Is disaster tourism acceptable?

Hi I’m Zoe Graham. I am one of the international journalism postgrads from University College Falmouth and am helping to produce the WHYS programme today with the rest of the team.

‘Disaster Tourism’ is the term given to a type of tourism that is associated with death, tragedy and suffering.

In recent years, disaster tourism attractions have ranged from sightseeing the ruins of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to visiting crime sites like that of the Soham muders in Cambridge, UK.

Call it morbid fascination if you like: the human desire to bear witness to suffering. To experience, first hand, the most frightening and painful aspects of human existence: natural disasters, destruction, genocide, slavery.

Many see it as being a way to show compassion to people who have suffered and empathise with their experiences. One travel blogger says it differs from recreational tourism, which offers entertainment. “It is a multi-dimensional experience that can have a deep impact on your life”.

But what about when people do treat it as entertainment? Where is the line drawn between treating others with respect or turning their misery into a spectacle?

Can this kind of tourism be an important source of income for distaster and poverty-stricken areas, which they desperately need?

The Haitian government is currently urging people to visit the country and help the Haiti earthquake victims. Whilst tankers filled with aid were arriving in Port-au-Prince, luxury cruise ships were docking at beaches mere miles away. 

Would you go?

15 Responses to “Is disaster tourism acceptable?”

  1. 1 Peter Gizzi UK
    February 25, 2010 at 14:56

    I certainly would not go unless I were able to offer “hands on help”. If these people who do go can afford so much why not forego the “holiday” and give the money to The Haitans.

    As an aircraft enthusiast I watched a Breguet Atlantique crash on final approach at a 1960s Farborough Air Display. I felt so helpless knowing the 10 crew had just died. When the display had finished I left by a gate that took me away from the crash site. I was horrified though to see so many who wanted not only to look closely by even tried to get souvenirs. Some humans are just downright sick!

  2. 2 patti in cape coral
    February 25, 2010 at 15:18

    I agree with Peter Gizzi. There is a difference between going to a holocaust museum or a Jack the Ripper mystery tour and going to an area where people are presently suffering. If you can’t help, you just need to stay out of the way.

  3. February 25, 2010 at 15:40

    It doesn’t make sense to trade human suffering to promote an industry. In film industry, for example, many artists and actors make a huge fortune by portraying human misery as in the movie, “Rwanda Hotel”. Although the movie had a message, it was still a commercial achievement.

    Disaster tourism is unacceptable as long as profit is made from the losses of others in terms of life, happiness and possessions.

    On another level, there are tourists from developed countries who enjoy visiting poverty stricken areas in developing countries to get a glimpse of the reality of these countries.

    Journalists also seek to focus on troubled spots in the world where there are crimes and disasters to inform and to put it cynically to excite their audience.

    While those who live in disasters are destitute, others with money or seeking money use their conditions to enrich themselves materially and intellectually.

  4. 4 gary indiana
    February 25, 2010 at 15:44

    Disaster tourism? Is there no bottom of depths to which humans are capable of sinking?

  5. 5 Nengak (Abuja, Nigeria)
    February 25, 2010 at 16:15

    I doubt if it will be fun to me, but if anyone wants to see the ruins, why not? You never know, the money they spend to embark on that weird tourism could be recouped to help in the rebuilding.
    Caveat: Just so long as folks don’t go knocking places down to create ‘fascinating sights’ just as people go great lengths to create beautiful sights.
    But does it really make any difference? ‘Great Journalists’ are always there ‘when it happens’ to bring us great stories and pictures from the foot of a raging volcano, to Port Au Prince to the scenes of an Iraqi blast etc. Why would anyone risk their safety on precarious grounds when an award winning journalist is there to cover it all?

  6. 6 Ibrahim in UK
    February 25, 2010 at 16:31

    Economic feasibility is capitalism’s morality.
    Doesn’t this tie in nicely with the Michael Sandel blog on Market Forces for everything.

  7. 7 Tara Ballance, Montreal Canada
    February 25, 2010 at 17:05

    About those cruise ships, please consider this:

    Royal Caribbean has a long term relationship with Haiti, and employs many Haitian nationals throughout its fleet. It is probably Haiti’s largest foreign investor. Royal Caribbean consulted with Haitian officials before making the decision to continue their port calls in Labadee.

    If the cruise ships had NOT stopped at Labadee, it would have meant an immediate and near total loss of revenue for the people who live there and who depend on tourism to survive.

    The ships are bring in supplies of non-perishable food and bottled water specifically for victims of the earthquake. In addition, Royal Caribbean gave $1 million to earthquake relief efforts.

    Royal Caribbean provided all guests, fleet-wide, with the option of donating to earthquake relief through their shipboard accounts. All revenues normally generated at Labadee were also donated.

    Royal Caribbean did NOT organize excursions to Port-au-Prince so that the tourists could gawk at the ruins. It did NOT sell helicopter flights over the devastation. It did NOT promote the aftereffects of the earthquake as a tourist draw.

  8. 8 Cabe UK
    February 25, 2010 at 17:13

    Well excuse me but isn’t that what we are doing now? – Every day we sit in the comfort of our own homes and watch global disasters / crimes / wars etc on TV – isn’t that a form of ‘Tourism’ ? …. better still – – isn’t that a form of Voyeurism…!!! Especially if you throw in all the sex n’ torture crimes etc?

    It should not be encouraged but you really can’t do much about it – especially as we have a smaller version of it at home… ie: a car crash on a motorway… how many of you have either taken or seen other people taking photos of it as they overtake it? Hhhmmm?

  9. 9 audre
    February 25, 2010 at 17:20

    Yesterday, when I was at the hairdressers, the police went past the window with sirens blaring. My hairdresser dropped everything to find out what had happened. It didn’t interest me one bit. I guess my thinking is there are people who deal with that sort of thing and it is not my job. I think disaster tourism is an extension of my hairdresser’s attitude.

    When I think about it a bit more and I come to the conclusion that the attitude of the hairdresser is a more caring attitude than mine. So called ‘nosy’ people are the ones who sense when something is wrong and they get help. I, on the other hand, would not notice a thing. The question is: who would you rather have living next to you?

    To answer your question: if it hurts no one it is OK, I guess.

  10. 11 Samarth Sagar
    February 25, 2010 at 18:38

    In my opinion,, the concept is most akin to ” shaking hands with the devil for the greater good”. Most of the times, the countries and people, so ravaged by tragedy, are not equipped to pick up the pieces of their lives and start rebuilding. Further, most often than not, the scale and aftermath of the tragedy is too severe for the country to withstand on its own. In such circumstances, it becomes necessary to call upon the humanity of the world to share this burden and alleviate the suffering.
    That can only happen if the fortunate ones in the world come can be a part of the suffering, though in a purely visual way. That is the only way they will be shaken into action. Sometimes, pure misery is the only thing that can shake the conscience into positive action.
    Yes, it does seem that some take an almost voyeuristic pleasure out of it. But that minority cannot, under any circumstances undermine the overwhelming good and the scale of empathy that it manages to generate amongst us otherwise so apathetic human.
    In the end I support it on the principle of ” Ends justify the means”. It manages to shake the conscience on a personal level and then there is no excuse for the ones who watched it up close to run away from it.
    It is only the brutality of an experience that leaves an imprint. The conscience once shaken into action, then will not be able to sleep till every effort is made to help.

    I think this is an honest way to compel action.!!!!!!

  11. 12 tektwo
    February 25, 2010 at 18:55

    First off, i cant stand those people who slow down on the side of the road to view what happened. The people who want to see what is going on are not the same people who would risk there hide to help someone. We should not be entertained by horror and destruction, we should learn from it. I think it important that everyone view the devastation that can be caused by WAR, NATURAL DISASTER, ACCIDENTS, TERRORISM, etc… Only then can we appreciate how important human life is.

    I live in NY, after September 11th we had many people from all over the world who came to see the twin towers grave. Most did it out of voyeurism, but that is not a bad thing. People wanted to see the destruction because that is what everyone was talking about. They didnt come because they thought they were going to help pull people out of the rubble, or because they thought they would make it all better. People wanted to see it.

    Haiti is no different. Whether you go there as a voyeur, or for empathic reasons, or noble reasons you are still there, contributing to the welfare and economy of the country.


  12. 13 Kenneth Ingle
    February 25, 2010 at 19:15

    It could be a good thing if the tourists really left their money in the places they visit. In most cases however this will not be the case. The best answer is, if you can’t help, keep out!

  13. 14 T
    February 25, 2010 at 21:48

    No it’s not.

    Another example: many say Afghanistan is a disaster.And now some Westerners want to develop some ski resorts there. Again, not right.

  14. 15 Subhash C mehta
    February 26, 2010 at 14:35

    This kind of tourism, frankly, is more to do with satiation of our inner desires (positive and negative both); the positive side, in this case, is not essentially and generally compassion, but a nostalgic urge to be on the spots of our world’s disastrous/sad past, and the negative side to it is about being able to feel and imagine the horrors of the terrible happenings, which we were lucky not to be part of.

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