La Palma is like a lost world. This off-the-radar Canary Island is a stunning mix of volcanic peaks, rugged gorges, black-sand beaches and laurel forests teeming with wildflowers and waterfalls.
It’s like an open book to science,” says my guide, Rafael Martínez.
But lush can also lash out. Last September, the Cumbre Vieja volcano split the earth apart.
It flowed for months, destroying thousands of homes, devastating banana plantations and leaving a scar of crusty rock that swept down to the sea, dividing communities.
On one side of La Laguna, things appear to be normal. White buildings glitter; Palm trees sway in the wind.
The other side of town is a disaster area. The line where lava came to rest sees homes and businesses half swallowed, a bank hollowed out, a bar burned.
Excavators and salvage workers grind tracks on the raven-black rock. There is still a whiff of sulfur in the air. The fresh crater gapes above everything on the ridge, like an open wound or an evil eye.
I can’t look away It’s a horrifying scene, but a sinfully absorbing one.
I’ve had this feeling before, visiting the wreckage of the World Trade Center or scenes of volcanic devastation on Montserrat weeks after 9/11. I felt drawn to these episodes, to report on them and to write about them. But I wonder what my presence means to the locals who are grieving the loss and trying to put their lives back on track.
A path was laid out on La Palma to “give the opportunity to all visitors who want to see the volcano in a respectful way,” says Raquel Hernandez of Tourism La Palma.
But I also see some families living in mobile homes, meet an old man forced to move to Tenerife and see modular houses arriving at the port.
It’s “impossible to know” when everyone will be housed again, she says.
“Disaster tourism” is a new term, but it must be as old as disasters themselves. Pompeii has been visited for centuries. Think of our fascination with the Titanic, spooky visits to Chernobyl before Russia invaded Ukraine, or the way we get fed up with traffic accidents.
Is gawping wrong or a natural human instinct for a chance to learn or help?
Something deep draws us into catastrophe. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that. But we must also put safety first, avoiding silly selfies, silly jokes, and pointless selfishness (I once met a person who took a piece of brick from Auschwitz).
“It’s a very sensitive area,” muses Rafael. Life is good on most of its islands. Tourists sunbathe, hike, stargaze. And Raquel is confident that any new volcano tourism can contribute to the reconstruction and recovery efforts.
“Let’s not forget that La Palma was a volcanic target even before this eruption,” she says, pointing to the Caños de Fuego Interpretation Center, which is located in volcanic tubes that arose after the 1949 eruption of the San Juan volcano.
“Our target group are tourists who like nature and landscape and respect the environment,” she adds.
“We are confident that this volcano will not change this tourism model, but will develop it further.”
Pól’s visit to La Palma was organized by Visit La Palma (visitlapalma.es) and the Spanish Tourist Office in Dublin (spain.info).
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/disaster-tourism-where-is-the-line-between-silly-selfies-and-sensitive-visits-41638726.html “Disaster tourism” – where is the line between silly selfies and sensitive visits?