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Adventure Tourists Are Flocking to Natural Wonders, Some of Which Can Be Deadly

The deadly volcanic eruption in New Zealand is prompting calls for authorities to do more to protect swarms of tourists looking for adventures.

Hawaii, Japan, Iceland and Nepal are some of the destinations with natural wonders that are potentially hazardous—especially to the uninitiated. They face the challenge of keeping people safe as they seek to boost tourist arrivals.

Some scientists and families of the victims have questioned why dozens of people were allowed to visit New Zealand’s White Island and walk up to the rim of an active volcano when geologists had repeatedly warned of increased volcanic activity. After the eruption, New Zealand Prime Minister

Jacinda Ardern

said: “There will be questions that will be asked and do need to be answered by the appropriate authorities.”

Michael Lueck, a tourism professor at Auckland University of Technology, says it may be time for the tourism industry, governments and volcanic experts to review current rules. “I’d rather people were a little more cautious than letting people run into their doom,” he said.

At least 16 people were killed by Monday’s eruption. Of those who were able to escape from the island, more than 20 remained hospitalized with severe burns.

It isn’t just volcanoes that are a problem. In a bid to curb deadly human traffic jams on Mount Everest and weed out inexperienced climbers, Nepali officials in August proposed new safety rules that could significantly reduce the number of permits issued for the world’s highest peak. The latest season was one of the deadliest, and officials attributed the higher death toll to inexperience and crowding near the summit.

Tourism, which many countries once considered a business niche that could yield easy revenue, has become a mega-industry, outpacing global economic growth. International tourist arrivals grew to 1.1 billion in the first nine months of this year, up 4% on the same period a year earlier, the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization says. That is up from 674 million in 2000 and 278 million in 1980. And increasingly, people are seeking unique experiences—from Arctic adventures to scuba diving with sharks—that are putting them in harm’s way.

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Last year, 23 people were injured off Hawaii’s coast when molten lava flowing into the ocean from the Kilauea volcano hit a tourist boat. In 2014, a sudden eruption on Japan’s Mount Ontake killed more than 60 hikers who were engulfed by smoke and ash. Three people died on a volcanic crater in Italy in 2017.

In Iceland, a volcanic eruption snarled international air traffic in 2010 and led to a subsequent surge in tourism. Many people undertook treacherous journeys up steep slopes of ice, in snowmobiles or snow scooters, to reach the volcano’s summit. Two tourists got lost on a glacier and froze to death.

Jessica Ferracane, a Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman, said no new safety procedures have been adopted since the New Zealand eruption, but that Hawaii’s volcanoes are shield volcanoes—typically less violent than stratovolcanoes like White Island. Still, more than 700 homes were destroyed by lava flows during last year as Kilauea shot ash thousands of feet in the air and sent rivers of lava to the Pacific Ocean. Most of the national park was closed for 134 days.

The problem is especially acute in New Zealand, which promotes itself as the adventure capital of the world. Experts say tourism operators need to strike a fine balance between providing the excitement thrill-seeking tourists are looking for, and ensuring the safety of everybody involved.

The town of Whakatane on New Zealand’s North Island calls itself the “Gateway to White Island,” and much of the local economy depends on tourism. The island was featured in “The Lord of the Rings” movie series, which boosted tourism. Tours bring an average of around 50 people a day to the volcano, under a decadeslong deal between operators and the family that owns the island.

“There are many questions that are left to be answered but our priority at this time is on the welfare of those affected,” said Paul Quinn, chair of White Island Tours, which brought most of the tourists to the island Monday. Just over a year ago, the company won an award for being one of New Zealand’s safest places to work.

The mayor of Whakatane has said she would like to see tours resume once it is safe for the public to return. “It’s been something very iconic and it’s been an effective part of New Zealand’s tourism story,” Judith Turner, who had been in the job less than two months when the tragedy occurred, said in a newspaper interview. “New Zealand has tended to specialize in that type of tourism and the nature of adventure tourism is that there is a degree of risk.”

Footage shows a large ash cloud rising from the White Island volcano, a popular tourist destination off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. WSJ’s Rachel Pannett reports on the eruption that killed at least six people. Photo: George Novak/Associated Press

Some tourists might still accept the risks. Rania Morosan, 35, who visited White Island last month with her husband, said her tour operator stressed the volcano remained active. In retrospect, she said the risks could have been discussed more extensively, but she probably would have still decided to go.

“It was a bit like the safety briefing on an airplane—you know there’s always a risk of a crash, but the chances are so low that you still fly with airplanes normally,” said Ms. Morosan, who lives in Toronto.

Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park nearly halved last year after the Kilauea eruption, from 2 million in 2017. But Gary Marrow, owner of KapohoKine Adventures, which offers volcano hikes in Hawaii, said business is back to about 80% of pre-eruption levels.

Mr. Marrow said tour participants must sign a waiver that states the volcano could erupt.

“When you know that you’re going to hike to an active volcano, there is a chance that volcano is going to erupt,” he said. “Everybody knows this. They hope it doesn’t happen to them.”

Corrections & Amplifications
New Zealand’s White Island erupted on Monday. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it erupted on Friday. (Dec. 15, 2019)

Write to Rachel Pannett at rachel.pannett@wsj.com and Mike Cherney at mike.cherney@wsj.com

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