Wish you were here...
Pondering the Ethics of Tsunami Tourism
The trip was an anniversary gift to my wife, who likes to go somewhere hot in the winter so she can swim. The travel agent suggested it, and I assented because it was considerably cheaper than my other options (Australia, Jamaica, the Bahamas), and had a patina of exoticism. Given my natural holiday proclivities--sleep, read, eat, repeat--we could have gone to Tucson, AZ. But baby loves to snorkel, and the dollars-to-baht exchange rate is almost criminally favorable, so off we go.
Or not. When the news of the tsunami broke last Monday, and the New York Times was reporting that as many as 12,000 might be dead (289 in Thailand alone), I didn't feel an exaggerated degree of grief or shock. It was awful news, of course, but no worse than any other natural disaster. The scenes of devastation from Florida last fall landed much harder. But as the picture widened and the numbers climbed--it's more like 30,000 dead; no, make that 50,000; wait, 80,000; etc. --it became clear that this was no mere act of God. This was real, literal cataclysm, more death than we could possibly comprehend.
Thought one: Give money to Red Cross.
Thought two: Call the travel agent and make arrangements to go anywhere else, instead. In the words of the late Spalding Gray, "I don't want any part of that karma."
Three days after the disaster the headline "SUNBATHING IN HELL" appeared on the Drudge Report, accompanied by a picture of Western tourists reclining on chaises longues. The image brought my conflict into sharp relief. Forget personal safety, it just feels morally wrong to coast into an area afflicted by so much death and devastation--unless, of course, you're a real journalist or an aid worker. I'm neither, even by liberal definitions. Nor do I relish the idea of spending two weeks feeling anxious and guilty about the relative worth of my life. I get enough of that at home. Despite the widespread reports of tsunami survivors staying on to help and even hang out, it seemed only too obvious that we should cancel the trip.
And though my wife went along for a moment, she has since changed her mind, despite what her parents and the WHO have to say about it. Her position is that we'll only make things worse for the Thai people by not going on our vacation. A story on NPR, in which a British travel expert urged Westerners not to abandon the countries who depend on our tourist dollars, reinforced this idea. Then she found this message, posted on Sawadee.com, a website designed to help tourists find reasonably priced Thai resorts:
"There is severe damage in the selected beach area of about 500m inwards. However, the impression that 'Phuket is gone' is wrong. 80% of the hotels are unaffected and full operational. 10% have damages which can be repaired with 1-2 weeks. Phuket is save [sic]. Most pictures you see on TV are now taken from the depot where they bring the rubble and trash from the clean-up efforts! Important: The main damage... is done by the media, not the wave. How you can help? We have removed links to donation sites and bank accounts, because that is done on the international level by governments. YOU can help by NOT CAN- CELING your visit to Thailand. The Thai people rely on your visit to keep their jobs to survive."
Now playing the ugly American lazing around tropical resorts while being served umbrella drinks by cute little brown people to whom every tiny gratuity represents a significant chunk of annual income is suddenly a moral imperative? Cultural imperialism aside, it's always a little uncomfortable to be an American abroad, and never more so than now. But it doesn't take John Maynard Keynes to appreciate that service economies require both servants and servees and that tourist dollars benefit the indigenous poor first and foremost.
But who's to say that our tourist dollars are really that important? The 2003 outbreak of SARS, which killed fewer than 800 people worldwide, was enough to slash Thailand tourism to its lowest point since 1995, yet the Thai national economy managed to grow more than five percent that year. According to an optimistic story in Monday's New York Times, "the tsunami is likely to register more as a small wave" in the economies of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and Thailand, "because the two industries most heavily hit--tourism and fishing--make up small percentages of the economy." If you measure strictly by dollars, euros, baht, and rupees, this is basically true; tourism proper represents only about 5.5 percent of the Thai GDP, 2 percent of India's, less than 1 percent of Indonesia's. (The percentage is significantly higher in significantly poorer Sri Lanka.)
However, the same Times story acknowledged that while the overall economic picture is hopeful, the livelihoods of millions have been decimated by the tsunami. "It's a blip," said one economist, "but a blip that's concentrated among the poorest of the population." These are the people who stand to lose what little they have by a waning tourist economy. The farmers and fishermen are screwed, but the waiters, porters, maids, prostitutes, and masseuses are no less dependent on the Yankee dollar than they were on December 25.
APEC estimates that the "services" industry--encompassing everything from phone operators to busboys--represents 37 percent of the Thai workforce; 39 percent of Indonesia's; 53.8 percent in Sri Lanka. The poorest segments of some of the poorest countries in the civilized world--if you can call areas where bloody religious insurrection is a quotidian reality "civilized"--are made up of people whose job it is to make the lives of tourists a bit more pleasant. The Thai government estimates that 200,000 service employees will lose their jobs as a direct result of tsunami fallout.
And so, as of today, anyway, we're going, rationalizations, immunizations, and all.
For those of us who are geographically removed from the tsunami--I won't say unaffected, since no one is--there are two challenges. The first is finding a way to help that's both useful and resonant. The larger challenge is finding a way into the tragedy that honors its scope, which in this case, dwarfs all imagination. In a way, it's like searching for metaphor in a purely literal situation. And what better metaphor could there be for this scenario than tourism? To fly into the mouth of the worst natural disaster of the century only to spread a few disposable dollars around--while hoping not to encounter any decomposing bodies in the surf, or to disturb the mass graves by walking in the sand, or to cheapen the psychological hell of an entire people by asking for more ice--feels about as ineffectual as it gets.
I'll send you a postcard.