Joplin, New Orleans Benefit from 'Disaster Tourism'

PHOTO: A single home remains standing in what was once a neighborhood prior to the May 22 tornado.

The tornado-ravaged city of Joplin, Mo., is drawing criticism for creating a tourist map of sites destroyed by last year's tornado, becoming the latest in a string of cities to grapple with the idea of "disaster tourism."

In New York City, for instance, the site of the World Trade Center attack now draws more than 9 million visitors a year, according to the Associated Press; the surrounding neighborhood now has 18 hotels with more than 4,000 rooms, up from the six hotels and 2,300 rooms it had before Sept. 11, 2001. Similarly, multiple tour companies in New Orleans run special "Post-Katrina Tours" to show tourists the sites of the major destruction from the 2005 hurricane.

"There is a whole sort of subgenre of travel that is really sort of a sticky wicket of disaster and poverty tourism," said David Lytle, editorial director of Frommer's. "But approached in the right way, it is the idea of trying to understand the world, and it can be cathartic for people who only get a three-minute segment on TV and never get another understanding."

Patrick Tuttle, the director of the visitors bureau in Joplin, said that creating the map was a way to deal with visitors' questions and curiosities about the tragedy.

"We found that as the six-month point of this thing passed us, people in our restaurants and front desk people at hotels couldn't really answer questions to guests about the volume and the magnitude of the storm and the destruction," Tuttle said. "You know, 4,500 homes were destroyed, and so it became a tool to pull together facts so people confronting the tourist market could speak knowledgeably."

The map keeps travelers on main thoroughfares into and out of town, and discourages them from going into neighborhoods to gawk at destruction, Tuttle said. The path they follow shows off the storm's unusually wide path and the breadth of the destruction, he said.

"This is living history. It's now a part of Joplin's history. We're just telling the story as to what happened here. It's designed as an educational piece," Tuttle said.

In Joplin, New Orleans and New York, the educational value of promoting "disaster tourism" may have an added benefit: a faster economic recovery for the devastated area. Joplin is at the crossroads of two major highways on the way to vacation destination Branson, Mo., which is situated on a lake in the Ozark mountains. And Joplin, said Tuttle, needed to keep its hotels and restaurants in business.

"These destinations do rely on tourism. When there are accidents, natural or otherwise, in the media-absorbing consciousness of readers and viewers these destinations get written off and lose a lot of money, and it becomes very hard to recover quickly," Lytle said.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the number of visitors to New Orleans dropped significantly, according to Jennifer Day-Sully of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. So the visitors who were coming, even if they were coming to see the destruction, were helping the recovery.

"We had Katrina tours pop up," Day-Sully said. "It's a double-edged sword. You have to be sensitive to the communities that these buses and tours are coming through because it can be perceived as being very insensitive. But on the other hand, you can educate people from out of town and encourage them to make donations and participate in volunteer work."

Isabelle Cossart, owner of the oldest operating tour company in New Orleans, Tours by Isabelle, said that employees of her company who lost their homes and belongings were able to make a living again only because she began offering "Post-Katrina Tours" to curious visitors.

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