In the thick of the war in Syria, I came across an ad posted by Syria’s Tourist Board touting the attractions of Tartus, a seaside town, almost as though the brutal battles were happening “somewhere else”. (By mid-2016 some 400,000 people had died in the conflict.) A Russian travel agency was even planning to offer tours of the Syrian war zone – you know, for fun.
There are plenty of examples of so-called disaster tourism, part of which is also sometimes called war tourism.
Definitions: Disaster tourism is the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity. A disaster is a sudden accident or a natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life.
On a visit to Lebanon in the 1980s, I sat next to an affable gentleman at the height of the war, with the sound of gunfire in the background. “And what do you do?” I asked politely. He replied, “I am the Minister of Tourism.” Unable to let things lie, I asked how many tourists had visited that year. “More than 50,” he said, deadpan. That’s 50 more than should have come at the time.
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, grab a picture and run.
A year after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the city was gripped by disaster tourism. Rather than visit for Mardi Gras, people were asking for directions to the Lower Ninth Ward, a scene of so much suffering during the storm. Some of them wanted to help. Many did not.
WHAT EXACTLY IS WRONG WITH DISASTER TOURISM?
If it’s not obvious at first, going where disaster has struck – or where danger remains present – has its risks.
Poor behavior is all too common
Often, visitors misbehave at sites. If it’s a historical site where many have died, you may see travelers prancing about taking selfies, making faces, or otherwise ignoring the fact that there were many deaths here.
Visitors may demonstrate a lack of respect
This is closely related to the behavior issue. People have been known to deface memorials or otherwise damage them. I try to imagine what I would feel like if one of those memorials was dedicated to my family or ancestors.
There is a risk of actual physical danger
If someone shows up right after an earthquake, they might face smoldering rubble or flammable gas – or the threat of even worse aftershocks. In a flood, live wires may be dragged under the water, ready to electrocute an unsuspecting tourist. And in a war zone, well, there’s war.
Their presence could hamper lifesaving efforts
A traveler or visitor in a disaster area is close to useless. Most often, they will get in the way of real relief efforts – even if their motivation is pure and all they want to do is offer skills or help. Professional humanitarian workers have mixed feelings about these new arrivals – while they understand what compels them, disaster tourists may do more harm than good.
They may waste precious resources
Just by being there visitors use up scarce food and water that are needed for victims of disaster or relief workers. Tourist vehicles could obstruct rescue efforts and again, the danger – if a tourist has an accident, precious medical resources may have to be used.
Voyeurism may be resented
A community in the midst of grief over having lost loved ones and their place to live won’t be impressed by tourists traipsing through their former homes. Several neighborhoods in New Orleans took a stand against tours and got them banned after Hurricane Katrina.
WHY ARE PEOPLE SO CURIOUS ABOUT DISASTERS?
Whether they are man-made (war) or natural (flood, earthquake), disasters attract people. It’s a complex facet of our humanity and not easily explained.
Just like dark tourism, disasters and conflicts tend to draw the curious.
It could be a taste of authenticity. People are increasingly keen to experience things first-hand, without any intermediaries. Somehow along the way, they lose the fact that many people may have died at the very site they’re so keen to visit.
Rubbernecking is 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 that it happened not to them but to someone else.
Maybe people are becoming less sensitive, inured to the violence and tragedy seen daily on television and online. A devastated war zone may look less daunting after witnessing beheadings online.
And maybe it’s superstition – if a disaster has already struck here, chances are it won’t strike again.
Some people simply like to be near danger. And some prefer ‘unspoiled’ places – unspoiled by other tourists, that is. Too bad if the place has been wrecked…
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.
IS THERE AN UPSIDE TO DISASTER TOURISM?
Just because it can get in the way or cause additional harm, does that mean disaster tourism should never take place? It’s a difficult question and a personal one, but there are some benefits to this kind of tourism.
Much-needed money can be pumped into the local economy
Spending tourist dollars at the site of a disaster can be helpful because it forces money back into what have become ravaged economies. This may be true, but will only be helpful once the emergency has actually passed.
A thirst for information
Because we are so much closer to disasters with the advent of instant media, it’s natural to want to see things for ourselves. That knowledge may at times bring home the horror of what has just happened, allowing people to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy far better than by watching a television screen.
One justification for disaster tourism – and again, only after the emergency phase has passed – is to remember what happened in the hope it might never happen again. Keeping the memory of dictators and criminals alive may serve as a warning and as a reminder to those who follow.
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. Some communities may want visitors to return as soon as possible. Others may want them to stay away. It’s important to respect their wishes.
— Originally published on 31 July 2011