Stranded tourists depart Bali as volcanic ash cloud shifts

Mount Agung was partially shrouded by cloud with parts of Bali lashed by monsoon rain, but according to officials there were persistent tremors from the crater. PHOTO: AFP

KARANGASEM, INDONESIA (REUTERS) - Airlines laid on extra flights to Bali on Thursday (Nov 30) to allow some of the thousands of passengers stranded by the eruption of Mount Agung to fly out, as a switch in wind direction sent volcanic ash away from the holiday island's airport.

Agung was partially shrouded by cloud on Thursday with parts of Bali lashed by monsoon rain, but according to officials there were persistent tremors from the crater.

"Mount Agung continues to erupt, ejecting volcanic ash up to 2,000m in height," Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency, said via Twitter.

Earlier in the week, Agung had ejected showers of rocks up to 4km, he said. The reopening on Wednesday afternoon of Bali's airport, which is about 60km away from Mount Agung, followed a downgrade in an aviation warning to one level below the most serious, with the arrival of more favourable winds.

While Bali's airport was open again after a more than two-day closure, the airport on neighbouring Lombok island was closed on Thursday due to ash from Agung, air traffic control provider AirNav said.

Bali airport's call centre said three flights had left on Thursday morning, while nine had arrived. It's website showed dozens of flights scheduled to fly to Singapore, Seoul, Perth and other cities.

Two Chinese state-owned airlines on Wednesday night sent flights to fetch more than 2,700 Chinese tourists from Bali, Xinhua news agency said.

China Southern Airlines sent two planes from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, while China Eastern Airlines flew in four from Beijing and Shanghai, it said.

From January to September, Bali received 4.5 million foreign tourist arrivals, nearly half of the 10.5 million arrivals in Indonesia.

Chinese have overtaken Australians to become the top visitors to Bali, representing around a quarter of arrivals.

Previously, stranded passengers in Bali had been advised to take a long bus ride and then a ferry hop to Java island and onto airports such as Surabaya.

Asked about the economic impact of the eruption, Indonesia's Tourism Minister Arif Yahya has estimated that since the volcano warning level was first raised in September the loss in revenue could be more than US$650 million.

Agung looms over eastern Bali to a height of just over 3,000m. Its last major eruption in 1963 killed more than 1,000 people and razed several villages.

Authorities are urging people living up to 10km from the volcano to move to emergency centres, but some are reluctant to leave homes and livestock.

The disaster mitigation agency said on Wednesday about 43,000 people had moved to shelters, but many were thought to be staying put as up to 100,000 people are estimated to be living in the danger zone.

"We cannot predict whether it (a major eruption) will be bigger than 1963, but... according to our evaluation the potential for a full-scale eruption is still high," Devy Kamil Syahbana, an official at Indonesia's centre for volcanology and geological disaster mitigation centre, told Reuters.

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