Indonesia is hoping to turn a disaster into a money-spinner. It wants to promote Mount Sinabung — the volcano that has been erupting since September last year and that has killed 16 people over the weekend — as a tourist hot spot.

Officials yesterday outlined plans to attract visitors keen on watching the rumbling volcano in an effort to help residents recover from the damage it has wreaked on the economy of Karo regency in North Sumatra

“We are trying to take another spin on this to win back tourists,” said Ukus Kuswara, secretary-general at the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy.

Tourist visits will have to be well-managed and could help the local people recover psychologically, he told reporters during a press conference led by the National Disaster Management Agency.

Vantage points for safe viewing and an information centre will be built in Karo.

A museum showcasing artefacts from the volcano and its effects on the surroundings is being planned for the long term.

Mr Ukus did not elaborate on where money for the tourism project would come from, although officials said it could involve a combination of the central and local government and donors.

So far, Jakarta has spent 43 billion rupiah (US$3.5 million) on managing the disaster.

The volcano has been spewing a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock known as a pyroclastic flow which can reach speeds of up to 700kmh and temperatures of 1,000 degress Celsius. Nearly 32,000 evacuees, mostly farmers, lost their livelihoods and have taken refuge in 42 shelters. Agriculture losses in Karo are estimated at one trillion rupiah ($82 million).

Occupancy rates in hotels in Kabanjahe, the town nearest to Mount Sinabung, have fallen from 45.75 per cent to 23.16 per cent. Motels are worse off, with bookings dwindling to 18.6 per cent from 61.5 per cent, said Ukus.

Tourist spots as far away as Lake Toba, more than 100km south of Sinabung, have also been affected even though winds are blowing ash away from the scenic site.

Disaster management officials are hoping that revenue from “disaster tourism” could tide over people suffering from the resulting economic problems, if done well and tastefully.

The inspiration for this came from Japan, another disaster-prone country, said Tazbir, the ministry’s director of domestic tourism.

“We are telling the local authorities not to throw away things like ash-covered motorbikes or furniture like fridges, so that we can preserve them as artefacts in the museum to make this an educational experience,” he told The Straits Times.

Some villagers, however, are already trying to profit from the disaster by selling volcanic ash for 5,000 rupiah a sack, reported news portal

Villager S. Tarigan said he and his group prepare 120 sacks of ash every two days for buyers in Medan where it is used as fertiliser, said the report.

But even as foreign geologists and out-of-towners arrive to study or marvel at the volcano, officials warned that the danger is real.

At least four of the 16 people killed by pyroclastic ash clouds on Saturday were high school students on a sightseeing trip within the 5km zone that has been evacuated.

In the meantime, search and rescue operations have been halted because the intense volcanic activity has made it too dangerous, said Brigadier-General Tatang Zainuddin, director of operations and training at the National Search and Rescue Agency. It was unclear if there were more victims.

Mount Sinabung is one of 127 active volcanoes in Indonesia that straddle major tectonic fault lines known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.

After 400 years of dormancy, it rumbled back to life in 2010.

(c)2014 the Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Photo Credit: Mount Sinaburg appears behind the city of Berastagi in Indonesia. DocBudie / Flickr