In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
Yun Ko-eun's The Disaster Tourist (2020) follows a travel company in Korea, named Jungle, which specialises in guided tours to areas that have been struck by natural disaster in the recent past. Published originally in 2013 in Korean, the novel has been newly translated into English by Lizzie Buehler. The protagonist, Yona Ko, who has spent most of her twenties and early thirties working at Jungle, is one of the curators of these unorthodox travel experiences. Like her colleagues, she scans the news and social media for disasters that may draw the attention of future clients. She scopes out earthquake-hit regions and tsunami-ravaged coasts for ones that show promise. Yona chooses locations that can be groomed into disaster tourism destinations with week-long itineraries that include homestays with the locals, visits to the site of the volcanic eruption which resulted in over a hundred fatalities or the river affected by severe and on-going water pollution, shopping for local ware and (sometimes) relief work related to the disaster.
After her boss sexually assaults her, she finds herself isolated at the company and reassigned to clerical tasks. When she turns in her resignation, Jungle offers her an all-expenses-paid trip to convince her to stay. She can choose from any of their underperforming experiences and review the trip's viability for the company. They sell it to her as an opportunity for rest and travel, and she relents. The Disaster Tourist isn't always an elegantly plotted novel but it is an endlessly fascinating one. What experiences do we seek when we think we've had all the usual ones? Is it a misplaced desire to experience the full gamut of reality that draws people to landscapes with storied scars and places of palpable poverty? A premise that at first sounds slightly exaggerated or outrightly satirical gradually grows into something familiar and resonant as the reader confronts the ways in which travel can feel educational and humbling while being voyeuristic and patronsing.
Yona chooses to accompany a group to an island nation, located south of Vietnam, named Mui where a substantial portion of the ground had caved in some years ago killing several people in the vicinity. But of late, Mui had begun to wane in popularity with disaster tourists. Rain had filled the sinkhole which had been a previously dread-inducing chasm at one hundred and eighty meters deep. The travellers include an educator who has brought her five-year-old daughter along to teach her about the world and a student who has come in the hopes of "ethically" visiting a disaster site and volunteering towards rebuilding the community. It is apparent that the cynicism with which Jungle views their clients is different from the way these people view themselves. While Jungle sees them as people in whom they must evoke empathy, excitement, fear and gratitude, the reality is that the travelers see their reasons as unique and intrinsically linked to their specific stories.
The group in Mui spends a night in a village in rooms on stilts on the water which are described as typical housing for the area. What appears to be a fairly innocuous interaction between the locals and the tourists is revealed to rest on fragile and masked foundations when Yona's camera goes missing and all the local homes are unceremoniously searched. There is no question as to which group has been implicitly accused. When the camera turns up elsewhere, the travel group descends into discomfort where privilege is angrily and briefly discussed before the conversation dies out.
A series of unexpected circumstances leads to Yona designing a new tour through Mui which she attempts to show in broader light to future tourists by including the island's mangrove forest, which can be traversed by boat and the resident strangler fig trees, which are strong enough to have broken through the concrete nearby. But a more sinister plan is at work in the island with vast amounts of money and employment at stake.
One of the puzzling absences in the novel is a lack of engagement with the growing climate crisis. Though extreme climate events form the backdrop of the novel, there is no sense amongst the travellers that the disasters, whose aftermaths they have sought out, are increasing in frequency and intensity the world over and that they or their descendants will likely live to experience a comparable event closer home.
While The Disaster Tourist is an intriguing read about capitalism's ability to monetise everything including climate disasters, the novel doesn't quite live up to its marketing as an "eco-thriller". Instead, it challenges the reader to more robustly evaluate our curiosity about traumatised communities and landscapes that appear exciting for their unpredictability and history of ruin. What does a community lose even if they do financially benefit in some ways? What compromises are they forced to make during these visits for the sake of offering an "authentic" experience to a tourist?