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Disaster Tourism: Honest Altruism or Insensitive Voyeurism?

A man walks through what remains of a police station destroyed in fighting between Hamas and Fatah forces, in Gaza City, Wednesday, June 20, 2007. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times) Just as humans by their very nature tend to “gawk” when driving by traffic accidents, people seem to gravitate to places that have appeared in the news for all the wrong reasons. Thus, the term “disaster tourism” has been coined to describe the phenomenon of travelers visiting areas devastated by natural catastrophes such as the Southeast Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, for instance, guided bus tours began visiting neighborhoods that were severely damaged by storm-related flooding.

Just as humans by their very nature tend to “gawk” when driving by traffic accidents, people seem to gravitate to places that have appeared in the news for all the wrong reasons. Thus, the term “disaster tourism” has been coined to describe the phenomenon of travelers visiting areas devastated by natural catastrophes such as the Southeast Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, for instance, guided bus tours began visiting neighborhoods that were severely damaged by storm-related flooding.

At the bleaker end of the scale, there's “dark tourism” (known to the Germans as Gruseltourismus, or “shudder tourism”), which refers to travel to areas associated with death and disaster. This category includes visits to former concentration camps (a staple of the “Holocaust industry”), battlefields and crimes. Perhaps the most famous contemporary example is ground zero in New York, which has become a prime tourist attraction.

The West Bank has long been a prime attraction for Western supporters of Palestinian rights, with tours offered by Sabeel, Interfaith Peace-builders, Global Exchange and others. These are not billed as dark tourism, of course, and the visits are packed with highly informative talks with vital organizations such as the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) and Combatants for Peace. But in some respects, they are: the participants are drawn to the region to witness the devastating impact of Israeli crimes against humanity, so that – in part – they can go back home and tell their friends where they've been and what they saw. And, to a significantly lesser degree, due to the obstacles created by Israel and Egypt, the Gaza Strip has become a target as well. One of the less principled participants in the 2009 Gaza Freedom March who opportunistically jumped on board the lone bus that was able to enter the strip (then-president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak prevented most from entering) told one cameraman on hand for her arrival that “now I can say on Facebook that I'm in Gaza!”

The question then becomes: is there any real benefit, beyond the interest or titillation of the participant? Most tour participants return home to educate many others about the “facts on the ground” and the imperative that their home governments pressure Israel to end the occupation and siege. It is only through changing public opinion and moving as many people as possible to action (motivating them to contact their legislators, etcetera) that the muscle of the pro-Israel lobby will finally be counterbalanced. However, the challenge to all activists is to reach beyond the “choir.” The audiences who attend our report-backs in friendly progressive venues are largely already knowledgeable and in agreement. People who are opposed, or who simply do not pay attention to this crisis and do not understand why they should, don't come to such events. We need to be going to these people instead. (One of the most effective, albeit controversial, activities in which I have participated is a regular vigil in front of Washington, DC's United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, directly across from the sign that reads, “Think about what you saw the next time you witness hatred/see injustice.” A large volume of tourists visit the museum, and although a number are already set in their opinions, others are coming to learn and are curious about our posters and handouts. To a lesser extent, the same can be said about protests in front of stores selling products made or marketed by companies benefiting from the Israeli oppression. The traffic isn't as heavy and shoppers aren't in the same “learning” frame of mind, but at least they aren't the choir.)

The other challenge for activists who have already traveled to the region once is to consider when it's time to stop going merely to learn and start volunteering. There are several organizations that offer this opportunity, and although most, including the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), prefer stints of one month or more, others, including ICAHD (which puts participants to work rebuilding demolished homes), offer “packaged” opportunities of just a week.

Jean Athey, a leader of the Peace Action chapter in Montgomery County, Maryland, who volunteered in the West Bank in 2008 and participated in the Gaza Freedom March in 2009, defends both education-only trips and speaking to “the choir.”

“I do think that seeing things for yourself, firsthand, is what makes for change when people return home. That's why Israel spends so much money bringing groups to Israel from the US – they want people to go back to the US and talk to all their friends about the terrible security situation in Israel and to donate to Israeli causes and vote for legislators who will support Israeli policy,” explains Athey. “I also think that speaking to the choir isn't all bad and is maybe essential. We all need reinforcement for our views and the sense that others are in agreement with us and working in tandem with us. So, these presentations help, I think, to solidify struggle and bring people together in a way that can make us all stronger.”

Steve France, a Maryland activist and organizer of the vigils at the DC Holocaust museum, cautions that “blowback” can occur when visitors to the occupied Palestinian territories return and, when speaking to others, magnify the severity and danger of the conditions for better effect. “This can make their listeners feel simultaneously more sorry for the people there and alienated from a population that seems strange and frightening. Instead of taking action to help, they want to flee or devote their time to something more hopeful.” The Palestinians often feel offended, as well, when they read descriptions of their lives that don't match their reality. For example, Gazans hate it when someone asks, “Can you get [some type of basic consumer good] here?” They are quick to set you straight and assert that you can find just about everything you want in Gaza; the problem isn't the quantity of goods, it's that most are either of poor quality or are too expensive for many people to afford. (And, if the concern is poverty, there are equally miserable conditions in Egypt.)

Gaza has been more or less isolated from such “tourist” visits due to the rigid control over its borders by Israel and Egypt. Groups entering have mostly been limited to aid convoys, which are often irritatingly focused on getting aid and people in rather than on breaking the siege so that Palestinians and their exports can get out. At any one time, there are about 200 foreigners in Gaza: some journalists, occasionally government representatives from different regions of the world and – mostly – employees or contractors for international aid agencies like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Oxfam and Mercy Corps. (Most, it should be added, live in what could be called a “green zone” – the secure area by the UNRWA headquarters, close to the still-lovely sea.) However, there is a steady, albeit still very small, stream of independents that make it into Gaza. CODEPINK: Women for Peace brought in one of the first such groups after the last major Israeli invasion, in March of 2009 (with me among them on my first trip to Gaza). Since then, it has returned twice, and another small delegation will attempt to enter at the end of this month.

Although CODEPINK had a specific task on its first two trips – first, to stand in solidarity with fellow females on International Women's Day, then to build playgrounds for children – the last visit, and the upcoming one, could be accused by some as being merely the dreaded “dark tourism.” The mission is primarily to show first-timers the still-ruined buildings and hear from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) about the struggling economy.

Ivan Illich, a Mexican author and activist who spoke out in the 1960's against “misplaced idealism,” had this to say: “Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America [or any other stricken region of the world]. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”

I asked a number of admittedly random Gazans what they thought of such groups of foreigners, who “parachute in” for a look-see, then, just as quickly, leave. On one extreme, some of those I questioned (including one who was reacting primarily to the promotion for the trip) didn't like being regarded as “zoo animals to stare at” or questioned the actual benefit beyond satisfying participants' desire for “adventure.” In the middle, there were many who hadn't really thought about it and were more or less indifferent. Still others – the majority, especially after pondering the question – said, “Welcome!”

“When people from around the world come to Gaza, then go back to their countries, they will be just like ambassadors for Gaza and Palestine,” says Ashraf Hamad, an entrepreneur in Gaza City. “They initially may not have anything to do, but when aggression happens (against us), they will talk, they will scream, they will take action.”

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