From Chernobyl to the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, disaster tourism is on the upswing
The dress code for visitors: no shorts, no sandals. Geiger counter mandatory. The destination: Chernobyl. For as little as $135, you can spend a day touring the site of the world's worst nuclear accident. The excursion includes visits to a radioactive ghost town and the dilapidated sarcophagus covering Chernobyl's nuclear reactor core, still burning 22 years after it exploded.
Visiting the site of a catastrophe may not be everyone's idea of a vacation. But disaster tourism is on the upswing, from Ukraine's Chernobyl to Hurricane Katrina wreckage in New Orleans. The fall of former totalitarian regimes has opened up some disaster zones previously off-limits to visitors. That, along with growing concern about the global environment—and plain old curiosity—are fueling a booming business for tour operators.
Isabelle Cossart worried that her New Orleans-based tour company would go out of business after Katrina hit the city in 2006. Demand for tours of the French Quarter and Mississippi River plantations evaporated. But as the city reopened and tourists began to return, Cossart discovered many were aching to get a peek at devastated swaths of the city they had seen on the news. "I didn't set out to show ugly, disgusting stuff, but after the hurricane, that's all people wanted," she says.
Lower Ninth Ward Tour
Disaster tours now account for 60% of Cossart's business. For $60, she offers a three-and-a-half-hour excursion, including a visit to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and an explanation of the mechanics of levee failure.
The awesome power of nature is showcased in other tours as well. Boat tours around the Caribbean island of Montserrat stop at the abandoned former capital city of Plymouth, buried under mud during a 1995 volcanic eruption. In the U.S., tourists can take a day trip to the Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington state.
On the other hand, some of the worst natural catastrophes in recent years have not spawned organized tours. China, hit by a major earthquake in May, and Myanmar, which suffered a devastating cyclone the same month, officially discourage disaster tourism. After the deadly 2004 tsunami, Thailand quickly rebuilt its destroyed beach resorts, while regions of Indonesia hard-hit by the tsunami are too remote to make visits practical.
Educational Benefits Stressed
Many disaster-tour operators promote the educational benefits of their excursions, whether it's learning about man-made eco-disasters such as the drying up of Uzbekistan's Aral Sea, or drawing historical lessons from the killing fields of Cambodia.
Other tours have overtly political overtones. Visitors to Belgrade, for example, can tour buildings damaged during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. The Serbian government left the structures in ruins as a reminder of what it terms "NATO aggression."
David Neal, an Oklahoma State University sociologist who studies organizational response to disasters, says people are drawn to disaster sites by a combination of curiosity and anxiety—the realization that "it could happen to me." But Neal worries that swarms of tourists could add to the grief of locals trying to rebuild their lives after a calamity. "There is a fine line between being informative and being exploitative," he says.
But the demand isn't likely to go away. As New Orleans tour operator Cossart puts it: "It's human nature. When there is a wreck on the Interstate, people want to see the blood."
For more on disaster tourism, see BusinessWeek.com's slide show.