Storm-ravaged Galveston faces 'disaster tourism' dilemma

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.

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