Is 'disaster tourism' voyeurism or education?

Janet Oostenbrink came to see the sights. Actually, the Canadian was on Galveston's seawall to see what sites were no longer there.

"It's amazing," said Oostenbrink, who was visiting from Edmonton, Alberta. "You talk about the power of the ocean, and you see that there is nothing you can do to stand against it."

She didn't come to the United States just to see what destruction Ike had brought to Galveston. She was visiting fellow Canadian Beth Wiebe in Spring, and the two were curious just what was left of Galveston. They had seen plenty of images on TV, but standing on the seawall and seeing what was left of Murdoch's Pier and the damage to the Flagship Hotel they decided the television images didn't do the storm justice.

"We just didn't realize it impacted this area," Wiebe said. "It is so different from what we have in Spring."

The Canadian women are not the only tourists who are making trips to the island to see what was destroyed, what was damaged and what survived Ike. They also wouldn't be the first disaster tourists.

From the site of the World Trade Center towers in New York to the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans to far off places such as Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, communities that have endured horrible destruction are attractions for many visitors.

Some make trips out of curiosity. Others come to see history firsthand. For many, it's an educational experience.

But is there a line between insensitive voyeurism and education?

"For a year, I refused to show the destruction, but people started asking so we had to show the areas," said Javier Cuellar, owner of Dixie International Tours in New Orleans. "It's part of our history now. Tourists now don't want to see the destruction; they want to see the recovery of the area and how we are rebuilding."

For a while, though, destruction was the tourism attraction in the Crescent City.

"Some companies almost immediately they were taking people to the 9th Ward, places that were so bad," said Cuellar, who has been in the touring business in New Orleans for 20 years.

So in addition to stops in the French Quarter and along the riverfront, Dixie Tours also makes stops in the Lower 9th Ward, along the levee system and at the Superdome.

Cuellar pointed out that New Orleans is a tourist town, not unlike Galveston, and that a tour operator has to adjust the sites visited to what the visitors want to see. While his tourists, who are mostly from Mexico and Europe, want to see the areas that sustained the worst damage, Cuellar's tour guides stress the rebuilding process and the resiliency of New Orleanians.

"My guys, they add their own stories, what they went through," Cuellar said. "Then they tell people how they are doing now."

But he notes the tourist business in New Orleans is nowhere near what it was pre-Katrina.

"Some of it you have to blame on the economy the way it is right now but the crowds just aren't the same as before," he said. "Many people still think it is not safe to come here. They heard about the killings, and they think we have people dying of malaria. I constantly have to tell people we don't have malaria down here."

RoShelle Gaskins is used to shutting down rumors, too. The public relations manager for Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau has been on the road the last two weeks drumming up the island's tourist business.

The first thing she has to do is convince people Galveston is indeed open. The delayed and well publicized re-entry plan for Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula left many with the impression the island was either a wasteland or not welcoming guests.

While there are not ways to accurately track it, tourism officials say there is definitely an interest in post-Ike Galveston as a tourist destination.

"Many people are surprised Galveston is even open," Gaskins said. "They ask us, do we still have beaches, do they have to wear masks (and) is it safe to come here."

Gaskins and Moody Gardens' marketing manager, Jerri Hamachek, made stops in Austin, College Station and Victoria telling tour operators, church groups, chambers of commerce, civic groups and anyone who would listen Galveston is indeed open and welcoming tourists.

"Of course, we have to say that The Strand is not really open because it took on so much water and that there are restaurants that have not opened up yet because they are still making repairs," Gaskins said.

Still, the curiosity about what is not here or what is damaged is first on many people's minds.

"We are getting a lot of curiosity," Gaskins said. "They ask, 'What really happened to Murdoch's or the Balinese Room?' And we see it with the press we take on tours. We have to go to the seawall, and they all get out and take 10 pictures. Then we have a lot of people asking if that shrimp boat is still in the parking lot of Willie G's (near the waterfront)."

Galveston has been promoting a form of devastation tourism for years. From movies to the tours at Bishop's Palace and Ashton Villa to the historic homes tour, the 1900 Storm is a part of the Galveston tourism machine.

One cannot visit the island's historic East End without seeing plaques that designate the homes that survived the great storm in 1900. Along the seawall, statues and markers also tell the story of destruction and recovery.

Still, Gaskins and others are not in the business of promoting Ike's destruction. At least not now.

"We have to be realistic, though," she said. "We are not going to go out there and promote anything negative. It's finding the balance of explaining it ... is what is the challenge."

When it comes to promoting the city, however, island tourism officials may have no choice. That's because meeting planners and tourist groups are already inquiring.

Whether to promote the devastation the island suffered was a hot topic at the most recent Galveston Parks Board meeting. Officials acknowledged more and more convention planners who contact local tourism sales representatives are asking where they can take guests to see the hurricane damage.

While a sensitive topic to be sure, one local business owner thinks Galveston should embrace the idea.

"You need to rethink the wheel," said Mike Dean, owner of Yaga's and the Tsunami Exotic Tequila Emporium on The Strand. "I promise you, if we put up an Ike disaster (exhibit) it will triple the traffic."

Soon after reopening Tsunami, Dean noticed his customers wanted to know how high the water got and what the area looked like in the days after the storm. So, he now keeps a photo book of pictures he took behind the bar and a mark on the wall shows how high Ike's storm surge got inside.

Dean said one only needs to spend some time on The Strand to know the disaster tourists are already here, and they are spending money.

"They ain't your usual tourists. You look at The Strand right now and it's people wanting to see what things are like," Dean said. "But they spend a lot of money on drinks, because they feel bad for us. They want to help us recover.

"Bottom line. We can't go back to the mold of what it used to be."

A first test came when Dickens on The Strand returned to downtown last weekend. Even Dickens characters promoting the festival at the city's holiday tree lighting noted The Strand looks much like London did during Charles Dickens' time.

This weekend, the Lone Star Rally will return to the island.

Dean expects most who will come for those two events will want to see what Ike left standing and how the recovery process is going.

"We need to take advantage of that," he said.