Tsunamis Bring Out the Best in Travelers

Speaker's Corner: In much of Asia, Western tourists are best known for frittering away time on beaches and haggling over the price of $4 hotel rooms. But when the tsunamis struck, Jim Benning writes, many visitors proved worthy guests.

01.30.05 | 7:03 PM ET

Amid the devastation of South Asia, where the earthquake and tsunamis have killed more than 140,000 people, a striking story is quietly emerging. Western tourists—those better known for frittering away the day lounging on the beach, sipping tropical drinks, and haggling over the price of $4 hotel rooms in poverty-stricken towns—are doing some good.

Proclaimed Reuters: ‘‘Tsunami turns tourists into aid workers.”

Declared The Independent in Britain: ‘‘The tourists still come—only now they want to help.”

Instead of fleeing the devastated areas, some Western travelers are actually seeking them out, offering to lend a hand to overburdened relief agencies and local officials. The phenomenon is repeating itself, according to reports, in Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, in some of the hardest hit areas.

As one aid worker in Sri Lanka told The Independent: ‘‘We have people coming in daily and telling us that for 24 hours or so they thought they would forget about [their] holiday. But then they realize that far from getting in the way, they can actually be vitally important players in this fight to save and rebuild shattered lives.”

So these tourists—men and women who haven’t lost loved ones and who may not have even been on the coast when the waves swept through—are trading flip-flops for sneakers and getting to work, collecting bodies, funneling aid money to the needy, picking through the rubble.

The fact is, Western travelers to South and Southeast Asia, like travelers to other developing regions, often get a bad rap. Critics accuse budget-minded backpackers of flitting through the poorest nations with a slash-and-burn mentality, cutting costs at every turn and putting frugality ahead of generosity, even as locals struggle to keep roofs over their heads.

We hear about the popularity of sex tourism in nations like Thailand and Cambodia, about children being recruited into the trade, about Westerners exploiting the needy. Too many travelers, we are told, export their own culture when they go abroad, bringing Western demands with their dollars and Euros, encouraging old worlds to abandon traditions prematurely.

Those of us who travel often know that these criticisms, if sometimes valid, are far from the whole picture. Long before last week, last month, last year, a subtle shift was occurring in the aspirations of many travelers. More travelers than ever are seeking meaningful cultural exchange overseas. They are searching for ways to see the world, if only briefly, through others’ eyes, to understand foreign cultures in a way they hadn’t before. They are signing on for trips with organizations like Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that leads trips to Iran, Afghanistan, and Bolivia to promote education and cross-cultural understanding. They are paying their own way for ‘‘volunteer vacations,” working in remote regions of Africa.

Those Westerners remaining in South Asia to help didn’t bargain for a disaster when they set off on their winter trips. But their willingness to help instead of immediately returning home or setting off for carefree climes demonstrates a fact that too often gets overlooked: Travelers are capable of great good. On CNN Tuesday night, Larry King asked a couple of Americans what they were still doing in Thailand, more than a week after the tsunamis had struck. Why hadn’t they come home from their disastrous vacation?

They stood against a backdrop of verdant hills, blinking, as King’s query bounced by satellite across the globe. Then they explained patiently that the Thais had been kind and generous ever since the waves hit. The two wanted to help in any way they could. So, they said, they had been carrying bodies and coffins through the tropical heat. Friends back home had been wiring money to them to help, and they had been distributing it, operating their own mini-relief agency.

Rebecca Bedall told King, ‘‘I think our plan is to stay at least a week or two.”

The two are far from alone.

At its worst, travel can highlight the disparities between haves and have-nots, no matter that in both the developed and the developing world, tourism is a crucial source of income for cities and nations and even some of their poorest citizens. But travel can also forge connections across great economic and cultural divides. It just usually doesn’t make headlines.

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