Disaster tourism: At what point can you go back to a ruined destination?

It's been a bumper year for natural disasters. Wildfires in Greece and California, earthquake in PNG, floods in Japan, volcanoes in Guatemala, a tsunami and earthquake in Sulawesi. Tourist areas were not spared. Bali experienced volcanic eruptions – again – Lombok suffered a major earthquake. Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the Caribbean, monsoon rains turned the Indian state of Kerala into a quagmire. Which raises the question – when a natural disaster hits a tourist zone, when is it possible to return?

The case for tourism

After a traumatic event that affects a whole community – bushfires, earthquakes, tsunamis – the overwhelming effort is focused on rescuing the afflicted, taking care of the living, providing food, shelter and comfort and rebuilding. That's where the big aid money goes, and decisions about the allocation of those funds is left to civil authorities and NGOs. Especially so in the case of the third world, and it's those communities that usually suffer the most when a natural disaster comes calling.

It doesn't put cash back in the pockets of ordinary people, and experience has shown that if you want to help a population get back on its feet, the funds are far more effective if they go directly to the people whose houses need rebuilding, who need cash to keep them alive while they plant crops and buy the animals that will feed them and provide an income.

That's where tourism comes into the picture. In the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015 and destroyed the homes of millions, tourists initially stayed away en masse. Tourism is Nepal's second largest source of foreign currency after remittances from Nepalese citizens working abroad. It was only when tourists and trekkers started returning that many isolated communities were able to rebuild. While government money had been slow to arrive or non-existent, it was tourism that injected much-needed funds directly into communities.

When to go back?

The crucial question is determining when it's OK to return. "OK" in this sense means that your presence won't hamper any efforts to rescue and rebuild, that you won't be taking resources away from people who need food and shelter and the other basics of life far more than you do.

Sifting through the information to help you make that decision is far from easy. On one hand there's the media, which focuses on the sensational aspect – the number of casualties, the shattered lives, the tearful child survivor holding up a charred doll amid the remnants of what was once her family home. On the other side of the picture there is often a tourism industry with an agenda and a profit motive to get the wheels spinning once again, reassuring potential visitors that all's well, that transportation links are up and running, that they'll be met with smiles and flowers.

There might also be a financial bait. In the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, occupancy rates at resorts in the Maldives that were fully booked before the disaster shrank to 15 per cent in some cases. Even though three weeks after the disaster, 63 of the Maldives' 87 resorts were reported to be fully operational, resort operators slashed daily rates to get customers back in the door.

Identifying the disaster zone

Japan provides an interesting case study of the impact of a natural disaster on a country's tourism industry. In March 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused massive loss of life, approaching 20,000, as well as the meltdown of a nuclear power plant and consequent release of a radioactive cloud – in a G7 country with a well-honed emergency response capability.

Following the tsunami the number of tourists visiting Japan in April 2011 dropped by 63 per cent on the figure for the previous April. Very few foreign tourists would have ever been to Fukushima, or have any reason to visit that part of Japan. There was no significant increase in radiation in Tokyo, which was about as close to the site of the nuclear power plant that any visitor was likely to come, yet it was largely due to media reports that the whole of Japan was regarded as a disaster zone, and would-be visitors stayed away.

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The devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 is another example of how media can shape impressions. Of all the regions hit by the tsunami, the Thai island of Phuket was the most popular with Australian tourists.

Patong, the island's party central and largest of the resort areas along Phuket's Andaman coast, suffered major damage to its shorefront but Surin, to the north of Patong, was comparatively untouched. While the wave passed almost harmlessly across Surin's twin headlands, the beach at Kamala, immediately to the south, was hit harder than anywhere else on the island.

"We still have problems here in Phuket," says Kun Thawatchai from local tour operation Tropical Vacations when I visited the island three weeks after the disaster, "but the biggest problem is that the rest of the world still thinks Phuket is a disaster zone. TV reports showed all the damage and the suffering but that's over now, most of Phuket is back to normal – but now, all the TV crews have gone home."

While the world dug deep into its pockets and provided many billions of dollars to assist victims of the tsunami, people who lost much of their income because tourists failed to arrive weren't getting a cent.

"Aid money will go to victims, and that's what the money should be for, but what we need is for people to come and visit us as tourists," according to Pattanapong Aikwanich, president of the Phuket Tourist Association.

Among those who returned were Tom and Marie Drummond from the NSW Central Coast. "We just didn't know what to expect. We thought they might be carrying body bags past the dining room and the pool might be full of salt water but it's only when you get close to the beaches that you realise anything unusual happened here. We'd been to Phuket a couple of times before and we decided to take the plunge, and we're glad we did," said Marie, gesturing to a near-empty beach.

Packing your bags and taking a holiday in a region hit by a natural disaster is not a magic wand, but it helps restore hope and confidence to people who have been visited by tragedy. Ironically, a disaster can even create a new tourist attraction. Few tourists would ever have known the name "Fukushima" in the past, but the tsunami and the meltdown of its nuclear power plant put the city on the tourist map.

The entire population of Namie, four kilometres from the stricken power plant, was evacuated en masse on the morning of March 12, one day after the tsunami, since it was within the 20-kilometre exclusion radius of the nuclear power plant. Today, Namie has become a tourist attraction. Visitors are paying to see the town's abandoned buildings, shops and houses, a time capsule with the videos, fashions and tech of 2011 on open display, and the remnants of a few hastily abandoned meals still sitting on kitchen tables.

See also: Why now is the time to visit stunning Nepal

See also: Don't go there: Nine destinations you should avoid in 2018

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