Is Disaster Tourism Worth It?

It’s pretty rare that I feel uncomfortable, but I was definitely second-guessing my decision to come to Egypt. Sometimes, disaster tourism can be the answer to rebooting a country’s broken economy. Other times, you probably shouldn’t be there.

There has been a lot of stuff going on in Egypt these days. Almost two, three years ago, the country cracked and then-president Hosni Mubarak was deposed of his seat. The rebels later elected Mohammed Morsi to take Mubarak’s seat, but as we all know now, that lasted for a fraction of a second. The second revolution came in earlier this July, and though the country has been suffering from terrible political instability ever since, it has wreaked havoc on one of Egypt’s most important economic sectors – its tourism.

I had come to Egypt with only one sole purpose in mind: to see the Great Pyramids. At 8 am on a Saturday morning, I was greeted face-to-face with the complete opposite of what I had seen in Facebook photos plastered all over my feed: one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, filled with bored guides and completely deserted of tourists. I only saw three other foreign visitors there during my whole time there.

Disaster tourism, as it is known, is basically the practice of showing up to a place when a city or country is in deep, deep shitakes for whatever reason. For some people, it becomes the ideal time to go because there are no crowds. Hotels and tickets can often be had for deep-bargain prices, while the local economy struggles to attract tourists again. But often, there’s a fine line between voyeurism and helping.

It does sound great at first — who wouldn’t love to explore the Great Pyramids, unencumbered? Unfortunately, the benefits are only outweighed by becoming the singular focus point for every tourist tout within a 2-mile radius. It became practically impossible to fend off everyone, and I eventually settled on a camel owner to ward everyone else off. Tourism had fallen off the bandwagon since the 2009 revolution, he said; to this end, he was desperate to show me a good time.

Though he had been working at the site every day for nearly 19 years, he planned to leave after my brief tour. “You can see for yourself; there’s no one here to give business to,” he pointed to the thing that I had mysteriously seen on TV since I was a kid. All I remember now is a pleading smile, that hinted at how desperate the situation had become. “Tell your friends, post these pictures on Facebook,” he told me, “make them come back here.”

There's no one.

There’s no one.

It’s more than pretty clear that the country’s tour operators are starting to take serious hits. At one point, I turned into a back alley and saw vets visiting horse stables that were used to house the emaciated animals, who now, instead of carrying tourists across the desert, have become a serious casualty in Egypt’s decline. Even the U.S. Embassy—which basically only now operates irregularly—is providing aid so that animal owners can take care of their animals and keep up their livelihood.

Egypt, however, is an extreme example but it does illustrate a specific point. Tourism is not about just jumping off to the next destination frivolously: instead, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that includes anything from airlines and travel agents to cashiers and the college student moonlighting as a tour guide. In areas that rely heavily on this sector, the absence of tourists can become absolutely devastating.

Paradoxically, places that are dealing with something less extreme can become an absolute haven. (This is usually the case for places that aren’t dealing with actual warfare or extreme death.) Once people stop coming out of paranoia, airlines and hotels will typically slash prices in an effort to attract just about anyone. A close friend of mine keeps constantly recounting the three magical weeks he spent in Japan, exploring cherry blossom-filled temples, without a single obnoxious tourist in sight. The reason being? Why, the H1N1 virus scare, of course.

Thankfully, economic crises and health scares present less controversial scenarios than other types of catastrophes. In 2001, the Argentinian peso—which was previously pegged to the U.S. dollar at a fixed exchange rate—fell dramatically after being the Central Bank decided to stop regulating it. As a result, the peso was devalued by almost 75%. Since then, the country has nearly doubled the number of tourists who have come because of the relative strength of their currency against the peso. (Whether this contributed to the country’s rampant hyperinflation, who knows, but that’s a whole can of worms no one has been able to figure out.)

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy to figure out when it’s a good idea to go or when to hold off on a trip. Almost all of my trips into unstable zones have been by complete accident; in many cases, I was already scheduled to go and decided to continue the journey. In only about two cases—Egypt and the Philippines during Typhoon Ondoy—did I feel especially uncomfortable, but for the majority time I find that the paranoia is usually overwrought. As someone who knows the media industry in and out, I can tell you that in most cases, it’s easy to have the natural news cycle distort incidents and make them seem bigger than they actually are.

In reality, what will keep you safe is knowing your own personal level of travel experience and taking the appropriate steps to rectify the gaps in your knowledge. The second thing I use as a gauge is how accessible your national embassy is, in case you get into trouble. Guess what? If embassy operations are operating irregularly or have completely ceased, it’s probably not a good idea to go. It’s good to generally err on the side of caution, but it’s often a balancing act without acting outright paranoid.

To be fair, martial-law Egypt really isn’t the place to be right now. The country dropped 10 places this year to 85th place in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Travel & Tourism competitiveness report because of the country’s political unrest. Per the report, “the safety and security [of Egypt] has dropped to the lowest position of all countries covered in the Report (140th).” It’s in definite stark contrast to Turkey, which, though has seen some unrest, has in fact actually managed to increase and even strengthen its tourism by almost four spots. In fact, I was in Turkey one month ago and it was fine. Actually, it was awesome.

There are many sides of tourism and not all of them are pretty. Sometimes I choose to omit the child sex tourism, deforested swaths of green vegetation and extreme poverty from my stories. Generally, as long as people don’t go to places to explicitly take advantage of those things, I generally don’t have a problem with it. Tourism is a billion-dollar industry that makes up a huge sector of a country’s GDP. On the personal level, it’s a very real force that supports families so they can keep eating. The key is learning to straddle that line between appropriateness and helpfulness.

And boy, can that line be fine.

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