How Soon Should You Travel Somewhere After A Disaster?

Illustration: Angelica Alzona

The city of Santa Rosa knows you still want to visit California’s wine country even after devastating wildfires ripped through the region in 2017 and 2019. The Sonoma Valley city wants you to come, too; much of its economy relies on tourism dollars, to the tune of $2 billion a year for the region. But maybe skip the selfies with burnt-out homes.

“What I would say for anyone planning a visit to an area as a disaster is occurring, or following a disaster: just be mindful of your relationship to that area,” said Kevin King, the city’s marketing and outreach and coordinator. “You’ve got to be more sensitive than your normal [holiday] trip.”

The question of when to visit a place that has been struck by a disaster is one tourism officials say is tricky to get right. Visit too early and you’ll be in the way of recovery efforts and occupy hotels that could be used for temporary housing. But stay away completely and you’ll deprive the area of the much-needed tourism income it’s counting on to get back on its feet. For instance, Justin Francis, founder of Responsible Travel, has written that locals in Phuket, Thailand complained the 2004 tsunami was followed by an “economic tsunami” due to a lack of tourism.

So as the age of climate change brings the threat of more fires, storms and flooding that make it seem like every trip will be close to a disaster of some kind, how can you know when to visit without being another ignorant tourist standing in the way? We talked to a few travel experts, and people who’ve been through disasters, for guidance.

If you can’t get there, don’t go there

To state the obvious: it will be physically impossible for you to visit most places that are hardest hit, said Rachel Dodds, director of consulting firm Sustaining Tourism. Airports will be shuttered, cruises will be cancelled and hotels will be closed for booking. Even if recovery is over, some are just not ready for visitors yet.

“A lot of them just close down, they don’t want to deal with [tourists],” she said.

So this is a pretty good failsafe for making your plans: if you can’t easily get somewhere, that’s a good sign you shouldn’t take it on yourself to rent a pontoon boat, charter a private plane or trek an off-road trail to get there. But if flights have resumed, hotels are booking again and local events have resumed, that’s a sign they are ready—and eager—your tourism dollars again.

Do your local research

The key to post-disaster travel is understanding exactly which areas of your desired destination were hit the hardest and which were relatively unscathed.

Smartraveller issues travel advisories for foreign countries that range from “exercise normal precaution” to “do not travel.” For instance, at press time China was labelled with a “do not travel” advisory due to the coronavirus outbreak. The advisories also account for things like terrorism and uprisings. But experts say broad alerts don’t always tell the whole story. The best way to be sure is to check with the local governments.

For instance, travellers who hear Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes that have shook the island for the past two months might not know most of the island has been welcoming to visitors, according to Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s direct marketing organisation. It keeps a traveller update, with FAQs and a map of affected areas, on its site for just this purpose.

In a statement sent via email, Discover Puerto Rico said it encourages tourism to the island and that while areas of the southern portion of the island are still heavily affected, most of the major attractions are open.

“Tourism is vital and it fuels local communities,” CEO Brad Dean said in the statement.

Every disaster is different: some communities can recover right away, some will be out of commission for months. Most tourism areas will quickly set up similar alerts and advisories; but the internet makes it easy to consult local news and blogs to check the recovery status, Dodds said. Remember to look up local travel etiquette while you’re at it too.

Don’t book a room right away

When homes are destroyed by fire or storms, people often turn to local hotels and short-term rentals such as Airbnb as their first recourse. Insurance companies will pay for those rooms, so they get booked up pretty fast if people have nowhere else to stay.

“In the immediate aftermath, all the hotels are likely going to be filled up in those areas,” King said.

It’s a good idea to lay off booking a room in the vicinity of a disaster in the first few days, even if the hotel is open and operating, to let locals take the rooms. Instead, experts remind staying with friends or family in the area if you have any, or just push back your trip until the initial local demand for rooms has died down. You can always call hotels and local governments to check the status, too.

This would avoid the embarrassing situation that happened to me and some friends in 2005 when we arrived at our hotel for the Austin City Limits festival, and were met with a caravan of carloads of families fleeing hurricanes, with all their belongings strapped to the top of cars and extra gas cans in the trunk. “Katrina or Rita?” people kept asking us about the back-to-back hurricanes that had sent people scrambling from the Gulf Coast seeking hotel vacancies, to which we sheepishly responded that, uh, we were just here to see Oasis and Death Cab for Cutie (we ended up giving up one of the two rooms we booked).

As time goes on, displaced people often find friends or family to move in with, so hotel space frees up, which is what happened in Santa Rosa, where most people have found more stable housing since the last fires, King said.

Book with a responsible travel company

Not everyone should be expected to be a travel expert, but small and sustainable tour companies can help navigate this dilemma of when to travel to certain destinations, said Tim Williamson, customer director at Responsible Travel, which connects travellers with local guides.

He suggests booking small and local tour companies for your trip to get insight and ensure your money really benefits the local economy (it’s a good time to refresh yourself on these tips for being an eco-tourist without ruining the environment, too). Figuring out which ones are right takes a little work:

“Ask questions—how ingrained are they in the community and do they employ local staff?” Williamson wrote in an email. “What are their responsible tourism policies? Can you speak with the contact on the ground and some people who’ve previously travelled with them?”

Help if you can, but don’t be stupid

You could of course always turn your trip into a way to help recovery —if you do it without getting in the way or just use it for a quick photo op. Be wary of travel companies that want to take you to the scene of a disaster for the “experience,” Williamson said.

For those looking to help directly when on vacation, organisations such as Not Just Tourists provide guidance, including listing medical supplies you can bring for needy clinics. Responsible Tourism has a whole guide on how to volunteer when you’re travelling. The tips include: making sure you have skills that are helpful for the project, asking about the levels of support you’ll have if things go wrong and learning about pre-trip briefings and training.

What you don’t want to do is to jump into a situation thinking you can help without any training or support. Dodds said this has been happening in Australia, where tourists have entered the forests with the notion of saving koala bears. But they don’t know what they’re doing, don’t know anything about koala bears, so sometimes they get in trouble and a rescue team has to be dispatched.

“Every time they have somebody doing that, they’re taking away from recovery effort,” she said. “There’s really no excuse for that.”

Lower your expectations

The on-demand, all-inclusive world has conditioned some travellers to expect to get anything they want, wherever and whenever they want. That’s just not a very chill way to act when visiting a place that’s been hit by a disaster, even if they are open for business again, Dodds said.

“That’s a pure, neo-colonialist approach to a destination with no regard for anything else,” she said. “Disasters are horrible, but don’t cause a human disaster after there’s been a natural disaster.”

The tourism industry isn’t always great about warning people that services may be limited, so it’s best to go into the trip with an open mindset.

“If you’re going to be a tourist in a place such as Puerto Rico [after the hurricane], you can’t expect the same level of service as pre-disaster,” she said. “If you are there truly to be responsible and put money back into the economy, don’t expect people to wait hand and foot on you.”

She cites as an example a water shortage that hit Tofino, a beach resort town in Western Canada, in 2009. Travellers were still welcome, but due to the shortage they were barred from using hot tubs and limited to short showers every day. The tourism community was able to share this message with travellers ahead of time, so guests arrived prepared, and their presence still had a positive effect on the economy, she said.

Chill with the selfies

If you do travel to one of these areas, a fast track to becoming the worst kind of tourist monster is to take a selfie in front of some destruction like it’s the Disneyland castle. For one, it’s a pretty good way to go viral and get the whole world in your mentions calling you an insensitive jerk. For another, it signals to the locals that you’re visiting for the wrong reasons, and don’t actually care about the place you’re visiting.

“Just be sensitive and mindful,” King said. “Do a little self reflection: Why do you want to visit the area and what is your relationship with the community?”

He cites as an example a couple who had booked their wedding in the city for dates last year when the Kincade fire still raged in the area. The wedding went on, and he doesn’t mind those couples taking photos with the disaster in the background.

“As a local, I understand, they’re going through the disaster with us,” he said. But a couple that got married weeks later and took pictures with wreckage in the background is a different story.

“That is insensitive to the populace,” he said.


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