Chilean volcano darkens Argentine tourism outlook

July 21, 2011 - 1:15 PM
Argentina Volcano Tourism

This natural-color satellite image provided by NASA and acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra satellite on July 8, 2011 shows the ash plume of the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano in Chile. The volcano's eruption resulted in grounded flights across the lower third of South America for most of the winter tourist season. Lodges and restaurants in Bariloche and Villa La Angostura normally filled with skiers, are empty. With airport runways, Andean slopes and sheep and cattle ranches coated in ash, the local economy has been devastated. (AP Photo/NASA)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The 100 million tons of pyroclastic ash and rock spewed by an Andean volcano has meant hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for communities more accustomed to profiting from the dramatic mountain landscape.

The Cordon Caulle volcano opened a new gash along a ridge just across the border and upwind from Argentina. For six weeks now, it has been belching ash into the sky, grounding flights across the lower third of South America for most of the winter tourist season. Lodges and restaurants have been ghostly at resorts normally filled with skiers. Airport runways, Andean slopes and sheep and cattle ranches are coated in thick, abrasive volcanic material.

"Every time the wind blows, no matter the direction, we get ash and sand," Villa La Angostura Mayor Ricardo Alonso said.

In his town, a lakeside Andean jewel just northeast of the volcano, only 62 of the town's 152 hotels are operating, and many of the visitors aren't high-paying skiers but volunteers helping to shovel out the mess, Tourism Secretary Juan Jose Fioranelli said, adding that officials are still tallying the losses.

Still mostly missing in the neighboring resort city of Bariloche are big-spending Brazilians, usually so numerous that Argentines jokingly refer to the city as "Braziloche." Bariloche's population of 140,000 usually hosts 250,000 tourists this time of year, including 40,000 Brazilians. The municipal government this week estimated losses at $150 million.

Since the eruption began June 4, the volcano has released energy equal to 70 atomic bombs, or 2 percent of the world's electricity capacity, during the first week alone, scientists at Argentina's National University of Rio Negro calculated. The ash has blown around the Southern Hemisphere several times, grounding jets as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Airline industry losses could total $50 million, said Helane Becker, an airlines analyst with Dahlman Rose & Company. Carriers with many routes in Argentina, such as state-owned Aerolineas Argentina and Chile-based LAN Air Lines, will suffer most, but U.S. and European carriers also have been affected, she said.

Aerolineas is still flying a vastly reduced schedule, with 30 flights canceled and more than a dozen postponed on Thursday alone due to the continuing ash cloud, which can severely damage jets in flight. All flights to Bariloche remain suspended until at least Tuesday, and flights to two other regional airports through the end of the month.

Argentine agriculture also has suffered. In the hardest-hit province of Rio Negro, which is dotted with sheep and cattle ranches, farm losses total $24 million, said Adolfo Sarmiento, an agricultural engineer at Argentina's National Institute of Agricultural Technology. Wool producers have lost as much as $3.8 million, he said, with ash making grazing difficult for 1,400 operations that manage hundreds of thousands of sheep, cows and goats.

Geologists say the eruption has diminished considerably from its peak in June, when the plume rose 6 miles (10 kilometers) and stretched across the continent. Chile's government has allowed about 3,500 evacuees, most of them small farmers living below the volcano, to return home.

But a NASA satellite photo this week showed the volcano still spewing ash nearly 2 miles (3 kilometers) high in a column that stretched for 50 miles (80 kilometers) over Argentina, adding to the gritty layers of snow and ash.

Experts have estimated that in Villa La Angostura alone, 5 million cubic meters of volcanic sand must be removed, Fioranelli said. That's roughly equivalent to covering the entire island of Manhattan in 2 inches of the grit. Hundreds of people who started with snow shovels now have heavy equipment helping them dump the mess into nearby quarries.

Chile's National Geology and Mines Service remained on "red alert" Thursday, saying the eruption isn't done yet. There is still a chance of more outbursts, and small earthquakes from underground volcanic activity still rattle the area. Lava and toxic gases still spew from the crater, creating a nightly light show extending about 1,600 feet (500 meters) above the volcano.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has declared a regional economic emergency, doubling assistance to poor families and postponing tax payments for restaurants, hotels and other tourism businesses that don't lay off workers.

Aerolineas has arranged buses so people can reach Patagonian resorts such as Bariloche, where more than 500 hotels and hundreds of restaurants depend on the brief June through August ski season. Airports are closed just when Argentines usually take advantage of school holidays to explore the trails above Nahuel Huapi lake.

"I can't say the winter season is lost, but it is going to be very difficult to overcome the situation because it has been catastrophic," Mayor Alonso said.

Local businesses have lost about half their annual earnings, said Sergio Rossi, who runs Villa La Angostura's hotel and restaurant association.

Hotel owner Santiago Perrota's property can sleep 90. Now the hotel is completely empty.

"We're going to lose the winter months anyway, because the eruption is still going on. The ash is still flying," Perrota said. "And we don't want to have people remember us in this situation. We don't want people to remember us without happiness."

Daniel Garcia, who runs the Bariloche tourism chamber, said some vacationing students and tourists have been arriving by bus from Buenos Aires, a road trip of more than 20 hours.

The airport that serves both Bariloche and Villa La Angostura remains officially closed, but it received its first jet in 44 days on Sunday, a charter flight from Brazil that was diverted by weather from Esquel, more than 180 miles (300 kilometers) to the south. Tourism officials hoped it would show the airport is operable, but for now travelers are still being flown to Esquel and bused for hours through the Patagonian desert to reach the slopes.

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Wilson reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires and Santiago Rey, in Bariloche, Argentina, contributed to this report.