Disaster tourism is essentially the act of travelling to a disaster area out of a matter of curiosity, or using a disaster to create profit in the form of organised tours and treks. In some circumstances it can have a positive impact but there is an even more stygian side to this aspect of dark tourism that comes with every natural disaster and ventures beyond mere voyeurism. It is this side of disaster tourism which can actually do more harm than good. The key is knowing the difference.
People are inquisitive by nature, and the voyeuristic aspect of rubbernecking on something terrible has always been a natural human trait, for better or worse.
Whether you agree with it or not, people get fascinated by terrible things, and disasters are no exception.
The ethics of visiting sites of natural disasters, conflicts or even terrorism are often murky at best but it isn’t all bad, there are some positives to this form of dark tourism. Travelling to the site of a natural disaster or conflict for example can often provide an empathetic link to the local people or group involved in the tragedy.
In some cases tourism, when done right, can provide economic relief to hard hit communities. It can provide a way out of a hard situation.
Disaster tourism can often provide a cultural and intellectual understanding of why such things happen, acting as a conduit to connect the academic to reality or in the case of recent tragedies sometimes even allowing people to heal.
Many tourists flocked to the site of the World Trade Centre after 9/11 to do just that, now of course there is even a memorial built there. It can even be argued that the ethical implications diminish with age, no one would bat an eyelid over visiting Pompeii for example and it is in fact a fascinating learning experience, many generations now visit sites of WWII battlefields or landmarks in an attempt to understand a recent past, whilst older generations may still struggle with that.
There is certainly truth to the fact that tourism has no place in an area where suffering is still new and raw, but this is because there is another form of disaster tourism too. Voluntourism.
It is when the tourism aspect goes beyond simple curiosity of a site or event long after the act has occured that the ethical lines get far more blurred. When natural disasters strike such as the boxing day Tsunami in Thailand in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 or the relatively recent earthquake in Nepal, the inevitable well wishing and aid starts to flow in. Unfortunately, so do the floods of disaster tourists and misguided do gooders, hell bent not only on heading to a disaster zone to see it first hand, but to ‘help’. This is the flip side to disaster tourism, disaster voluntourism.
It is this help that makes disaster tourism dangerous, with the well intentioned voluntourists potentially being as harmful as the secondary effects of the disaster themselves.
The earthquake in Nepal at the time of writing has caused a death toll of more than 5000, with a further 6,500 in various states of medical need and distress, and as the days begin to unfold that number could easily double. In any natural disaster the initial disaster itself is only the first wave of destruction, in the days and weeks that follow, secondary effects from the destruction of infrastructure, lack of supplies, exposure and disease, all pile the pressure and misery on an already dire situation.
What makes this worse is the outpouring of guilt from a thousand bleeding heart travellers and tourists, many proclaiming they want to go there to help, some just saying they want to go there. No offence, but you probably aren’t going to be needed.
International aid is not perfect. I will never pretend to argue otherwise. It is often slow to respond and reactionary at best, with initial response times and logistics often being the worst perpetrators, but despite those flaws it is essentially robust and providing an essential service when otherwise there would be nothing.
International aid organisations and various military forces – all with skilled and trained personnel – work together to establish a chain of supply and organize teams of specialists to be where they are needed most. This small army of personnel is often made up of people who are specifically trained and qualified to provide essential services in any given crisis. Military logistical experts, engineers, doctors, medics, nurses, the list is varied but invariably essential.
So what makes voluntourists and untrained travellers think they will be of any benefit in that situation?
Sure, their motives are honourable. I understand the urge to help, I really do. I have worked as a nurse and a medic in disaster relief areas and conflict zones. I understand the empathy toward human suffering, I get that people feel the need to do something, to act. In one respect that humanitarian urge is to be applauded, even nurtured, but alongside that it has to be channeled correctly too.
Compared to the qualified experts, not only trained in their specific discipline of medicine, nursing, engineering or whatever it may be, but also trained in the stresses, strains and unique problems of working within a disaster or conflict zones, what good are a disparate and unsolicited band of tourists, travellers and bleeding hearts all clambering to ‘help’? What good does it do to flood an area with even more people, putting a greater strain on stretched resources and often hampering efforts to help?
Tourism is undoubtedly key to helping any country rebuild and heal after a serious natural disaster, but that is for the near future. For the moment just stay back, let the professionals do their jobs, stay out of their way and plan a trip there once the dust has settled. Literally. In the immediate aftermath of any disaster you will just be in the way and be nothing more than another rubbernecking tourist.
There are ways you can help however. If you feel the need to do good, then that is fantastic but I urge you to do it in the right way.
Unless you are a qualified professional with relevant skills, stay away.
As has been said already, you will just use up vital resources and get in the way.
If you are a qualified professional, then team up with an agency on the ground.
If you are a qualified professional and really want to help then I urge you to go and volunteer with a recognised and reputable aid agency that is already on the ground. They will be glad of your help and will be able to place you where you are needed most and organise the effort properly instead of everyone just turning up and making the relief effort a holy mess.
Donate your money.
All relief efforts need funding, and this relies on charity and government handouts. What they don’t need is a load of second hand stuff or droves of tourists turning up. So instead of getting on the first plane to a disaster zone like Nepal in an attempt to boost your ego or assuage your bleeding heart, why not give the cost of the plane ticket instead? I thought that would make a lot of you balk.
Donate your money to the RIGHT agency.
It is important first of all that if you do donate money to any disaster relief fund then it is to a reputable, established relief charity and furthermore to a charity that you agree with. Not every charity is equal and a little bit of research goes a long way.
Tourism is not all bad though. Tourism CAN have a positive impact. Tourism can play a huge part in helping a country heal and rebuild after a natural disaster, but only if it is done right. Timing is everything. Don’t be one of those tourists turning up to gawk at a disaster zone, don’t be a bleeding heart voluntourist who turns up straight away and makes things worse, let the professionals do as much as they can and then travel there. Pump some tourism cash into the local economy when they are trying to rebuild, not when they are trying to survive.
Make tourism count for something good, don’t make it part of the problem.
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