Joplin, New Orleans Benefit from 'Disaster Tourism'

Tours offered through parts of town destroyed by hurricanes, tornados.

January 19, 2012, 5:36 PM

Jan. 19, 2012— -- 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.

"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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