Ijen Crater: East Java’s tourist trap

There was a time when East Java’s Ijen Crater was pretty much unknown to tourists. And then came some magazine articles in the western press in the 1990s which poignantly described the tough lives of poverty-stricken workers at the site whose job it is to carry backbreaking loads of sulphur down from the crater for only a few bucks a day. These pictures rattled the conscious of do-good hipster types in the west and some of them then made their way to the crater to look for photo opportunities themselves.

sulfur-worker at the Ijen volcano complex

Over time, more feature stories were done on the Ijen crater in other publications and this provided enough publicity to ensure a steady stream of visitors. Some cynics would label this as just another form of poverty tourism as the workers themselves didn’t benefit from their new found “fame”. And they’d be right. No royalties for them!

But few could have predicted that the Ijen crater would then become one of Indonesia’s most popular destinations, drawing huge numbers of eager tourists from around the world. So what happened? Why do so many tourists now make the effort to get to this far-flung spot in East Java, a time-consuming and costly detour from the paradise island of Bali, where you can chill out on a sandy beach drinking cocktails rather than slog up a steep path in the dark and freezing cold? What’s the big deal?

Well, it’s a number of things really. But what really sparked a massive interest in Ijen was the “discovery” of bright blue flames at the crater by the National Geographic TV channel and photographer Olivier Grunewald. These flames can only be seen at nighttime – thus explaining why this rare natural phenomenon was never publicized before. But once it was, tourist arrivals exploded. This didn’t go unnoticed by the local government which promptly asphalted the access road leading to the huge car park from where you begin the walk up to the crater.

The other thing which hugely raised the popularity of the crater is the modern day psychological condition selfitis which causes its sufferers (mostly young people) to visit places they would ordinarily never go and take self-portraits on a handphone and then upload them onto the internet.

Although we arrived at Ijen’s carpark at a very early hour, we were still too late to reach the crater before dawn and would therefore miss the opportunity to see the blue lights. But that wasn’t a big deal. I could always look at the blue flames on my stove when I got home. Visually, not much different at all.

After paying an exorbitant “bule” entry fee (about 15 million times the rate the locals pay), we began our trek. Although very steep in places, the path is wide and fully paved and in far better condition than the average potholed road in Jakarta. But the crowds! There were so many people it reminded me of walking to a football stadium in England on match day: you had to make an effort just to avoid bumping into people. Although sulphur is mined here, Ijen must also be a proverbial gold mine for the local government.

After three hours of fairly strenuous walking we reached the crater. The views were certainly impressive and everywhere you looked there were people taking selfies, whether alone or in groups.

Ijen crater lake

Some tourists made their way down into the crater where the workers collect the sulphur. Although most of them were equipped with gas masks, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are not effective at filtering out the sulphur gases, which, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, are severely irritating to the eyes, mucous membranes, skin, and respiratory tract and can cause pulmonary edema, bronchial inflammation and laryngeal spasms.

Does this sound like a disaster in waiting? It certainly does. One visitor writing that:

the smoke is so thick you cannot see your hand in front of you. All you can do is stop to avoid falling on the treacherous terrain and stay calm, while hoping the hundreds of others hiking around you do the same until the fog passes momentarily… I found myself gaining a small understanding of what a chemical weapon attack might feel like.

Well I’m certainly glad I didn’t go down into the crater.

And when I got home I switched on the stove.

I’d call that a result!


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