Vulture Tourism and the Allure of ‘Pre-Disastered Destinations’

Eric Weiner: When disaster strikes a country, is it time to visit?

05.27.10 | 10:06 AM ET

Photo by goingslo via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

With a shrug, the Thai soldier apologized for aiming his gun at my groin. Actually, it was more of a half-shrug, a barely perceptible upward thrust of the shoulders that seemed to convey the sentiment, “Sorry about that buddy, didn’t see you turn that corner but, hey, these are tough times in Thailand. What are you doing here anyway?”

Good question. The last time I was in Bangkok—in 2006—there was a coup d’état, complete with tanks on the street. I figured I was safe this time, though. I was banking on The Garp Effect to protect me. I’m referring to the scene from the movie “The World According to Garp” in which Garp (played by Robin Williams) and his wife are standing beside a house they’re considering buying when suddenly a small plane crashes into it. “We’ll take it,” says Garp. “It’s been pre-disastered!”

I thought Thailand had been pre-disastered too but, alas, it had not. The “red shirt” protesters and the Thai Army faced off in downtown Bangkok. The Army fired live ammunition. The protesters responded with Molotov cocktails. Urban warfare.

For 20 years, my instinct as a foreign correspondent was to run toward trouble, and quickly. Now, I found myself trying to avoid trouble. The Sukhumvit neighborhood in Bangkok where I was staying was outside of the protest zone but we could still see smoke rising on the horizon, and soldiers—like the one I encountered—guarding intersections. While parts of Bangkok burned, in others, people went about their business more or less normally. Street vendors cooked up pad thai. More upscale cafes kept the Pinot Noir flowing. The Thai attitude of mai pen rai (never mind) prevailed, at least when people weren’t being shot. 

But what about The Garp Effect? Is it real? For some travelers, like my friend Martin, The Garp Effect is a way of life. When disaster strikes somewhere, he’s online booking a ticket there. Tsunami in Indonesia? He’s there. Attack on tourists in Egypt? He’s on the next Nile cruise. I’m willing to bet he’s booking a beach vacation in Thailand at this very moment.

Not only does Martin figure that these places are now “pre-disastered,” but he enjoys great bargains too as hotels and resorts slash prices to lure back visitors. You might find Martin’s behavior dubious—a sort-of “vulture tourism”—but I don’t see it that way. Someone has to be the first one back into a country after a catastrophe. If you happen to save a few bucks in the process, so be it.

The fact is that a country like Thailand, so dependent on tourism, does not recover easily from a blow like this. All those years of (relative) calm are erased in a TV minute. And there’s always a lag between a nation’s security image and its reality. Beirut, a largely safe (and wonderful) city, is a good example.

Travel is a crap shoot. No amount of State Department advisories can change that. A place can be perfectly safe one moment and a disaster zone the next. Indeed, it is this element of unpredictability—and, let’s be honest, the ambient whiff of danger—that some travelers find irresistible.

We play the odds, hoping that luck—and The Garp Effect—will protect us. In fact, as I write these words, I’m staying at a guesthouse in China’s Sichuan province, exactly six miles from the epicenter of the devastating 2008 earthquake. I feel safe, though. This place has been pre-disastered. Hasn’t it?

Eric Weiner

Eric Weiner is author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine and The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, now out in paperback. He is a former NPR foreign correspondent, and a former reporter for The New York Times.

4 Comments for Vulture Tourism and the Allure of ‘Pre-Disastered Destinations’

Sharyn Sears 05.27.10 | 3:18 PM ET

My armchair travels—and attempts to plan a real trip—have been following this principle. Chile? Quake. Belize? Gulf disaster. Greece? Civil unrest? Mexico? Drug violence. Maybe the trick is short term planning and keeping it on the down-lo! Thanks, Eric.

Laura 06.01.10 | 1:31 AM ET

I can’t justify cheap rates in return for scary danger.  I think I would rather do what Sharyn suggested and plan in a shorter amount of time with greater success.

jc 06.02.10 | 6:28 PM ET

I think it’s okay as long as a country has recovered enough that tourism is not taking clean water or food supplies away from residents.

Austin Beeman 06.02.10 | 11:33 PM ET

This works even better when the disaster is psychological and not real.  For example, when France and the US were fighting over the Iraq War and it seems everyone was Anti-French, I was able to book 2 tickets ‘round trip’ to Paris for under $250 each.  I took my Mom as a surprise ‘jet-set’ weekend for her birthday.

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