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Disaster Tourism: Honest Altruism or Vulgar Voyeurism?

A year after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the city was gripped by disaster tourism.

Rather than visit for Mardi Gras, people were asking for directions to the Lower Ninth Ward, scene of so much suffering during the storm.

Disaster in HaitiHelping out in the Haitian earthquake (UNDP)

Why are people so curious about disasters?

Just like dark tourism, disasters tend to draw the curious.

It could be a taste of authenticity. People are increasingly keen to experience things first-hand, without any intermediaries. Rubberneckingis also a natural reaction: people gravitate towards the unusual and the dangerous. Just look at how traffic slows down when there's an accident on the side of the road - not because there's no room to pass, but because everyone wants to get a tiny glimpse of what happened, if only to feel grateful for it having happened to someone else.

Maybe people are becoming less sensitive, inured to the violence and tragedy seen daily on television. And maybe it's superstition - if disaster has already struck here, chances are it won't strike again. Some people simply like to be near danger. And some prefer 'unspoilt' places - unspoilt by other tourists, that is. Too bad if the place has been wrecked...

Take the Christmas 2004 tsunami that hit South and Southeast Asia. The waves had barely regressed when sounds of cameras clicking could be heard along devastated beaches. These tourists didn't stay to help or donate - it was pure voyeurism, take a picture and run. The same has been reported from disaster sites in North America - firefighters and rescue workers often have to turn away gawkers with out-of-town license plates who pretend to be local to get a better look. What they don't realize is that they can be in the way - not to mention the live wires, smoldering rubble and flammable gas that can be dangers themselves.

Disaster tourismIn the aftermath of tsunami

Then there are those who genuinely want to help. In the wake of cyclones and earthquakes, they make their way to disaster sites and offer their skills or time. Professional humanitarian workers have mixed feelings about these new arrivals - while they understand what motivates them, disaster tourists may do more harm than good.

Just by being there they use up what may be scarce resources of food and water. As untrained workers, they may get in the way of skilled humanitarian workers or simply, just add to the confusion. Tourist vehicles could hamper rescue efforts. It can also be dangerous - and if a tourist has an accident, precious medical resources may have to be used.

There are specialized agencies that provide those who want to help with avenues to do so. Mostly, they ask for donations but in certain cases they'll take people too. An example is the New Orleans Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which seeks volunteers to help rebuild damaged homes. Other volunteer agencies specialized in disasters include Hands On Disaster Response and Relief International.

At the same time, others believe that spending tourist dollars at the site of a disaster is helpful because it forces money back into what have become ravaged economies. In many cases this is true - but only once the emergency phase has passed.

When is the right time for disaster tourism?

At the very least, after the aid and humanitarian workers have gone.

People need a chance to mourn and to come to terms with how their lives have changed.

Wait until the disaster isn't front-page news anymore. There's a fine line between disaster, current events and history. Figuring out how to navigate this line is tricky.

Look at Pompeii - today it is seen as a historical destination, not disaster tourism.

And pay attention to what local people say. In New Orleans, people wanted tourists to return as soon as possible.

Haiti disasterUSAID rescue workers in Haiti (USAID)

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