Joplin, New Orleans Benefit from 'Disaster Tourism'

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"In the beginning we got a lot of people saying, 'What percentage of your profits go to recovery?'" continued Cossart. "But it wasn't us and them, I wasn't someone from the outside that came in to benefit. My employees lost their homes. One hundred percent went to help the recovery because I was able to rehire everyone and pay them. For some people that lost everything, this job was their only normal thing from life before. I felt a big responsibility I had to come back."

Cossart said that for more than a year after Katrina, visitors only wanted to see the destruction. Without the post-storm tours, her company would not have survived.

"They never called for beauty, they just called to see destruction. They only saw what was horrible on the news, and that was 90 percent of the news," she said.

When asked about the people whose homes she passes by everyday on the tours, Cossart said she is careful not to exploit the devastated communities.

"I refuse to let tourists get out of the van. They don't go on people's property, don't get to pick up pieces of houses, bring souvenirs home. It's respectful. And it's not a shock [to residents]. We do it every day. It's a way to get work. It's how you earn a living."

For Lytle, of Frommer's, the subgenre of "disaster tourism" can be difficult to navigate, especially for experienced travelers and travel companies.

"Part of the idea of travel is to expand understanding of the world," he said. "There is a question of how soon is too soon? There may be a rush to educate people in hopes of fundraising, but trauma is real, grieving is real. People who live there may resent the fact that people are coming to rubberneck or gawk at them. People have to go into a real sense of why they're going and go with good conscious."

Lytle experienced the hard reality of tourists visiting disaster areas in his own city, New York, after 9/11. Going past the site on his way to work each day, Lytle said he was bristled by tourists taking their photos in front of ground zero.

"It's a very strange thing to get out of your train to catch your other train back to Brooklyn and have people taking their portrait in front of the hole, like a weird vacation snapshot things that people take to verify that they've been there. I was offended," Lytle said. "This is still raw and fresh for people who live here and work here every day. But it's human nature. They're trying to understand."

In Joplin, Tuttle insists that the visitors bureau is not actively courting visitors who only want to gawk at tragedy, but wants to help tell the story of a city that still needs help.

"My intent was to tell the story. We do need the recovery to continue. We've had 118,000 volunteers that have done an amazing amount of work, but it's a process to rebuild the city. Telling that story and continuing those volunteers is important," he said. "It's been 241 days since the storm. This was to tell the story of our recovery."

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