. “It’s important to follow any official advice or warnings against travel.”
Admittedly, part of a volcano’s attraction is its volatile nature and unpredictability. Every time I’ve crunched over lava fields or trekked along the slopes of a crater, I’ve always been humbled and – if I’m honest – a little bit scared. But a little fear is healthy; it’s an acknowledgment of nature’s power, of which respect is an integral part. We should all be aware of our human limits and know when it’s time to step back – or else risk paying a price many have paid before.