Mount Tongariro, a long-dormant volcano on New Zealand's North Island, erupted Monday night, spewing ash more than four miles high. Though it hampered air travel, shut vital highways and closed two popular hiking trails and huts in the surrounding national park, remarkably, tourism operators in the area have reported a spike in interest that could well outweigh current disruptions.
Local businesses have accepted a trade-off: a short-term loss of visitors for a spectacular new attraction. Scientists believe Monday's steam-powered eruption blew at least three new vents near the Te Mari craters, and more could be uncovered once officials are cleared to inspect on foot.
While the tourism-reliant businesses nearby will have to suffer through at least two weeks before the world-renown Tongariro Alpine Crossing reopens, they may have new attractions to tout once it does.
"When we get that all clear, we're really looking forward to getting up there and checking out the new landscape with a few new vents and rocks spattered everywhere," Stewart Barclay, the owner of guiding company Adrift NZ on the fringe of Tongariro National Park, told New Zealand's TV ONE. "Then the visitors, I think, will come in droves to check it out."
Barclay said he's very excited to see how the mountain will look after its eruption. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the setting of Mordor in Sir Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, is known as New Zealand's best one-day hike and is often included in lists of the world's best. About 80,000 people make the trek each year, mostly from October to April.
Barclay said he has received a flood of inquiries from tourists since Monday night's eruption.
"Our big issue is to give them comfort that when it gets the all clear that we will only be going up there when it is safe and, by all means, hold off for a few more days and then let's get into it and check out those craters."
To try and keep tourists from canceling their trips over the next few weeks, Barclay said he is offering a trek to the crater lake of another active volcano, Mount Ruapehu, home to three popular ski fields that were unaffected by the volcanic blast.
Tongariro, Ruapehu and another volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, rise from the center of New Zealand's North Island and dominate the landscape of Tongariro National Park.
Murray Wilson, Business Association chairman of the tiny service village of National Park, told the New Zealand Herald that the number of people vising the website tongarirocrossing.org.nz skyrocketed from about 240 per day to 24,000 in the 24 hours after the eruption.
"When we started getting the first reports of volcanic activity, basically it went through the roof," he said.
Jan Hayter, of Tongariro Expeditions, told the paper that she had to wipe 15 bookings but said plenty of additional queries were still coming in.
"The summer's coming, and we're going to have lots of tourists that want to come and see the No. 1 volcanic mountain," she enthused. "Wouldn't you want to come and see the mountain that's just erupted?"