A giant plume of volcanic ash over the South Pacific prompted warnings to tourists and airlines Monday but caused only minor disruption to flights compared with recent chaos in Europe.

The cloud billowing from Vanuatu's Mount Yasur volcano rose about 6,000 feet (1,800 metres) high and was spread over about 340 square kilometres (130 square miles), affecting flights in neighbouring New Caledonia.

Tourists have been banned from scenic Mount Yasur, which has been exploding and spitting lava and burning rocks, while officials are assessing whether to evacuate some 6,000 nearby villagers.

Meanwhile, New Zealand officials warned airlines to avoid the ash - which can seize up jet engines by being churned into glass - echoing the Iceland eruption which caused mass disruption in Europe including a week-long shutdown.

"The Mount Yasur volcano on Tanna island has been very active the last three days and the eruption is ongoing," said Tristan Oakley, an aviation forecaster with New Zealand's Meteorological Service.

Peter Korisa of Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office said ash was contaminating drinking water for villagers in the volatile region, which sits on the "Pacific Ring of Fire" known for its volcanic and seismic activity.

"Last week we recorded a very high activity for the volcano with hot lava, hot rocks falling from the volcano," he told AFP from Mount Tasur's surrounding island of Tanna.

"There are 6,000 people in the villages around the volcano, we're not moving them out yet. All tourists and tourist operators have been asked to not access the volcano. The access is restricted."

The plume has disrupted a handful of domestic flights operated by New Caledonia's AirCal, although disruption remains tiny compared with the havoc seen in Europe.

Air Vanuatu local supervisor David Dick said flights were still running between the South Pacific country's capital, Port Vila, and Tanna island, while tourism officials also said the industry was unaffected.

Resort-owners said tourists were still driving out to see the volcano but had to keep their distance, while the trucks carrying them returned covered with ash.

"They can get to the volcano, but are restricted and don't have access to where we usually take them," said Lina Tuprick, who works at Tanna Evergreen Bungalows.

"There are explosions on the volcano. It's the first time in two years it's been so active."

Australia also issued a travel advisory saying visitors were "strictly prohibited" from visiting the volcano.

Vanuatu was rocked by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Friday, prompting a brief tsunami warning. The archipelago, which lies between Australia and Fiji and north of New Zealand, was hit by three major quakes in October.

Iceland's ash cloud has been severely disrupting European air travel since April, widely affecting airports and closing down airspace in the continent's north for a week.

Last week, eruptions in Guatemala and Ecuador killed two people, forced thousands to flee and shut down two airports, smothering runways in ash.

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