The Democratic Republic of the Congo is better know for its wars, rebels, corruption, and impenetrable jungles than as a destination for travelers. Yet tourism in the region’s east is doubling by the year as travelers come to witness its many natural wonders – of which the newly erupting Nyamulagira volcano (also known as Nyamuragira) is king.
The eruption began on November 6th, cutting a deep swath of blood-red lava 11 km east of the Nyamulagira’s main edifice and spewing lava 60 stories in the air.
Just three years ago, with the conflict described by some as “Africa’s first World War” still raging in eastern Congo, the Virguna National Park had not a single tourist. But 550 intrepid travelers arrived in 2009, and 3,800 tourists are expected for 2011.
It’s easy to see why people are drawn here. They have the chance to see active volcanoes, rare mountain gorillas, and views over the misty Lake Kivu, and can take treks across one of the highest mountain ranges in Africa. The park offers an abundance of rare sites and striking beauty.
But Nyamulagira is anything but benign for those who live in its shadow. The city of Goma, situated on the north shore of Lake Kivu only a few kilometers from the active volcano’s crater, is commonly dubbed “the most dangerous city in the world.” Memories of the 2002 eruption, when lava shot from a fissure partway down the mountain, remain fresh. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee into neighboring Rwanda and 80% of Goma’s business district was destroyed.
For eastern Congo’s long-suffering residents, the steady rise of tourism offers hope for the creation of local jobs and a boost to a struggling economy. But is the budding tourism industry really a sign of increasing stability for the Congo?
“I think it portrays the hope for a better period,” said Cai Tjeenk Willink, the park’s business development officer, “but still people are cautious, even a bit afraid.”
By Nichole Sobecki
See more of Nichole Sobecki’s Nyamulagira Volcano images at Corbis.