San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Volcano tourism

Arenal: No lava, no cry

LA FORTUNA, Alajuela – Over the last four decades, Arenal Volcano’s dramatic explosions and lava flows transformed the surrounding farmland in north-central Costa Rica into one of the country’s hottest tourist destinations. But 16 months ago, the activity subsided, leaving hundreds of hotels and businesses without their premier attraction.

“It’s a pity, but the volcano decided to take a break,” said Eliezer Duarte, volcanology research professor with the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (Ovsicori). To put Duarte’s statement in perspective, scientists believe that the previous “break” of this kind – no explosions, lava-spewing, or interior activity – lasted more than 500 years.

Although the volcano is still considered active and occasionally belches gases, area entrepreneurs in recent months have been coming to terms with the prospect that Arenal may not erupt again in their lifetime. The volcano’s quietude has raised questions about long-term tourism viability in the Northern Zone, but it appears that the industry has quietly, smoothly transitioned into a still-lucrative, post-eruption era. Whether that success has been driven by misleading signage, a plethora of other excursions, or tourist indifference remains to be seen. But this much is clear: Business has gone on as usual.

“If the meat is good, the customers will arrive,” said Carlos Peñaranda, owner of El Novillo de Arenal, a steakhouse just outside of  La Fortuna. He was speaking of the beef at his restaurant – once a prime eruption viewing spot – but the same can be said for many of the neighboring hotels and tour operators. For now, the tourists are happy with their experience and the businesses keep right on booming – even as the volcano sleeps.

Rebranding Arenal

Each day on the streets of La Fortuna – a volcano boomtown about a three-hour drive northwest of San José – prominent signage instructs tourists to “See Lava!” Restaurants, shops and tour operators display insignias of exploding volcanoes, and red Christmas lights snake around the wooden columns supporting a bar called the Lava Lounge. Inside, a video of an erupting Arenal plays on repeat.

“They’re hiding it,” said tour guide and map designer Álvaro Arce. Seated at one of the tables in Lava Lounge, he’s talking about his town’s reluctance to remove outdated and inaccurate signage and web material. He estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the tourists he encounters expect to see lava, and he believes that eventually this will create problems for the area.

“The customers are pretty smart,” he said. “When they come here and they don’t see [anything], they’ll go back to [the U.S.] and say, ‘It’s not true.’ Then people will start going somewhere else.”

That hasn’t happened yet. Some of the area’s most prominent hotels, such as Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens, Arenal Observatory Lodge, and Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, have apparently rebounded since the 2008 financial crisis; managers now say the occupancy rates are hovering around 95 to 97 percent. The Arenal National Park actually saw more visitors in the year after the volcano quit hurling lava than in the previous year, according to park ranger Erick Zuñiga. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of park visitors increased from about 70,000 to 74,000, he said.

Regardless, many tour entrepreneurs would prefer that realistic expectations become a priority. Some would like to promote the area as a rain-forest-adventure destination rather than an active-volcano experience, but to do that, businesses would need to bring their marketing materials up to date. Many seem uninterested in doing so.

The Red Lava Tourist Service Center website still offers a “Sunset Volcano Experience” in which guests drive to “the most active part of Arenal and watch the lava rocks fall down.” (A man who answered the phone at the agency said that sunset tour no longer runs.)

Also not helping matters are the guidebook publishers who haven’t gotten the memo. “Waiting for and watching Arenal’s regular eruptions is the main activity in La Fortuna and is best done at night when the orange lava glows against the starry sky,” Frommer’s Costa Rica Guide misinforms readers in its 2012 edition.

Guides say that erroneous information will need to be replaced with an emphasis on the area’s current strengths, of which there are many. Edward Acuña, guest relations manager at Arenal Springs Resort and Spa, enjoys listing off every local activity he can think of: “Hot springs, rafting, horseback, the lake, hanging bridges, biking, Caño Negro, Peñas Blancas, canyoning, bird watching, helicopter, oof!” he cried. “There are so many activities we can keep you busy for a week.”

Nearly every person interviewed for this story echoed that enthusiasm, and many pointed out that their tourist economy is perfectly healthy without the lava that built the town.

Volcano’s Influence

On July 29, 1968, Arenal’s some 500-year slumber ended with a massive eruption that killed 87 people and demolished the villages of Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo and San Luis. On the next day, another eight people died in a surge of hot gas and rocks now known as a pyroclastic flow.

These events were the first indication to nearby residents – who were mostly cattle breeders and cheese producers – that Arenal was not a large hill, but a volcano. Far from an attraction at that time, the devastating volcano left the dusty hills of La Fortuna empty for months before people trickled back in and carried on with their lives.

For nearly two decades, they remained uninterested in the business prospects of the lava-spewing giant in their backyard. But as more and more tourists showed up for the volcano’s frequent fireworks displays, ideas began to spark in the minds of weary farmers. Some began constructing cabins on their property, and others transformed their haciendas into hotels and resorts. In the evenings, anybody with a car would transport tourists to lookout areas for the volcanic spectacle and a dip in the toasty Tabacón River.

“You got no idea how beautiful it was,” said longtime tour owner and guide, Selim Rodríguez. “We thought the volcano was never going to stop.”

In 1991, a visionary architect harnessed a large stretch of that same river for a luxury bathing experience, and his project became the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. After Tabacón’s arrival on the scene, the increasing demand for lodging and activities fueled the development of La Fortuna. Over the last 20 years, dozens of hotels and tour operations, many owned by Ticos, have set up shop.

While the volcano has unquestionably brought prosperity to La Fortuna, nobody has any illusions about who – or what  – has really been in control. The volcano has run the show, and the show has gone on under certain, mysterious conditions.

Even on a cloudless night, there was no telling if the lava would spew, and if it did, there was no telling where. Unpredictable pyroclastic flows and eruptions were constantly changing the shape of the volcano – and the direction of its lava flows – by blasting out walls of the two active craters. This meant that on one night, those at the Arenal Observatory Lodge might witness the fiery spectacle, and the next it might be the cluster of lodgings with balconies and rocking chairs facing south. Sometimes the volcano would go quiet, and guests would need to be entertained in other ways.

Those fickle flows influenced enterprising tour industry workers to diversify long before the lava stopped. Rodríguez has certifications for training as a fireman, accountant, student of volcanology, rescuer of tourists and Chinese foot massager.

So after Ovsicori recorded the last magma activity in May 2010, and the final eruption subsided on Oct. 10 of the same year, those diverse skill sets were put to use. Rodríguez started his own spelunking business, and later he created a one-day Nicaraguan safari.

Many other skilled and educated tour guides went a similar route, but not all of them. Locals say that 16 months after the volcano activity diminished, rogue guides still lurk in bus stations, trying to sell lava tours to clueless tourists.

Tourists Unfazed 

Visitors flock to extinct volcanoes in Hawaii, Italy and plenty of other places each year, and it seems that if Arenal goes dormant, people will keep showing up. Of all the tourists The Tico Times interviewed in and around La Fortuna about the current lack of activity, none expressed disappointment at not seeing lava.

At a wet bar inside Tabacón’s resort, a tipsy, middle-aged woman from Connecticut said she had been on the volcano tour and already more-or-less knew the deal. “There hasn’t been lava in like 10 years, right?”

On a stroll around La Fortuna, a Bulgarian couple, Galina Tzoneva and Lubo Vitkov, said that a friend from New York traveled to Costa Rica first and upon her return informed them that the volcano was no longer spewing. Also, they saw it on the Internet.

“We don’t like vacation just lying on the beach,” Tzoneva said. “We like to walk around and see things. The nature is gorgeous.”

Over at Arenal Springs Resort and Spa, a U.S. man from Michigan wearing a gold chain and a blue bathing suit said he had beheld Arenal’s piping-hot lava twice in previous years, and he expects to see it again. Upon learning the bad news, he was unconcerned.

“I’m pretty lucky,” he said. “It’ll probably come back this weekend just for me.”

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