Earlier this week, Japan announced that the Fukushima nuclear plant, which was hit by a tsunami in 2011 – and subsequently spewed radioactive chemicals into the environment – is opening up as a tourist attraction, complete with restaurants, souvenir shops, a tsunami-focused museum, and hotels. The idea is to educate future generations on the impact of the disaster, as well as support the local economy with new jobs. In reality, who, I wonder, will actually be going here?
Even without the context of the tsunami, it seems like a strange idea no matter how you slice it. I consider myself an open-minded traveler, but not in a million years would 'nuclear plant' ever cross my mind as a place I would want to spend my vacation. Four Seasons hotel, yes. White sandy beach, absolutely. But a themed resort on the edge of a steel-and-concrete labyrinth that still tests high for radiation levels? Er, no thanks.
When planning a future trip to somewhere recently hit by a natural or man-made disaster, it's easy to focus on the negatives – will public transportation be affected? Is the economy depressed? Are people still even going here? Whether that thinking is constructive or dismissive, it at least helps process our role as foreigners in a potentially vulnerable part of the world.
But the idea of 'sightseeing' through a disaster zone strikes a funny chord. Call it masochistic. Call it a waste of money. Call it "disaster voyeurism" (as a NY Times writer did last year). Either way, a surprising number of travel agencies and tour operators appear to be cashing in on destinations for the sheer spectacle of their recent disasters.
Take Haiti: A Guardian article published last month advocates tourism as a major potential resource for getting post-earthquake Haiti back on track. In it, the writer (who's Haitian) claims Haiti is "one of the safest places in the Americas, in terms of drugs and crime, and we are blessed with some of the Caribbean's most beautiful beaches and unspoiled countryside." But in the months following the earthquake, those praises likely fell on deaf ears.
Yes, there were those who made a beeline down to Port-au-Prince to volunteer in hospitals and shelters. But what about the travelers who'd booked leisure trips in Haiti before the earthquake, and who (like it or not) had little regard for the recent disaster? Their minds were fixed on one question only: When will it be okay again to visit a destination that's still in the process of recovery?
The economic boost these types of destinations need (and occasionally, receive) from tourism cannot be underestimated. In the case of New Orleans, several "Hurricane Katrina Aftermath" tours began popping up several years ago, run by companies like Grayline and Cajun Encounters (both culprits of the NY Times' alleged "disaster voyeurism"). Their itineraries included shuttling visitors into the Lower Ninth Ward, where damage was the most visible, subsequently turning the ruined houses, overgrown lawns, and abandoned cars into a kind of spectacle.
Eight years later, the New Orleans issue is less sensitive (though still controversial for many), and, thankfully, most tourists today are more concerned with where to find a good cocktail in the French Quarter, and finding a good hotel deal. But for the more recent tragedies, and the ones still to occur, the moral conundrum remains: Is there a line that tourists shouldn't cross when visiting decimated areas? Educational tours can indeed be productive, but if the disaster is still fresh in the minds of locals, how soon is too soon to visit?
We're curious to hear your thoughts: Have you ever traveled to a destination that experienced a recent natural or man-made disaster? Would you? Let us know in the comment section below!