Lava-Chasers and Volcanic Tourism

Lava-chasers flock to the world’s most active volcanoes, risking their lives to see nature’s raw power up close. Earth has over 1,500 active volcanoes and there is something about the violence and unpredictability that draws people in.

Lava-chasers indulge in what is sometimes called volcanic tourism: travel to sites of past and present geothermal activity. This can include active and dormant volcanoes, geysers, thermal and sulfur springs, and volcanic disaster sites.

Eruptions from the past

You cannot discuss volcanic tourism without mentioning Pompeii and Herculaneum. In 79AD, these two Roman cities were effectively wiped out by Mount Vesuvius. From the mid-1700s excavations began to reveal streets, villas, frescos, marketplaces, artworks, and bodies.

Over two million people visit the sites each year. As morbid as it may seem to some, people continue to be fascinated with the petrified bodies, frozen in their last moments.

Pompeii residents

A victim in Pompeii. Photo: BlackMac/Shutterstock


On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens exploded. It was the most powerful volcanic eruption in US history. The eruption resulted in a debris avalanche, pyroclastic flows (a fast-moving current of hot gas and volcanic matter), mudflows, a 24km high ash column, earthquakes, and 57 deaths. The eruption was so powerful that it changed the volcano’s features, reducing the size of the crater, and collapsing a portion of the volcano.

After the dust settled, tourism activities resumed. Visitors who wish to climb the volcano need a special permit. However, many opt for a helicopter sightseeing tour of the collapsed north face. This stratovolcano is the most active in the United States and is due for an even larger explosion in the future.

buried city

Plymouth buried in ash. Photo: Gorb Andrii/Shutterstock


In 1995, the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat erupted, burying half of the small Caribbean island in several meters of ash. Some residents started new lives on other islands or in the United Kingdom. Some moved to the other half of the island.

But now, volcanic tourism is a major draw. Locals offer tours of Plymouth (the former capital) and some parts of the island’s exclusion zone. Visitors can see clock towers, church steeples, hotels, and homes peeking through the ash. Tours are advertised as showing the ‘Pompeii of the Caribbean’.

Volcanic tourism has provided a plethora of new jobs to islanders and exposed the wider world to a lesser-known Caribbean island. However, tourists need a special permit to enter the exclusion zone and cannot venture off on their own.

Recent eruptions

While eruptions in places like Hawaii have brought tourism activities to a halt many times, Icelanders tend to continue life as normal. In fact, they use the volcanic landscape to their advantage.

tourists watching volcano

Geldingadalir volcano, Iceland. Photo: Thorir Ingvarsson/Shutterstock


Since 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano has become a big tourist draw. When the volcano starts to stir, lava escapes through vents and fissures in the glacier, creating a stunning spectacle of lava, steam, and ash. The volcano is so powerful that in the 2010s a particularly large eruption caused disruption as far away as mainland Europe. An ash cloud from the volcano blew across the northern and western parts of the continent, grounding flights for several days.

In 2021, the volcanic tourism industry in Iceland took off. Tourists flocked to the Fagradalsfjall and Geldingadalir volcanoes to watch rivers of lava streaming down the hillside. Visitors can have a picnic while watching new basalt eruptions. With a tour guide, visitors can get surprisingly close to the slow-moving lava.

Geothermal powerhouses

Danakil Depression

Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Photo: Katja Tsvetkova/Shutterstock


Hellish, scorching, and remote, the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is the result of a crazy convergence of three tectonic plates. It is one of the lowest points on Earth, as well as one of the hottest.

If you dare to venture in, you will find brightly colored sulfur springs, acid ponds, hydrothermal terraces, and salt formations. The otherworldly landscape draws both geologists and adventurous tourists.

Visitors can expect temperatures up to 50°C.

Risky hikes


Acatenango volcanic activity. Photo: Fernanda Reyes/Shutterstock


Sometimes, the thrill of hiking to the top of a volcano is too strong to resist. This is surely the case for Volcan de Fuego and Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala, as well as Arenal in Costa Rica. These volcanoes are active, with the Guatemalan volcanoes spouting bits of ash and lava almost daily. Even though these eruptions are minor, authorities still dissuade the public from getting too close. Arenal is prone to landslides and suffers constant erosion.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.