Mount Etna erupting into hot item for tourists


NEW YORK -- The eruption of Sicily's Mount Etna, the largest volcano in Europe, is proving a boon to the destination as visitors flock to the natural light show, some on excursions arranged by local hotels and tour companies.

"We have many people coming to stay one night and [take an] excursion [to the mountain]," said Catena Federico, assistant manager of the San Domenico Palace Hotel, Taormina. "I am sorry for the little towns up near Etna, but to tell the truth, for us this is good business."

Lava threatens Rifugio Sapienza, a tourist station on the slopes of Mount Etna, Nicosa, Sicily. Taormina, a seaside resort, and Catania, where the area's main airport is located, are a safe distance away from the 2,000-degree lava flows that began pouring down Etna two weeks ago, destroying several ski lifts, buildings and cable car stations.

At press time, the largest flow -- about 500 feet wide -- had stopped within 150 feet of Refugio Sapienza, a large mountainside tourist complex.

Fontanarossa Airport at Catania, about 15 miles from Etna, has closed for brief intervals as volcanic ash was cleared from runways.

According to the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York, requests for reservations in Sicily have jumped since the initial eruption.

One local hotelier, Alex Marcovich, general manager of the Catania Sheraton, said the eruption "has helped us increase bookings by a few percentage points."

On the downside, some cautious travelers are shying away. The Ipanema Hotel in Taormina, for example, is about 20 miles from the volcano, but according to a spokeswoman, "Some who already had reservations called asking if it's safe to come. They are a little afraid, but there's also a lot more interest."

The good times may last a while longer, according to scientists, as Etna's lava flows and minor eruptions could continue for weeks or months. "This one started big and seems to be staying big," said Dr. Ken Hon of the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Some U.S. agents and tour operators are eyeing the eruption as a unique sales opportunity amid the economic doldrums dampering leisure spending by Americans.

"Our tours to Sicily haven't filled well this year, which I blame on the economy," said retailer Patty Absher, owner of Great Travels in Washington. "But I am thinking that Etna may stir up more interest."

Grace Cutri, an Italy specialist and owner of DC Travel Agency, Jersey City, N.J., sees only positives. "I don't think business will be affected negatively by Etna at all," she said.

Cutri also considered the eruption a selling point. "I have clients arriving there Aug. 14," she said. "I do hope they stop by and see Etna."

Tour operator and Italy specialist Perillo Tours, based in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., said it might consider incorporating Etna more prominently in tours should the volcano show staying power.

"This eruption has turned out to be a thrill for our clients," said Mario Perillo, president. "If it continues until we write our 2002 brochure, we may add a new picture or two to illustrate the glory of Etna."

Dawn Bosco, owner of tour operator Amelia International in Hicksville, N.Y., has already altered her tour itineraries.

"We've turned our daytime tours of Etna into evening excursions, a sort of nighttime lava spectacular," she explained. "This eruption is a real positive."

According to a spokesman at the Italian tourist board in New York, some Sicilian tour operators are considering bringing tourists closer to the lava flows as they begin to cool.

An unwise move, cautioned scientists, who advise sightseeing from afar when admiring a volcano such as Etna, whose flows can tower tens of feet high.

"I would not recommend [getting too close]," said Dr. Stephen McNutt, professor of volcano seismology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. "Lava flows are unstable features, and rocks and pieces can fall without warning."

However, the volcano is spectacular even from Taormina, some 20 miles distant and on the northern slope, which faces away from the main lava eruptions, said the San Domenico Palace Hotel's Federico.

"This is really fantastic; it's such a natural beautiful show for the people coming to see the mountain," she said.

Experts: Don't get too close

s tourists flock to witness Sicily's Mount Etna erupt and belch lava, scientists cautioned visitors to keep a respectful distance but downplayed any danger to major population or tourism centers.

The 10,860-foot volcano has been putting on its biggest show since 1992, but the University of Hawaii's Dr. Ken Hon warned, "you want to stand back at least a few hundred yards from any lava flow. Big rocks get thrown out and could kill someone."

"The flows are so large, with 'snouts' [leading edges] up to 500 feet across, that the view even from afar is spectacular," he added.

There is little danger of a second violent eruption that could flatten the countryside, according to Dr. Stephen McNutt of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, so hotels in Catania and Taormina are safe.

Mount Etna's upper reaches could continue to visibly erupt for years, though the main, destructive lava flow should dry up in weeks or months. "Etna can't keep pouring out this volume of lava indefinitely," explained McNutt. "It simply uses up the volcano's supply."

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI