“Not all disasters catch your eye. The ones that become real issues are distinct. (…) The disaster has to be on a certain scale for busy people to take the time to sympathise or pay attention. (…) The empathy can fade too. (…) If you compared several disasters that had occurred at similar times and with similar intensity, you realised that the scale of harm wasn’t necessarily proportional to donations or public interest. Some ravaged cities appeared in newspapers as a few short lines of text before being forgotten, while others received extended interest (…). “
The Disaster Tourist by the Korean writer Yun Ko-eun is a fascinating, ambitious and unpredictable story. I have immensely enjoyed reading this book.
The Disaster Tourist offers a thoughtful take on the issues of abuse, exploitation, and predatory behaviour in a workplace, the meaning of one’s professional life versus personal life, dark tourism versus responsible tourism, and perception of the Other in the disadvantaged communities and how one digests news about human tragedies.
The story evolves around Yona who have been working for ten years as a programme coordinator for a Seoul-based travel company called Jungle specialising in holiday packages to the destinations affected by natural disasters. On the verge of losing her job, Yona is offered to take a trip to Mui, an island near the Vietnamese shore to review the destination and asses its profitability. She discovers the attempt to fabricate the disaster by the resort just to keep the destination profitable for the travellers.
Disaster tourism is a real term defining a sub-sector of dark tourism which involves visiting places that have been devasted by climate change or natural disasters. The book portrays the disruptive consequences of disaster tourism on the local communities comparing it to a theme park or ‘an empty theatre’ where empathy and sorrow are just induced by the media to create an interest, a story.
The perception of the local communities is another subject that was well covered in the book. It is related to the issue of one’s identity. Travellers are perceived as privileged tourists and locals are considered nameless, unaware and for whom the most important phrase is ‘one dollar please’. In those scenarios, everyone’s identity is simplified, devoid of any nuance and complexity.
The way we digest the news about various tragedies happening in the world is another topic portrayed in The Disaster Tourist. The author poses the question if we are merely observing a tragedy or are we creating it?
Also, the description of a toxic and abusive workplace has resonated with me deeply. One of my favourite quotes from the book is when Yona wants to quit her job and as a reply she hears “according to the rules, it’s only possible for you to quit in the middle of a business trip if you die.”
I loved this unique story very much.
I would like to thank Serpentstail Publishing House for this gifted copy of The Disaster Tourist and for publishing such great books in translation. I will definitely read more from Yun Ko-eun and other Korean writers.