I came across an article today about President Barack Obama encouraging Americans, despite the wake of the oil spill, to visit the Gulf coast. “There’s still a lot of opportunity for visitors to come down here. There are a lot of beaches that have not been affected and will not be affected,” Obama was quoted in June. “If people want to help, the best way to help is to come down here and visit.”
Although Obama is clearly trying to motivate people to continue supporting an arm of the regional economy that’s been hit hard by this oil spill, his encouragement has raised the question over what some call “disaster tourism,” traveling to a disaster area to see what’s going on. Often this kind of tourism has a negative connotation as it implies traveling to a place out of mere curiosity, without the intent of aiding with relief efforts, and in turn, often creating more of a hindrance than help.
But with a situation like the BP oil spill, it IS important to see what’s going on, to experience the culture first-hand and engage with communities that are deeply affected by this disaster. That in no way means hopping on a bus and taking a week to window shop the effects of the disaster, but traveling to the Gulf coast is another way to share with our own communities just what is going on in the region. That’s a key part of traveling to any region that has been severely affected, be it by natural or human induced causes.
When we don’t know and understand a place, it becomes that much easier to make assumptions about it, and the effects of such attitudes are much more widespread than our own social circles. Take Florida for example. According to the em>LA Times, 90 percent of the states’ beaches are still untouched by the BP oil spill. But because of fear, the tourists have pulled away, leaving an economy dependent on visitors wondering just what to do with itself.
“When national media lumps together all four of the Gulf states, that makes it look to the rest of the country as though Florida might be covered in oil,” said Kathy Torian, spokeswoman for Visit Florida.
Which brings us back to the point at hand: can disaster tourism be beneficial? Yes, if it helps people understand the true facts of what is going on in an affected area, helping to connect the dots between infrastructure, economy, culture and beyond. At a very basic level, experiencing a disaster area first hand can aid in helping us understand that often these issues may happen far away from our own homes, but ultimately the effects end up in our own backyard.