Disaster tourism, just like the ethics of visiting and gawking at the poor, there are valid moral questions around visiting disaster areas where people may have lost everything, including family members. However the other side of that is these places hit by disaster often need the influx of cash that tourism brings. But does the tourism dollars do more help than harm? Do those dollars even get to the people that can use them? Are these places just recovering from a disaster ready to handle thousands or tens of thousands of tourists? It is a controversial topic and one that this website is not qualified to address.
Now that the immediate danger seems to be over in NSW and Victoria, locals want tourists to return to make up for a summer season that was lost to a disaster.
But can tourists help more by visiting or by donating? And is it ethical to travel in a disaster zone, where people are traumatised by their recent experiences?
Tourists can definitely make a difference to these disaster-hit regions, but there are a number of things they should consider before they go.
Should I cancel my trip?
If safety is a concern, then probably not. Heavy rains have put out dozens of the remaining fires in NSW and helped firefighters effectively contain many more. There are only a few areas where bushfires persist. Tourists can check with local authorities in New South Wales and Victoria to see any areas of concern.
Hotels and airports in urban centres are open, and the major highways connecting the NSW South Coast region to Sydney and Canberra re-opened in mid-January after catastrophic bushfires, although a few back roads are still closed. In Victoria, the major highways are open, although many roads through the Gippsland region remain shut. And, after it was closed for more than a month, the road to Mallacoota, a town in Victoria from where more than 1,500 people were evacuated by naval ship, was reopened in the second week of February.
Even after a fire has passed through, there are other hazards, like falling branches from fire-damaged trees, downed power lines and asbestos in damaged housing. These are generally avoidable, however, as the authorities seal off areas that are might be dangerous.
The fires scuppered many holiday plans but affected areas have slowly been reopening to tourists. One of the hardest hit regions was the South Coast of NSW, which is a summer playground for Sydney and Canberra residents as well as international tourists. Many who come here are repeat customers, heading down year after year to holiday on their favourite stretch of beach, on a coastline that’s known for clear water and soft sand.
We’re just asking people to come to the region and do what they would normally do
“For a lot of people, [NSW’s South Coast] is like a home away from home. And we want people to know that’s still here. There are people that will smile at you on the beach, and cafes that will remember your order from the last time you were here,” said Shannan Perry-Hall, acting tourism manager for Shoalhaven Council, an area several hours drive south of Sydney that includes roughly 80km of coastline.
Many towns were shut down for weeks during the November to February summer season and they need customers to help make up for their lost business. In Shoalhaven, Perry-Hall says, local businesses do nearly a third of their annual trade in the January peak season. This summer, they lost up to 80% of that business.
“We’re just asking people to come to the region and do what they would normally do,” she said.