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What is disaster tourism and is it ethical?

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Disaster tourism is growing in popularity, but should it be? Disaster tourism is not a new phenomenon. Yet, it is a part of the tourism industry that has yielded little attention to date. Therefore, this comprehensive post will define disaster tourism, explain what disaster tourism is, why it is a type of tourism and where the form of tourism takes place. It will also provide examples of disaster tourism across the world.

What is disaster tourism?

Disaster tourism is the act of visiting locations that have been subjected to man-made or natural environmental disasters. It is considered a sub-sector of dark tourism.

Disaster tourism destinations can be permanently popular with tourists, such as Chernobyl, or they can be popular only in the aftermath of the disaster, such as Kathmandu after the 2015 earthquake or New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane.

disaster tourism
A temple being rebuilt after the Kathmandu earthquake in 2015

Disaster tourism definitions

As I mentioned, disaster tourism falls into the pillar of dark tourism, so lets begin by defining the term ‘dark tourism’.

An early definition defined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, define dark tourism as “the representation of inhuman acts, and how these are interpreted for visitors”.

In a more recent publication, Kevin Fox Gotham defines dark tourism as “the circulation of people to places characterized by distress, atrocity, or sadness and pain. As a more specific component of dark tourism, “disaster tourism” denotes situations where the tourism product is generated within, and from, the aftermath of a major disaster or traumatic event”.

Disaster tourism is considered a sub-sector of dark tourism and although scholars have in the past have reflected on the form of tourism, it has yet to receive much seperate academic attention. With this said, there does not appear to be any standardised definition of the term ‘disaster tourism’.

However, authors with a focus on dark tourism and disaster tourism have attempted to define the form of tourism. According to Wright And Sharpley, broadly speaking, disaster tourism has been defined as a practice of visiting locations at which an environmental disaster, either natural or man-made has occurred.

disaster tourism
Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia presenting skulls found after the Khmer Rouge regime

Despite the scarcity of literature addressing the concept of disaster tourism, the body of research is growing. This text on post-disaster and post-conflict tourism, for example, appears to be the first of its kind, addressing the disaster tourism sector from a tourism management perspective. Disaster tourism is also addressed, in part, in texts on tourism crisis and disaster management, such as this one.

Motivations of disaster tourists

Research has shown that people are drawn to places of disaster for a variety of reasons.

According to a personal study based on M. Pirveli (2008) by authors Dorota Rucińska and Maciej Lechowicz, there are 7 different reasons for undertaking disaster tourism.

Motivations for disaster tourismSpecific motivations for disaster tourism
Need to change locationSpace and time compression.
Recreational needsIndividual preferences.
Cognitive needsGlobal interest in the world.
Need for human contact Contact with people harmed by natural disasters.
Need for new experiencesExperiencing emotions.
General social needs Expansion of social awareness.
Additional tourism conditionsEconomic status, need to aid others.

As you can see, some people choose to partake in disaster tourism activities because they have an interest in learning about the world, others want to expand their social awareness or connect with people who have had traumatic experiences.

Some people are in search of authenticity and this is their primary motivation for becoming a disaster tourist. They want to experience the disaster area first hand, without intermediaries such as the media, who may not portray the event or situation accurately or fully. There are many ways that tourists can experience disaster tourism in an authentic way such as this, such visiting the wall in Berlin or going on a Chernobyl tour.

Other people simply want to be near danger. Some tourists seek to partake in dangerous experiences or visit dangerous areas, also known as extreme tourism. This can also be a motivation for visiting a disaster area. In fact, there are specific tour operators who will organise for tourists to undertake such trips, such as Hands on Disaster Response and Relief International.

disaster tourism
Tsunami evacuation sign on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Have you ever heard of the term rubbernecking? Think about when you’re driving along the motorway and there has been an accident on the other side. Many people will slow to turn and take a look. Well, this principle also applies to the concept of disaster tourism, whereby individuals wish to take a look for matter of interest.

To find out more more about why a person might choose to visit such locations as a disaster tourist and what the experience is like when they get there, The Dark Tourist: Sightseeing in the world’s most unlikely holiday destinations is a good read. It’s a comic, so it makes for some great light reading over a glass of wine or during a plane ride!

How tourism benefits from disasters

Post disasters leaves a door open for the tourism industry. Museums may open up to educate tourists about the disaster. There could be organised tours about the disaster. There could also be entertainment based around the disaster. This may sound strange, but think Titanic, Auschwitz or Chenobyl.

Increased tourism in the area can help bring in much needed income. Disaster tourism can increase visitor arrivals and support local economies financially through an increase in hotel bookings, restaurants, etc.

Disaster tourism can help rebuild and reform broken communities and provide a means of support for facilitating infrastructure development, especially when a community notices a decline in other forms of tourism, i.e. leisure tourism.

The money raised through tourism can also be used to help rejuvenate or repair the host community. For example, when I visited Kathmandu recently, I was made aware that my entrance fee to the temples would be used to rebuild other temples in the area which had been destroyed in the 2015 earthquake.

An increase in tourism of this nature can also provide a boost in income to the tour operators, airlines and other stakeholders of the tourism industry.

The problems with disaster tourism

There seems to be an inherent conflict between the terms ‘disaster’ and ‘tourism’. Tourism is typically associated with leisure, with inevitable connotations of happiness, fun and enjoyment. This is in direct contradiction to a disaster, where sadness, stress and struggle are likely at the heart.

In fact, many would argue that tourists should not visit disaster sites at all, particularly if this is during the immediate aftermath. Problems can include poor tourist behaviour or a lack of respect towards the local community and its peoples.

Tourists may also be a hindrance instead of a help. They may get in the way of lifesaving efforts or put themselves in unnecessary danger.

Tourists may also use up resources which should be prioritised for those in need, such as food and water.

In her blog ‘Women on the road’ Leyla explained how her visit to Lebanon in the 1980s made her realise why indulging in disaster tourism could be a ‘tragic mistake’. Leyla explains how the problems with disaster tourism may not appear obvious at first.

The UNWTO created a handbook on natural disasters produced by WTO and WMO exports, demonstrating how to combat natural disasters in tourist areas and mitigate their impacts. Organisations and DMOs are advised to use this as a guide.

disaster tourism
Remnants War Museum, Saigon

The ethics of disaster tourism

So, is it really ethical to visit sites of sorrow? Or to photograph people who are in moments of grief?

Many communities welcome disaster tourists as they raise awareness about the issue, in turn helping to attract further aid. Others, however, may argue that disaster tourists are more trouble than they are worth. Following the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina, for example, local residents criticised tour operations for making financial gains from their disastrous misery.

Here is a list of some of the behaviours demonstrated by disaster tourists, which have been deemed offensive or inappropriate:

  • Photographing people in moments of sorrow
  • Smiling and laughing around those experiencing hardship
  • Treating people as if they are museum exhibits
  • Making inappropriate remarks
  • Wearing disrespectful clothes
  • Using inappropriate language
  • Committing to disaster tourism for personal gain (e.g. personal satisfaction, to enhance CV etc)
  • Making money from others’ hardships
  • Talking loudly about unrelated issues
  • Showing general signs of disrespect

Disaster tourism examples

There are a variety of examples of disaster tourism; ranging from hurricanes to nuclear disasters. I have summarised a few different disaster tourism examples below.

New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina)

Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States – killing over 1800 people and leaving many homeless. The hurricane cost the U.S $108 billion in damage.

Being one of the most-deadliest hurricanes ever in the U.S, disaster tourists flocked to the states to observe the damage of Hurricane Katrina – however local residents were not appreciative of tourism post-disaster.

Local residents were particularly aggravated by disaster tourists. Vanessa Gueringer expressed in a report by The Telegraph that “We’re fed up and tired of them coming through the neighbourhood like we’re some sideshow”

“After all the suffering we have been through, we deserve more respect than this.”

This is a good example of how disaster tourism can be unwelcome and unethical.

Kathmandu (earthquake)

Nepal experienced one of its deadliest earthquakes yet with almost 9,000 deaths, 22,000 injured and several million people without homes in 2015. Nepal’s tourist industry slummed overnight whilst their food, resources and infrastructure were seriously scarce when the boarder between India and Nepal was closed.

Tourism numbers in Nepal fell dramatically from 790,000 visitors in 2014 to 539,000 visitors in 2016.

Although the earthquake destroyed much of Nepal’s unique cultural heritage, many worried that this would deter future visitors. However, Nepal’s tourism industry is now climbing back up the ladder.

Some believe, the destruction of Nepal’s cultural heritage provides a much more fascinating story and attracts even more visitors than before. These tourists (myself included) will not necessarily visit Nepal for the purpose of being a ‘disaster tourist’, but will partake in disaster tourism as a part of the wider tourism experience. As I learned during my trip to Kathmandu (read more about that here- Kathmandu with a baby), the sites of devastation are everywhere and you will see the ongoing efforts to rebuild the ancient temples, building, homes etc all over the city.

Bikini Atoll (Nuclear test site)

Bikini Atoll was once a nuclear test site and nuclear devices were detonated between 1946 and 1958. Unlike natural disasters, tourists could not flock to Bikini Atoll immediately after, and even to this day, Bikini Atoll remains an extremely hazardous place to visit despite the US granting its safety in 1997.

It is argued that disaster tourists are putting themselves at risk by travelling to Bikini Atoll. There is still a significant level of radiation in the area and the extent of the damage caused below sea level has not been determined.

Whilst the disaster tourism industry at Bikini Atoll is not huge, there is a growing popularity for tours to the area. Many scuba divers will visit the atoll to explore the fleet of ten sunken ships which were sunken during the nuclear tests.

If you want to learn more about Bikini Atoll visit this website. You can also watch the below documentary, which was where I first learned of the histories of Bikini Atoll and the growth of tourism in the area.

Iceland (volcanic eruption)

Eyjafjallajökull, has been considered “one of the integral catalysts that transformed Iceland’s position as a travel destination, pulling the country from its financial slump into prosperity.” 

Despite the volcano’s ash cloud creating immense disruption to world-wide air travel, travellers deemed the ash cloud as beautiful and picturesque. This saw the rise of volcano tourism in the area, whereby tourists flocked to visit the volcano with its pending eruption.

Following the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, Iceland witnessed the beginning of its largest volcano, Bárðarbunga erupting, which ended in February 2015. The volcano eruption attracted many disaster tourists who have particular interests in volcanic tourism or photography.

Thailand (tsunami)

The 2004 tsunami killed more than 230,000 people and left 1.7 million homeless, being the deadliest tsunami to date. 14 countries were affected including; India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Burma (Myanmar), Somalia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, South Africa, Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles.

Thailand was one of the most affected countries, with over 4,800 deaths, 8,400 injured and 4,500 missing. The first place to be hit by the tsunami was the Similan Islands which was a popular site for tourists, killing the majority of those who were tourists. It is no wonder why the tourism industry decremented immediately.

There were no resources or health facilities available for locals, and international help was required urgently. The lack of facilities and resources meant that disaster tourism was not a practical choice and the only form of tourism desired by Thailand was volunteer tourism and those coming with assistance and means of aid.

Since the event, tourism has not been a significant driver to said effected destinations. It does, however, often comprise a part of a wider tourism experience. People visit the Tsunami evacuation points on Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, for example. When I visited Sri Lanka our driver had lost his home to the tsunami and took us to see some of the devastation which remained on the island fifteen years later (read more about my Sri Lanka trip here- Sri Lanka with a baby).

You can learn more about the 2004 tsunami from the Box Office hit The Impossible.

A school friend of mine was orphaned during the tsunami whilst living in Sri Lanka. He has since written his story in his book Tsunami Kids, which I would highly recommend. He has also made something positive out of this experience by starting a business, names Gandys, whereby he donates a large proportion of the proceeds to helping orphans in India. I especially love his flip flops, not only because some of the money goes to a great cause, but also because they are super comfy! You can buy them on Amazon here.

Disaster tourism: Conclusion

In summary, you can see that disaster tourism is a small, but growing industry. More people are becoming aware of disaster tourism, both in an academic and a community sense, which has brought with it a greater awareness of the associated negative impacts.

Whilst there are some benefits of disaster tourism, the negative impacts tend to outweigh these. Tourists are often a hindrance rather than a help, they behave inappropriately and they can use up scarce resources.

There are many examples of disaster tourism, of which I have provided only a few. If this is a topic of interest to you, I recommend that you take a look at the list below for some sources of further information.

What are your views on disaster tourism? Helpful or unethical? Right or wrong? I’d love to hear your views!

Further reading