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Iceland’s tourism boom slowing

Iceland's latest volcanic eruption is coming to an end — and the unexpected tourist boom that lifted this recession-weary country's financial gloom may be up in smoke as well.
The Eyjafjallajokull volcano began erupting after 200 years of silence.Ragnar Axelsson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iceland's latest volcanic eruption is coming to an end, scientists said Monday — and the unexpected tourist boom that lifted this recession-weary country's financial gloom may be up in smoke as well.

It says something about a country's fortunes when an erupting volcano is greeted as good news. But Iceland has had a rocky time since its banks collapsed 18 months ago, capsizing the economy and sending unemployment soaring.

Then, last month, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano began erupting after almost 200 years of silence, threatening floods and earthquakes but drawing thousands of adventurous tourists — and their desperately needed cash — to the site where ash and red-hot lava spewed from a crater between two glaciers.

All good things must come to an end, however, and scientists said Monday that the eruption is winding down.

"The volcanic activity has essentially stopped," said Einar Kjartansson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office. "I believe the eruption has ended."

University of Iceland geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said activity at the volcano had declined steeply in the last couple of days, although "it's too early to write its death certificate."

Thousands of people have made the trip to the volcano, 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Reykjavik, since the eruption began March 20 — and Icelandic tour companies have made a small fortune taking them there, by bus, snowmobile, souped-up "superjeep" and even helicopter.

Drivers and hikers have caused unprecedented traffic jams in the sparsely populated rural area near the site.

"It was like a festival without the music," said British tourist Alex Britton, 27, who recently drove to the volcano. "Or like a pilgrimage."

Charter airline Iceland Express says its business has risen by 20 percent since the eruption, and the Icelandic Tourist Board says 26,000 overseas visitors came to the country in March, a record for a quiet month when Iceland is still in its winter hibernation.

This rugged volcanic island of 320,000 people tucked just below the Arctic Circle had already received a tourism boost from the economic crisis, which saw the collapse of Iceland's debt-bloated banks and a dramatic fall in the value of its currency, the krona. Suddenly, a famously expensive country with one of the world's highest standards of living was mired in debt, struggling to pay its bills — and newly affordable to foreign tourists.

The volcano has made it a must-visit destination for thrill-seekers from around the world, despite the expense, which ranges from euro55 ($75) for a bus trip to view the volcano from a distance to euro200 ($270) for a superjeep ride almost to the rim of the crater.

"We have people who are staying at backpackers' hostels taking the tour," said Torfi Ynvgason from tour operator Arctic Adventures. "To drive over a glacier, in Iceland, in winter, to lava falls — if you have it in your bank account, you're going."

The volcano's popularity has proved a headache for the authorities. Iceland's Civil Protection Department says rescue teams have had to help up to 50 people a day down from the site, where temperatures have dipped to -17 Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) in biting wind. Last week two Icelandic visitors died of exposure after they became lost and their car ran out of gas on a trip to the site.

Iceland is well accustomed to natural disasters and seismic drama. The island sits on a volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic's mid-oceanic ridge, and eruptions have occurred frequently throughout the country's history, triggered when the Earth's plates move and when magma from deep underground pushes its way to the surface.

The Eyjafjallajokull eruption is the country's first since 2004, and the most dramatic since Hekla, Iceland's most active volcano, blew its top in 2000.

But Icelanders are far from jaded. They, too, have flocked to see the new volcano, and many describe it as something akin to a spiritual experience.

"It's amazing to see it," said Sunnefa Burgess, who works for tour operator Iceland Excursions. "You could sit there all day. And the noise! It's a feeling you can't really describe."

For crisis-weary Icelanders, the eruption has also provided a welcome respite from dire economic news and political turmoil. The volcano has led news bulletins and provided a new topic of chat in the coffee bars and geothermally heated outdoor hot tubs where Icelanders congregate.

Now it seems the volcanic windfall is disappearing as quickly as it came.

And there is a bigger worry smoldering in the background. Scientists say history has shown that when Eyjafjallajokull erupts, the much bigger Katla volcano nearby often follows within days or months.

Katla is located under the vast Myrdalsjokull icecap, and an eruption could cause widespread flooding. The last major eruption took place in 1918, and vulcanologists say a new blast is overdue.

"A large eruption of Katla could disrupt aviation seriously in the North Atlantic," said Kjartansson. "It has the potential to cause a lot of damage and disruption.

"But there is very little seismic activity near Katla. I see no reason to expect Katla to do anything in the near future."