Disaster Tourism: Honest Altruism or Vulgar Voyerism?

(Student post from my coastal law class, 2010)

Dark tourism is tourism involving travel to sites associated with death and suffering. Thanatourism, derived from the Ancient Greek word thanatos for the personification of death, is associated with dark tourism but refers more specifically to violent death. Dark tourism and the dark tourists are motivated by death and disaster and apocalypse rather than by sun and sea and sand and pastoral living, with even ecotourism and adventure travel no longer stimulating enough.

There are different motivating factors for dark tourism. It can be motivated by grief (i.e, the Paris tunnel where Diana died, Auschwitz, Pompeii, and Ground Zero). It can be motivated by poverty or ‘poorism’ (i.e, Soweto South Africa, flavelas of Brazil, slums of Mumbai and Delhi). It can be motivated by disaster (i.e, post-tsunami Thailand, post-Katrina New Orleans).

An onslaught of visitors following some kind of natural disaster, such as those visiting south-east Asia following the 2004 tsunami crisis, or people traveling to New Orleans to see the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, are both current examples of disaster tourism. It’s a shade more controversial than grief tourism. You could argue that those who visit disaster zones – especially when little time has elapsed since the disaster – may hinder the efforts being made to restore communities to a normal way of life. On the other hand, promoting this kind of travel might bring in much-needed income at a difficult time.

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. Soon after the disaster there were guided bus tours to neighborhoods that were severely damaged by storm-related flooding. Some local residents have criticized these tours as unethical, because the tour companies were profiting from the misery of their communities and families. The Army Corps of Engineers has noted that traffic from tour buses and other tourist vehicles indeed interfered with the movement of trucks and other clean up equipment on single-lane residential roads. Furthermore, during the first six months after the storm, most of these neighborhoods lacked electricity, phone access, street signs, or access to emergency medical or police assistance. Simply traveling to these neighborhoods was hazardous. For these reasons, organized disaster tours are now banned from two of the most severely damaged areas in the city, the Lower 9th and St. Bernard Parish near the Industrial Canal.

On the other hand, such communities as Gentilly and Lakeview, along the 17th Street Canal, have welcomed organized tour groups as a means to publicize the scale of the destruction and attract more aid to the city. Much of the recovery effort in New Orleans relies on out-of-state volunteers and donations. Numerous non profit organizations including Habitat for Humanity and the Catholic Church, have converged on the city to gut and rebuild. There is also a movement by local residents to bring congressmen and other national leaders to the city and view the damage in person, since recovery efforts have been hampered by the failure of many homeowners and businesses to receive claims from their insurance providers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disaster_tourism

It is a well known fact that the livlihood of many local business rely on tourism. According to current travel guides, New Orleans is one of the top ten most visited cities in the United States; 10.1 million visitors came to New Orleans in 2004, and the city was on pace to break that level of visitation in 2005. A 2009 Travel and Leisure poll of “America’s Favorite Cities” ranked New Orleans first in ten categories, the most first-place rankings of the 30 cities included. According to the poll, New Orleans is the best U.S. city as a spring break destination and for “wild weekends,” stylish boutique hotels, cocktail hours, singles/bar scenes, live music/conerts and bands, antique and vintage shops, cafés/coffee bars, neighborhood restaurants, and people-watching. Post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans is now a top American city for disaster tourism as well.

In fact, the official New Orleans Tourism website is promoting disaster tourism at the Louisiana State Museum. The newest  exhibit “ Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” highlights Katrina’s devestation and the destruction that it caused the inhabitants of New Orleans and the local environment. The exhibit is a $7.5 million, 6,700 square-foot exhibit on the ground floor of the historic Presbytere in the French Quarter’s Jackson’s Square that tells the  raw and uncut stories of real people caught in the hurricane’s wrath. But the museum is not simply a memorial for the lives lost in the storm, it attempts to entertain visitors in a bizarre mixture of screaming voices, historical jazz and rescue artifacts and rising water to resemble actual flooding. It’s like an amusement park gone wrong.

Throughout the galleries are various rescued artifacts, including music legend Fats Domino’s baby grand piano found in his flooded Ninth Ward house, a Coast Guard rescue basket and seats from the heavily damaged Louisiana Superdome where thousands of people sought refuge and rescue. There is a leaking floodwall station and an exhibit that looks look like an attic and a roof of a house surrounded by rising floodwaters where visators can view the inundated city surrounding them. There is an evacuation corridor that allows visitors to overhear residents’ voices weighing their options as Katrina approaches. A state of the art “Storm Theater” shows Katrina’s full fury with moving and dramatic footage of the hurricane’s onslaught.

Although some may find this museum as paying homage to the people that died in the storm and those who were lucky enough to survive, I find it as an exploitation device that capitalizes on the misery and misfortune of a coastal city that is at the mercy of mother nature. This exhibit seems to minimize the seriousness of the storm and the coastal politics that are so closely connected to Hurricane Katrina. In my opinion it is tasteless and fails to respect the trauma that many residents sustained in loosing their homes, and in some cases their lives.  This exhibit seems to go too far beyond disaster tourism and enter into the realm of thoughtlessness and coldness. Many may argue that this exhibit teeters on the line of devastation exploitation. And all for the competitive price of $6.00. Whether or not one finds this exhibit offensive, one thing is for sure: “Living With Hurricanes Katrina and Beyond” is a huge tourist attraction and tourism in New Orleans, generally,  is on the rise. Especially since Landrieu said the city has asked BP for $75 million for a national tourism campaign.http:

So why are people so drawn to disaster tourism? could it be a taste of authenticity? People are increasingly keen to experience things first-hand, without any intermediaries. 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. Or perhaps people are becoming less sensitive, accustomed to the violence and tragedy seen daily on television. Whatever the reasoning behind this phenomenal,  dark tourism has captivated many academics and world travelers alike and is is now drawing a new breed of people to the Big Easy.

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