JAKARTA (Reuters Life!) - Indonesia appeals to visitors with tropical beaches, beautiful mountains, spectacular reefs and exotic cultures.
But now the country, which lies along the Pacific Rim of Fire and suffers from frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami and volcanic eruptions, is courting tourists interested in viewing its harsher face.
Near the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta, withered vegetation, buried villages, rivers choked with volcanic ash and stone, and refugee camps are the painful legacy of the recent Mount Merapi eruptions that killed over 350 people and made nearly 400,000 refugees.
Yet local travel agencies are adding this as the latest feature of visits to Yogyakarta, seat of an ancient kingdom.
“In the new volcano tour package, we’ll take customers to explore the closest village to the peak and see how bad the devastation is,” said Edwin Ismedi Hinma of the local tour agencies association.
“Then we’ll take them to a river to watch cold lahar flood past,” he added, referring to volcanic debris flows.
Tourism is big money in Indonesia, making up 3 percent of its gross domestic product, but the disasters prevent strong growth.
The latest eruption closed the local airport for two weeks due to volcanic ashfall and even forced cancellation of international flights to Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta.
As a result, tourist numbers in Yogyakarta fell as much as 70 percent, Hinma said.
“Grief tourism,” however ghoulish it might seem, is far from uncommon. Similar trends were seen in Haiti, devastated by a powerful earthquake in January, as well as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
But the idea has been criticized by some observers as unethical. In the case of Merapi, some officials also worry about lingering hazards.
Curiosity about the eruption’s impact is certainly high. Scores of people have come out to devastated villages, clogging traffic to and from the mountain
“On Sunday, thousands of people come, they cause major traffic jams. I mean, if something happens, who can guarantee their safety?” said Bejo Wiryanto, head of Harjobinangun village about 5 km (3 miles) from Merapi’s peak.
“I wish they could restrain their curiosity and wait until it’s safe. Plus, there are homeless people who are still traumatized by the eruptions who are probably still figuring out how to continue life.”
The Indonesian tourism ministry said the post-disaster policy is to wait until the recovery stage before trying to lure tourists back.
“We do a fun trip to Merapi not to witness people suffering, because it’s not proper,” said Firmansyah Rahim, head of destination development at the ministry.
“But once they enter the recovery stage, we want to invite tourists to return and bring the economy back.”
The government is mulling tourism promotion in Aceh, the province on Indonesia’s northwestern tip that was devastated by the massive Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
In the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, a tsunami museum has been erected. The rebuilt city and a barge, which was hurled inland by the giant waves and remains where the ocean left it, are ideal to illustrate how powerful the tsunami was and to what extent the city has recovered, Rahim said.
Sulis, 65, a retiree, said he drove with his wife from another city in central Java to Merapi as part of a hobby. He also came when Yogyakarta was hit by massive 2006 earthquake that killed 5,700 people.
“I drive everywhere to witness such things because by seeing them I am always reminded to be thankful that God still spares me,” he said.
For Panut, a 60-year-old woman who lost her house in the eruption, more visitors means income. She sat on a small stool and sell drinks and snacks to visitors from the piece of land that used to be her house.
“It’s good. I hope more and more people come,” she said.
Additional reporting by Dwi Oblo in Yogyakarta, editing by Elaine Lies