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Montserrat: a modern-day Pompeii in the Caribbean

For first-time visitors to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, some of the local vocabulary evokes Geology 101. Words like “pyroclastic flow,” “seismic” and “dome collapse” pop up often in conversations with native islanders and longtime residents.

After all, these people experienced firsthand what now draws many tourists to the British overseas territory: the catastrophic damage from the Soufrière Hills volcano, which erupted twice in the mid-1990s and changed life forever on the drumstick-shaped island in the West Indies.

Known among locals simply as “the volcano,” Soufrière Hills roared to life in 1995 after decades of inactivity, causing many residents of Montserrat’s capital city, Plymouth, to flee. But the real destruction came in 1997, when it erupted again, killing 19 people, burying Plymouth under as much as 40 feet of volcanic debris and mud and forcing government officials to proclaim the city and the southern two-thirds of the 40-square-mile island uninhabitable.

More than two-thirds of Montserrat’s 12,000 residents left, and those who stayed found themselves facing yet another disaster in 2003, when the volcano’s dome collapsed, unleashing clouds of ash across the landscape that required a massive cleanup.

Today, Plymouth and its environs stand abandoned and frozen in time, looking like the set of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. Behind the locked gates prohibiting entry into the “Exclusion Zone,” a deep drift of mud, lava and ash almost buries the clock tower of the former courthouse and rises to the upper stories of other buildings, prompting descriptions of a modern-day Pompeii.

“That’s still our catch phrase,” said Rosetta West, development officer for the Montserrat Tourist Board. “It’s really awe inspiring, I must say, even as someone from here. … You can’t really understand the contrast. One side of the island is lush and green, and the other is gray and dismal from the ash – although lately I’m seeing signs of grass growing and trees coming back.”

The island’s tourism infrastructure is showing similar signs of resurgence. In 1994 and 1995 the number of visitors, including overnight tourists and day trippers from Antigua, averaged 33,000 a year. Now it’s 7,000, according to government figures. The island hasn’t even had an official director of tourism for the last couple of years.

But West says the position will soon be filled, highlighting the government’s renewed focus on bringing visitors to the island. In 2005 Montserrat opened an $18.5 million airport to replace the one that was destroyed. And since then, several other major development initiatives have gained momentum.

The pivotal project on the horizon is a new capital city and port that will be built on the northwest coast, in Little Bay. According to Ivan Browne, CEO of the government-owned Montserrat Development Corporation, the project will include a hotel and government buildings and is estimated to cost around $300 million. Completion is estimated for 2020.

In the meantime, Montserrat tourism officials are awaiting a decision from the British government on whether it will fund all or a portion of the estimated $150 million needed to build the port. Covering the entire cost, Browne noted, would help quicken Montserrat’s efforts to become self-supporting again.

But even with tourism on the upswing, don’t expect Montserrat to fall into the fate of some other Caribbean islands: overrun with all-inclusive megaresorts, pre-packaged excursions and aggressive vendors. Tourism officials – and locals, too – are committed to maintaining the island’s unique identity: an unhurried pace, nearly nonexistent crime and other quirky attractions that are as fascinating as its volcano.

In addition, “the people in Montserrat are a huge attraction – they’re very friendly and welcoming,” said Pam Arthurton, a Montserrat native who runs an Antigua-based tour company called Carib-World Travel. “It’s a breath of fresh air to see the Caribbean as it used to be.”

Some visitors are surprised to learn of Montserrat’s heritage, which traces back to the 17th century, when settlers from Ireland colonized the island. Known sometimes as “the other Emerald Isle,” Montserrat throws an epic, weeklong celebration around St. Patrick’s Day, and its passport stamp features a shamrock.

Then there’s Montserrat’s spectacular, though not widely known, rock-star history. In 1979, Beatles producer George Martin opened Air Studios Montserrat, and over the next decade the tropical outpost drew such musical legends as Paul McCartney, The Police, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. The studio was shuttered in 1989 because of damage from Hurricane Hugo, and it remains closed to the public, but music lovers can still get a taste of Monserrat’s musical heritage at the Olveston House, a restaurant and guesthouse owned by Martin, whose star-studded guest list has included Sting and Elton John.

For many, though, the volcano remains the main draw. Tours into the Exclusion Zone are popular (and are allowed only with a permit), and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which keeps a 24-hour watch on the volcano, is one of the most advanced seismic centers in the world.

At the charming guesthouse Gingerbread Hill, co-owner Clover Lea calls her lava-loving travelers “volcanophiles” who enjoy listening to her and her husband, David, give their firsthand accounts of the destruction and recovery. David also captured some well-known footage of the erupting volcano.

“People always want to know what makes a place tick, and we always get asked, what do people do for a living? Why did the people who stayed stay?” said David, who, along with Lea, arrived as a missionary in 1980. They opened their guesthouse in stages over the years.

“And really, the worst of the volcanic days were awful. It was ash everywhere, all the time, but we still didn’t have any intention of leaving.”

Added Lea: “[It’s like] the little island that could … There is no place like Montserrat. Its beauty, its people. We are truly blessed to have lived here all this time.”