SALEM, Montserrat - Montserrat's erupting Soufriere Hills volcano may have chased away more than half of the island's population, but the government thinks the phenomenon may lure adventure tourists.
Brochures tout the volcano, which otherwise has wreaked havoc on Montserrat's economy, as the island's main attraction.
The British Caribbean territory was once a playground for the rich and famous - before the volcano roared to life in 1995. The eruption covered the southern half of the island in ash, destroyed the island's airport and forced the evacuation of the capital of Plymouth.
But in the last several years, growing numbers of adventure tourists have visited the 62-square-mile island, attracted by the volcano.
"If you want noisy discos, crowded beaches and big hotels, Montserrat is not for you," said Gov. Anthony Longrigg, in a brochure published by the government's tourist board. "Montserrat is a unique place to visit. Where else can you see a live volcano erupt before your eyes, talk to the scientists studying it and see the ravages of nature it has caused?"
The pitch convinced Rose and Bobby Costanzo from Branford, Conn.
"Getting to see the volcano is one-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Bobby Costanzo. The couple visited Montserrat recently with scores of other tourists.
The main viewing point to observe the pyroclastic flows of lava is the Montserrat Volcanic Observatory, about three miles from the steaming volcano.
The observatory has a visitors center where tourists can view educational videos and observe the geologists monitoring the volcano.
Tourism to the island peaked in 1994 with 36,267 visitors, but in 1995 the volcano erupted, uprooting more than half of the island's population and causing a dip in tourist arrivals. By 2001, the number of tourist creeped back up to 14,356.
"Tourists come to Montserrat mainly to see the volcano and appreciate the island life and culture," says Carnie Meade of the Montserrat Tourist Board. "Montserrat can use the volcano as its main attraction and use it to its advantage."
Most of the island's tourists come for day tours, either by the ferry or a 15-minute helicopter ride from Antigua.
A new Montserrat airport is scheduled to open in the town of Gerald in early 2004.
About 3,000 tourists stay in the 270 rooms at Montserrat's three hotels each year, while others rent guest houses, apartments and villas.
For the 4,300 or so who have stayed on the island, the volcanic activity has created an ongoing ordeal with constant evacuations.
In October, 300 people were evacuated from the low-lying Belham Valley, which scientists said could be vulnerable if the lava dome collapsed.
Scientists monitor the volcano at all times and inform both residents, and tourists, of any changes in seismic activity.