When to visit disaster-struck lands
Published : Apr 8, 2011 - 19:01
Updated : Apr 8, 2011 - 19:01

What is the line between being a ghoul and a do-gooder when it comes to visiting a recent disaster area? It’s a question to be asked again when the crisis in Japan finally abates.

But what is an appropriate waiting period to visit a country hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake and 20-foot-high tsunami that killed thousands of people in northeastern Japan and created a nuclear radiation crisis?

In natural disasters of recent years, the question of tourism lingered in the background during the immediate aftermath. Vacationers risk seeming inhumane if they continue with plans too soon. But many countries go out of their way to encourage travelers and their dollars to return as soon as possible, particularly in areas where tourism is a major part of the economy.

Decisions have to sometimes be made quickly and with incomplete information. A friend and colleague of mine had planned for months to take a three-week “dream trip” with his wife, hiking and camping on the South Island of New Zealand. It was a huge investment of time and money. But just days before they were to leave, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake devastated the main city of Christchurch, killing 65 people.

In the immediate aftermath, my colleague had a difficult decision to make. Was he making matters worse by traveling to New Zealand and taking up resources that might go to help those struggling to rebuild their lives? Should he shift his trip to Australia, a place he had much less interest in visiting? Or should he ditch the vacation altogether, knowing that time and circumstance might conspire to never allow him to make the journey again?

His decision was made easier when a few days after the earthquake, the national tourism office in New Zealand began urging visitors not to cancel their trips. My friend tweaked his plans to drop a stay in central Christchurch, but otherwise went off on a tour of the beautiful countryside. A ghoul? No, he and others who didn’t cancel their plans were considered heroes by the region’s government.

“We’re very pleased that a lot of travelers have chosen to push ahead with their plans to holiday,” Tim Hunter, a local tourism official, told the New Zealand Herald. “In the months ahead we’re going to need people to support us, and one tangible way they can do that is to continue using Christchurch.”

The story in Japan is different. In the hours immediately after the earthquake, it appeared that there had been relatively little damage. No towers tumbled in Tokyo. Narita Airport reopened relatively quickly. It was only with the appearance of video after video of tsunami damage along the northeastern coast that the gravity of the situation worsened.

Unlike New Zealand, the situation worsened with each day. The death toll, originally thought to top out in the hundreds, jumped to thousands, then tens of thousands. The slow-motion deterioration of damaged nuclear plants heightened the uncertainty as countries warned not only against traveling to Japan, but also suggested that those in the country should leave as soon as possible.

Unlike the South Island of New Zealand, leisure tourism isn’t an enormous part of the Japanese economy. Still, 8.6 million people visited last year, including 772,000 Americans, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization.

The organization’s website has no recommendation on whether visitors should stay home or go. It does feature a red-lettered link to resources such as airlines, airports, embassies and the latest information on power blackouts in Tokyo. But there is no “please don’t come” message. In the days immediately after the earthquake, there were scattered reports of tour groups planning to visit within weeks. The U.S. State Department initially issued only a “travel alert” suggesting Americans delay any trips until after April 1.

I’ve traveled to Japan a half dozen times, and the nation prides itself on its resilience. The assumption, I believe, was for as quick a rebound as possible. The nation would mourn its dead, but also work quickly to fix the damage and get back to business. Only the nuclear crisis has upset this balance and undercut the national stoicism.

Early April is a crucial period for tourism ― the famous sakura matsuri ― the cherry blossom festival season that draws visitors from all over the world. Japanese gather under the flowering pink and white trees for after-work and weekend parties called hanami. Early spring is also the time of the domestic “Golden Week,” when four national holidays are celebrated over eight days. The week is a rare extended vacation for the famously workaholic nation, and veteran foreign travelers know to avoid it at all costs, since half of the Japanese population seems to be on the road (or in Hawaii).

Eventually, we all hope, the crisis will subside. But recent history shows that even with a green light from the government of a damaged country and the OK from our own officials, the decision to go on vacation in a recent disaster zone is fraught with moral questions.

Soon after the killer tsunamis swept through Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia in 2004, killing more than 230,000 people, local tourism officials were declaring themselves open for business. Tourism at the time accounted for 12 percent of the economy, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Resorts and airlines offered deep discounts. In Patong, near Bangkok, tourists lay on the beach and drank beer while a few hours away in Khao Lak, foreign volunteers were still looking for the dead and repairing basic infrastructure like water and electricity.

The juxtaposition was justified by tourists and governments alike as a way to relieve the financial burden of workers whose lives were tied to a decimated tourism industry. But was it more than a bit creepy? For me, the line was clearly crossed when tours of the tsunami areas catering to tourists in Phuket sprung up.

Ironically, over time, disasters that fade from recent memory become tourist attractions in themselves. San Francisco’s tourism office rolled out several initiatives tied to the centennial of the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire that killed more than 3,000 people and destroyed 28,000 buildings. The fountain on Market Street, where scorched citizens were able to get water, is a city landmark.

New Zealand actively promotes visits to Napier, a North Island city where a 1931 earthquake killed 258 people. The quake virtually destroyed the city, which was quickly rebuilt in a unified art deco style that made it one of the most stylish small towns in the world. Without the deadly quake, it would be just one of many spots on the northeast coast.

One of Japan’s most famous tourist spots is the Great Buddha of Kamakura, a 13th-century bronze statue that sits on a hill overlooking Sagami Bay near Yokohama. Three times the structure housing the Buddha was destroyed, the last by a 1498 tsunami that crushed the temple but left the massive Buddha intact. (MCT)

Even in Japan, tsunamis of the past are part of the cultural heritage and tourism. One of the best-known pieces of Japanese art is “Mount Fuji Off Kanagawa,” known popularly as “The Wave.” The woodblock print, from a series created from 1826 to 1833, shows a massive wave with Mount Fuji in the background. It influenced the French impressionists with its strong colors and bold lines.

One of Japan’s most famous tourist spots is the Great Buddha of Kamakura, a 13th-century bronze of sublime peacefulness that sits on a hill overlooking Sagami Bay near Yokohama. Three times the structure housing the Buddha was destroyed, the last by a 1498 tsunami that crushed the temple but left the massive Buddha intact. It’s seen as a symbol of Japan’s ability to withstand external challenges while keeping its internal strength.

Once the dead are buried and the debris is removed, it would be an apt place to start a journey to Japan. Just not anytime soon.

By Gary A. Warner

(The Orange County Register)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)