Asia’s disaster tourism: Fascinating, tasteless or stupid?

OVER the past couple of years I’ve blogged a bit about Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident to date. The tragedy in the Ukraine resulted in 31 direct deaths and from 4,000 up to 1 million cancer deaths, depending on the estimation of the particular organization.

Abandoned house, Chernobyl, pic: Suhrida (Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, the desolate, abandoned landscape of Chernobyl and the town of Prypiat has fascinated many and even resulted in organized tourist visits to the area. Holiday makers ooh and ah over the derelict amusement park, empty schools and apartment buildings overgrown with vegetation (radioactive plants). They stare into the forest wondering what kind of mutant animals roam its darkened recesses – two headed wolves? Glowing chipmunks?

Chernobyl may be the ultimate disaster tourism destination, but what about other, less sinister locations? What motivates disaster tourists to visit them?

Let’s look at some spots in Asia for “DT”.

Two museums in Asia have recently opened up commemorating natural disasters: one for the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province and another (including access to ruins) for the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province.

Do museums qualify as disaster tourism or historical record? Are visitors to Auschwitz disaster tourists? I suppose it depends on the motivations of both the tourists (to gawk or be educated) and the museum builders (to commemorate or to make money). The museum in Aceh (paid for by Aceh’s Reconstruction Fund and so far costing $6.7m) sounds amazing, but has elicited comments about its appropriateness.

This blogger points out a dark touristic phenomenon immediately following the 2004 tsunami:

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, take a picture and run.

Merapi, Indonesia, pic: kalevkevad (Flickr CC)

Another site for disaster tourism in Indonesia is the Merapi volcano, which erupted in October and November of 2010, causing 353 deaths and widespread devastation. Now travel firms are offering tour packages with names like Lava Tour, Full Day Volcano Tour and Merapi Eruption Special.

To be fair, the disaster is the death and the destruction, not looking at lava and touring what can be an amazing natural phenomenon. The locals also need money to rebuild their lives, but are disaster tourists the solution? Some think not.

From Deutsche Welle:

While there is profit in this kind of tourism, some observers are wary. For Suparlan from the NGO WALHI, it is important that the locals are not overly focused on getting help from the tourists by “selling” their devastated villages. He does not think that this trend would last long, and they certainly wouldn’t make enough money to rebuild their villages.

Traipsing around an active volcano is also dangerous. Visiting a nice, safe museum and learning about a tsunami or earthquake is one thing, a bit of lingering radiation from Chernobyl is another. Getting buried in a landslide of cold lava is yet another.

There is another kind of disaster tourist: the journalist. He or she visits these fascinating, if dangerous places so we don’t have to. Andrew Blackwell has written what may be the definitive disaster tourist book, entitled “Visit Sunny Chernobyl and Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places”. One place he holidayed in was Kanpur, one of India’s most dirtiest cities.

Kanpur, India, pic: Daniel Bachhuber (Flickr CC)

From the National:

Besides the titular Ukrainian nuclear disaster site (where it was indeed sunny and unexpectedly bucolic), Blackwell visited the Canadian oil sands, a Texas refinery town, the accumulated waste plastic caught in the great Pacific rubbish patch, deforested stretches of the Amazon, workers in China’s electronic waste and coal industries and finally a return to India’s pollution.

Sounds like a cracking good read.