Disaster Tourism

As director of D-TRAC I was often asked to orient heads of aid agencies and donors on the tsunami recovery efforts. As part of this there was usually a request to visit temporary camps and villages to see things in person. I was always torn as to the right thing to do. Was it more important for that person to see the situation on the ground, or was it more important for people who have just lost their homes and loved ones to be able to care for their children and rebuild their lives without having strangers walking through their village looking at them.

What is interesting and educational to you may be intrusive and demoralizing to them

Recently, a reader argued that the donor’s needs for understanding and education are just as important as the needs of the aid recipients. I would disagree with that. I strongly believe that the needs of the aid recipients should be paramount, with the needs of the donor accommodated only when it is appropriate. What is interesting and educational to the donor may be intrusive and demoralizing to the people they are trying to help.

Feeling like an animal at a zoo

Perhaps I am hyper-aware of this issue because of my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the late 90’s. I was one of the few westerners in my province and many people had never seen a westerner close up. As a result of this I was regularly stared at in the market place with parents pointing me out to their children saying “farang, farang” (westerner). When I sat on my front porch at night cars would slow down as they drove by. Old women on buses would rub my arms telling their friends my hair was like gold. All of this made me feel like an animal in a zoo rather than a real person. How then, must aid recipients feel with foreigners walking through their neighborhoods or temporary camps, staring at them, and talking about them.

In addition to being stared at and touched, many Thais used me as an educational tool for their families or students. Although my job was to train teachers on environmental education techniques, most principals just wanted me to visit their school so the children could see and hear real westerner. There were far too many times when I had to stand in front of a classroom, or an entire school, while the principal pointed out my straight nose, blue eyes, and “gold” hair to the students. This was usually followed by having me speak in English, to the amusement and astonishment of the students.

None of this had anything to do with my skills, my experience, or my job responsibilities, but it had to be endured to get the support I needed to get the job done. How often do aid recipients feel as though they are not respected for their knowledge and abilities, but instead have to endure being viewed as an educational experience or cultural exchange by the myriad of people attracted to a disaster. I choose to become a Peace Corps volunteer and knew that this was a price I paid for that experience. For them it must be worse because they did not choose to become disaster victims, instead it was thrust upon them.

How would you want people to act in your own neighborhood?

Imagine having just lost all of your possessions, your job, and members of your family. How would you feel about the stream of people walking through your neighborhood? There would likely be foreign and national aid agency staff, researchers, photographers from corporations and aid agencies wanting pictures of you or your children, dignitaries garnering a little PR, donors wanting to understand the situation or check up on aid agencies, volunteers looking to be helpful and to have a cultural experience, and plain old tourists wanting to see the impact of the disaster. Which of these people would you feel were appropriate and which would you feel were intrusive. How would you want them to behave?

Before becoming a disaster tourist, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is visiting this site crucial to your decision making, or will it just satisfy personal curiosity?
  • Is visiting temporary camps and newly built villages necessary, or would visiting destroyed areasĀ  provide you with the information or photo ops you are seeking?
  • If you must go into the village, how would you want a person of equal standing to act when walking through your own neighborhood, near your children, or watching you in the unemployment or food pantry line?
  • If you want to speak with disaster victims, then under what circumstances would you feel it was appropriate for someone of equal standing to take up your time with questions?

I would argue that these same guidelines should be used by anyone thinking of becoming a poverty tourist as well. But I’ll leave the debate on poverty tourism to others (see Aid Watch).

Good aid puts the needs of the aid recipients before the needs of the donor

As in all cases, it is crucial to evaluate an aid activity not from the standpoint of what is good for you as a donor, but from the standpoint of what would be good for you as an aid recipient. How would you want others to act if you were an unwitting part of disaster tourism?


Do you agree or disagree? Do you have any research or guidelines on this? I look forward to your comments.