More than ever, the Gulf needs tourists to swim against the tide

(Luci Gutierrez for The Washington Post)
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By Christopher Elliott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 20, 2010

No one wants to be called a tragedy tourist. Not Van Badham, a London-based playwright who spends her vacations visiting such places as Ground Zero in New York and Nazi concentration camps in Germany.

"I travel to learn, and witness, and share," she said. "If it's bad, I want to know how bad it is."

Any surprise, then, that the coast of Louisiana -- site of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history -- is on her "to-do" list? "I will definitely make a point of getting over there when I'm in the U.S. next," she told me.

As tens of thousands of travelers cancel their beach vacations in the wake of the massive oil spill, a small number of tourists will swim against the tide. Too bad it's just a small number. If ever there were a time to visit the Gulf Coast, it is now.

Some will go to volunteer, although most of the organizations assisting with oil spill damage are requesting only trained volunteers, as noted in the Travel section last week. A few will be like Badham: curiosity-seekers who want to experience the aftermath of a tragedy. And an undetermined number will fall into both categories, which is to say, they want to help, but they also want a front-row seat to destruction.

Even the experts often can't tell one from the other. Andrew Motiwalla, executive director of San Diego-based Global Leadership Adventures, which offers educational trips for teenagers, says travelers often have several reasons for visiting an oil-soaked beach or a city laid waste by an earthquake. What's important is how they behave once they arrive.

"Like most forms of tourism, whether it's beneficial or not depends on how it's conducted," Motiwalla said. "We believe that travel to a disaster site can be done responsibly if tourists do not interfere with the recovery efforts."

Where do tragedy tourists go? The top destinations include sites of historical disasters, such as Naples, Italy (close to the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, which was partially buried in a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79). Nazi concentration camps in Dachau, Germany, and Auschwitz, Poland, are high on the list, according to Haisley Smith, a marketing director for Brownell, a luxury travel agency in Birmingham, Ala.

But modern calamities are big draws, too. They include Ground Zero in Manhattan, where the World Trade Center was reduced to rubble on Sept. 11; Rwanda, which suffered a massive genocide in 1994 in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed; and New Orleans, to see the aftermath of Katrina, probably the most destructive hurricane in our nation's history.

"People don't visit tragic destinations or sites to gawk -- or to view it the same way they would a horror film," said Smith. "They see it as honoring the victims and educating younger generations."

I'd like to think so, too. But really, does anyone believe that people are going to arrive in a city that has been flattened by a tsunami and not marvel at the devastation before putting on a pair of gloves to help clean up? I couldn't do it.

Neither can the folks who visited Chile after the mega-earthquake in February. Liz Caskey, an American who operates wine tours in Santiago, said that many visitors arrived shortly afterward to assist with rebuilding. "Yes, people want to help, but also to assess everything firsthand," she said. "Perhaps they were curious."

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