[PHOTO AT LEFT - Mayon volcano evacuees queue for food rations at the Bagumbayan Elementary School in Bagumbayan, Legazpi City yesterday. Walter Bollozos]

LEGAZPI CITY, AUGUST 14, 2006 (STAR) (AFP) Ominous posters around this city show the nearby Mayon volcano, erupting forcefully, shooting fiery sparks into the sky with blood-red lava dripping from its mouth.

But the words on the poster are cheerful rather than frightening: "Visit Legazpi: Mayon Eruption 2006."

The posters are part of an impromptu campaign to find some benefit from a looming disaster that has already forced the evacuation of nearly 40,000 people from their homes on the rumbling volcano’s slopes into overcrowded evacuation centers.

While initial estimates of tourist revenues are not available, officials say the volcano, which began oozing lava on July 15 and is on high alert for a full eruption, has helped bring in more local and foreign tourists to this city of about 400,000 people on the poverty-stricken Bicol peninsula.

The posters are the brainchild of Legazpi City Councilor Cerilo Chan who realized over a week ago that the tourism potential of the volcanic eruption was not being fully exploited.

He printed up the posters and had them placed in different parts of the city and also personally stuck copies at airports, hotels and at the tourism districts in Manila where potential visitors might see them.

"I just noticed many foreigners were arriving," but that there were not enough people attending to them, he said.

Since then, Chan has been getting many inquiries. He has been successful in attracting some 120 employees of the central bank to vacation here in late July where they personally got to see Mayon put on a fireworks show at night – from a safe distance.

The 8,070-foot high volcano has long been a tourist attraction, thanks to its near-perfect cone, its symmetrical slopes and its history of being the most active volcano in the country.

But it has been overshadowed by other tourist attractions in recent years such as diving with whale sharks in the nearby coastal town of Donsol.

Many of the tourists who pass through Legazpi City just use it as a jumping off point to some place else but the eruption of the volcano has revived interest in Mayon.

While government volcanologists warn people not to enter a six to eight kilometer danger zone around the crater, the city of Legazpi, located some 15 kilometers away, is well out of danger.

Sightseers can watch the volcanic unrest while sipping drinks in the safety of their hotel rooftops.

Bernadette Peralta, president of the Legazpi City Tourism Council, a private association, says there is some reluctance to exploit a disaster that is hurting their neighbors.

"We have to be prudent. An eruption would also mean destruction," she says, remarking that some people had criticized the effort to use the eruption to attract tourists.

Ironically, the dangerous image of a volcanic eruption has also scared some tourists away.

"There is a perception of fear from other regions," of the Philippines, says Peralta, saying there had been some hotel cancellations.

Despite this, Maria Ravanilla, local director of the Department of Tourism says there has already been a marked rise in tourist arrivals since the volcano roared into life.

A survey of the five top hotels in Legazpi found they had a 62 percent occupancy rate since mid-July, a time of the year when such hotels usually have a 20 percent occupancy rate, Ravanilla said.

The survey also found that there were 1,683 foreign tourists who checked in from July 18 to Aug. 7, the off-peak season, compared with 2,638 foreign tourists in the entire first half of the year.

Clouds obscure the mountain top on some days, but foreign tourists are generally pleased they made the diversion here.

"At first, I was afraid to come because when you see the volcano on the TV, you get the wrong idea," says German Michael Lichtinger, sipping a beer at an open-air restaurant on a government-built viewing station.

"I like it well enough but I wish it wasn’t this cloudy," he said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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