(STAR) Rickety old jeeps barrel through a dry riverbed, setting off a dust storm that coats the visitors bouncing around on the back seat.

The landscape around Mt. Pinatubo is evolving again 16 years after a gigantic volcanic eruption killed more than 1,500 people and sent a cloud of ash into the atmosphere cooling world temperatures for years.

The fine sand deposited by the 1991 eruption over the surrounding countryside is being kicked up by sport utilities driven by adventure tourists coming to swim or ride kayaks on Pinatubo’s large, mildly acidic crater lake.

“We have to appreciate the fact that our country has many volcanoes,” said Perla de los Reyes of the government’s volcanology and seismology institute. “They are beautiful attractions.”

Of the 300 volcanoes scattered throughout this Southeast Asian archipelago, 22 are active while 27 are classified as “potentially active.”

Despite the danger the government is looking at ways of turning these dormant monsters into money-spinning tourist drawcards.

“People are fascinated by the phenomenon of volcanic eruptions,” said Francois Dominique de Larouziere, scientific director of Vulcania, a volcano park that has drawn some 2.45 million paying visitors a year since its opening in 2002 on an extinct volcano in the remote Auvergne region of central France.

By contrast, total annual tourist arrivals in the Philippines have never passed the three million mark.

De los Reyes said people go out of their way to see the impact of eruptions.

During last year’s deadly eruptions of the Mayon volcano 340 kilometers (210 miles) southeast of Manila tourists flocked to the area to catch a glimpse of the eruptions.

Mayon, with a perfect cone reminiscent of Japan’s Mt. Fuji, rises 2,420 meters (7,502 feet) above emerald rice fields near the city of Legaspi.

A deadly eruption in 1814 buried some 1,200 people alive in the village of Cagsawa. All that remains today is the church belfry.

“Volcanoes show how dynamic or dangerous they can be, and people appreciate it,” De los Reyes said, adding that the unique shapes of land formations caused by volcanic eruptions themselves also draw people in.

In addition “geothermal lesions” including hot springs, fumeroles and fuming vents caused by melting rock could also serve as “interactive” attractions that generate income from spas or campsites.

Pinatubo and Taal, a volcano in Manila’s southern suburbs that sits on a large lake, is attracting major developers who have filled the surrounding ridges with vacation homes and fancy restaurants.

But Iraya, Kanlaon, Bulusan, Banahaw, Hibok-Hibok, Isarog and Kalatungan, to name a few, are physically remote and inaccessible.

Apo, the country’s highest peak and a potentially active volcano on the southern island of Mindanao, is visited mainly by mountain climbers who hike up the 2,938-meter (9,639-foot) summit and back over three or more days.

“Volcanoes do not erupt every day,” said Teresa Mundita Lim, head of the government’s protected areas and wildlife bureau, one of the agencies involved in the project.

Efforts to bring in tourist dollars must not result in the introduction of “invasive species,” disturb native wildlife, or result in the destruction or collection of plant and animal species, Lim said.

The government vetoed a planned spa resort near the Taal crater in July and ordered the South Korean developer to restore excavated areas at its own expense, saying the project ran afoul of environmental restrictions.

Lim said many of the country’s volcanoes contain some of the world’s most diverse plant and animal life.

“Biological diversity is part of the attraction,” she said. – AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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