Should we visit a destination after a natural disaster?
Natural disasters are now part of the digital world. When a tragedy occurs, harrowing images are everywhere. From massive screens in railway stations, to tiny ones on our phones. All of a sudden, we feel as if we are on the doorstep of earthquakes in Japan, Nepal or Haiti. Hurricanes and cyclones such as Katrina, Ivan or Sandy become household names. And because the natural disaster stories appear so instantaneously in our lives now, compared with the pre-digital age, our need and desire to help has increased substantially over time.
Then there is the dilemma of whether you should travel to the disaster struck area or not? Perhaps you have booked a trip already, or were thinking of it for later in the year. Should you skip over it and go to the next place on your wish list, or should you stick with it and just go? Or perhaps you have visited the country in the past, fallen in love with the place and, following news of horrific happenings you are kept awake at night wondering about whether it would be a good idea to go back – and whether that should be sooner, or later?
Talk with the experts
The best idea is to talk with local experts to see if it is still advisable to go ahead with your travel plans. You may have booked to travel to a completely different region that hasn’t been affected. Or your vacation might not be for another few months’ time. A time when tourism income will be absolutely vital for the local economy and business will boost morale. The advantage of booking with responsible tourism companies is that they work hand in hand with local hoteliers, tour guides, airports, local charities, conservation agencies, ferry companies, you name it. And so they will be in a very good position to tell you if first, it is possible to get to the place in question and second, if tourists are welcome during this difficult time, and if not now, then when would it be realistic to travel there? Their websites and social media outlets will keep you up to date. At Responsible Travel, where we represent these tour operators, we can also put you in touch with these tour operators, as we represent so many of them around the world.
Different disasters, different destinations
After the recent tropical storm Erica that hit Dominica in 2015, for example, we found out that one of our hotel suppliers, Jungle Bay, a place that our travelers go back to again and again as it is much loved, was tragically wiped out. On our responsible tourism guide to Dominica, we put a link to their fund, an update to the storm and how it was affecting tourism, sought advice from the Tourism Minister, and interviewed two other suppliers, Michael Eugene from Jungle Trekking Adventures and Safaris and Jem Winston from 3 Rivers Eco Lodge & Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge for updates. The good news, however, is that Dominica is very much now open for business again, and is in need of visitors who bring much needed income and jobs across the island – supporting not just those who work directly in tourism, but taxi drivers, restaurant owners, farmers, fishermen and craftspeople. Losing a home, fishing boat or smallholding is disastrous for a family; losing a job on top of that makes the recovery process virtually impossible.
But disasters hit destinations in different ways. So, for example, a cyclone may have ravaged one part of an island, but another part may remain untouched, and that island may still be in dire need of tourism income. Which is why, post Tsunami 2004 in the Indian Ocean, we kept hearing that it was important for us all to keep traveling there. But what the tourist first needs to understand before traveling is the majority view in the local community as to whether they would welcome tourists during this time.
Justin Francis, founder of Responsible Travel, who travelled to Thailand not long after the 2004 Tsunami: “I visited Phuket shortly after the tsunami where local people were telling me that the fact that tourists had stopped traveling was creating an ‘economic tsunami,’ meaning that their suffering was being compounded by lack of income from tourism. However, that does not mean the situation might not be different in other disaster areas, and it is these sensitivities that you need to understand.”
In many cases, the advice will be to hold tight until more news is in about infrastructure and so on, but also to give generously either to an international charity, or to a local one that they recommend. Some of the leading international ones that we recommend are Doctors without Borders, Red Cross or, a rather ingenious UK charity that supplies emergency shelters that save lives, ShelterBox. As well as the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella group of 13 UK based charities that are working at grass roots level in countries around the world affected by natural disasters. Sometimes charities like these need urgent help in the UK, rather than in the country where the disaster has occurred. You can also check out the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to see what their travel advice is in that destination.
Don’t forget that many responsible operators also donate to regions in need, and in some cases they may support their guides and local staff directly, helping them rebuild their homes and feed their families – or even rebuilding local schools – until they are back on their feet again. Some vacation companies have worked in these areas for many years, and their personal connections with local communities means they can channel help to where it is most needed, perhaps even cutting out the middleman along the way.
Lest we forget
As the digital images change on our Twitter feeds, and different causes come up on our Facebook pages, don’t forget that there are some destinations, two or three years down the road post disaster, that have been working tirelessly to get back on the world tourism map. Now is the time to really think about adding them to your travel wishlist, get back there and book. Some of those worth looking at are Haiti post 2010 earthquake, New Orleans, post Hurricane Katrina, Montserrat post volcanic eruption in 1995, Japan post earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the UK’s Lake District and Cumbria post 2015 floods, and of course, Nepal, post 2015 earthquake. Travel with responsible tourism operators that ensure your money is directed to locally owned accommodation, restaurants, local guides, conservation groups and so on. Not to privately owned islands or all inclusive resorts, which are likely to make little difference to local people, whose lives were turned upside down.
Volunteering post disaster
It should be noted that the act of just jumping on a plane and going to offer help, without guidance or research post disaster can, in most cases, be irresponsible. However, if you travel with experts on the ground who know where and when your help can make a difference, then that can be a great option. We work with some of the finest responsible volunteering organisations out there. They will be totally up to date with when and where help is needed following a natural disaster, and also have stringent responsible volunteering guidelines. It is very important, for example, that the skills that you can offer are indeed the skills that are required in the affected areas. Too many well meaning but under skilled volunteers can create more problems than solutions. Read our guidelines before booking a trip to volunteer anywhere, but particularly following a natural disaster.
There are, sadly, some tour companies that will take you to the scene of a natural disaster, just for the ‘fun’ of it. Shocking, but true. Or as one company puts it, ‘pushing the envelope of adventure travel’ and offering ‘a unique experience for those who have exhausted the normal mundane package vacation’. Such trips are, in our opinion, irresponsible and unethical. They are voyeuristic rather than volunteering, disastrous not disaster tourism.
Graham McKenzie, founder of leading online travel industry website, Travelmole:
“To visit or not, after a natural disaster? My general feeling is that it depends on what type of disaster it is. If it is to go to somewhere as a journalist to show that people shouldn’t be scared to go there, and that it is safe and so on. Then absolutely go. But to go to a place that has had a natural disaster just to gawk, I’m not so keen on that unless you have been encouraged to do so by a destination because it is such an important part of their economy, and not to go would be hugely detrimental to their economy.“