War zone holidays: where the firepower can be magnificent

Natural awe such as the Nyamulagira eruption helps double visitor numbers to troubled Democratic Republic of Congo

Its status as the battleground in "Africa's world war", and possibly the worst place on Earth to be a woman, makes it arguably the world's most counterintuitive holiday destination.

Yet tourism in the Democratic Republic of Congo's ravaged east is doubling by the year as intrepid travellers set out to witness its natural wonders. From a standing start of zero in 2008, when war was still raging, Virunga national park's visitor numbers climbed to 550 in 2009, then 1800 in 2010 with an expected 3800 for 2011. As a result, this year the oldest national park in Africa expects to raise more than $US1m.

Among the attractions on offer are an overnight trek to the eruption of the Mount Nyamulagira volcano and tracking through forests to glimpse critically endangered mountain gorillas.

In a sign of growing confidence, Virunga is also due to open its first tourist lodge on 1 January, with guests paying $US200 a night in 12 bungalows boasting lava rock walls and thatched roofs.

"Clearly it's not Spain we're trying to sell," said Cai Tjeenk Willink, the park's business development officer. "The good thing is we have high-quality attractions here: the mountain gorillas, the active volcanos, safaris with elephants, lions and leopards, the lake, a lowland forest and one of the highest mountain ranges in Africa. We have a lot to offer."

Willink said that most visitors were from Belgium, the former colonial power, while about one in 10 is British.

The Nyamulagira volcano began erupting on 6 November and has several lava fountains spewing up to 200m into the air, with lava flowing slowly north into an uninhabited area of the park.

The park, a Unesco world heritage site, has set up a tented camp in a safe area close to Nyamulagira, where visitors can stay overnight. Treks to the site will continue until the eruption ends, which could take a few days or several months.

It is hoped the tourist industry can create local jobs and boost eastern Congo's struggling economy. However, security remains a big concern in the park after a 12-year civil war, especially with crucial elections due on 28 November. De Merode said 50 new rangers had received seven months' special forces training to protect visitors to Virunga this year.

Guardian News & Media

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