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Hot topic: how to handle tourism after natural disasters

You want your visit to a disaster-struck area to be of benefit, but timing is everything if you’re to be seen as supportive, not gawping

Hot topic: how to handle tourism after natural disasters
Kathmandu, Nepal. Image: Getty

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I visited Vanuatu shortly after Cyclone Pam ravaged the South Pacific archipelago. With corrugated iron still twisted in tree branches like sweet wrappers, local guides were out giving tours, and hotels had reopened with running repairs.

It begs the questions: is tourism really part of the solution, or is part of the problem? Recent natural disasters like the hurricanes from which parts of the Caribbean — particularly Puerto Rico — are still recovering and the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, brought this dilemma into sharp focus.

“Tourism is arguably the most important economic development and recovery opportunity for many destinations after disaster strikes,” says Paula Vlamings, CEO of nonprofit organisation Tourism Cares. “In addition to creating jobs and livelihoods in local communities, tourism also has the power to uplift other economies.”

Brad Dean, the CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, a newly formed nonprofit organisation that supports the promotion of tourism to foster economic growth, adds: “Tourism can be an incredible driver for destinations that have experienced setbacks; especially in the case of Puerto Rico, where it makes up 10% of our GDP.”

Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism for the US Virgin Islands, agrees: “The Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world,” she tells me. “In the US Virgin Islands (USVI), it contributes an estimated 30% to GDP. Visitor activity supports about 8,000 direct jobs. The best way to help is to travel to the USVI.”

But while disaster-hit regions benefit from tourist revenue, many worry it’s insensitive to be holidaying in a destination where many people have lost everything.

“Locals understand the immense contribution that tourism provides the economy of Puerto Rico,” says Brad Dean. “Visiting is not insensitive, it’s benefitting the economy and providing Puerto Ricans with jobs in the tourism industry and beyond. We’ve always been known for our warm hospitality, and now is no different.”

The situation isn’t always this straightforward, however. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, essentials such as water, food, and lodging can be in critically short supply, and travellers won’t want to be a drain on those precious resources.

“Timing is everything,” says Paula Vlamings: “Tourists should pay special attention to the message the destination is putting out. Are they open for business or are they still focused on relief?”

Beverly Nicholson-Doty adds: “There may be safety restrictions in place, and times when visitors may impede the security of a situation, so travellers should heed the advice of local authorities.”

And that’s the bottom line: once the relief agencies have done their work, the local infrastructure is functioning, and the destination has announced it’s open for visitors, infusing money into the local economy by travelling there is one of the easiest ways we can help a destination get back on its feet.

“After the earthquakes in Nepal, Tourism Cares helped support Seeing Hands Nepal, a massage clinic with visually impaired therapists,” adds Vlamings. “They offer a service that travellers love, that also makes a difference to the lives of therapists. Tourism has the power to connect nonprofits and the social enterprises already serving the local community to the tourism economy, so visitors can make choices that make a positive impact.”

Q&A

Is Puerto Rico open to tourism?

Yes. Power has been restored to the island, there are 110 daily flights via 28 airlines and more than 132 lodging options open. The country has more homeport cruises than ever, with 14 vessels as well as 4,000 restaurants, 13 golf courses, and over 190 tourist attractions open for business.

Is the US Virgin Islands ready for visitors?

Yes. A designated website has the latest news and destination updates.

Should I volunteer instead?

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the best thing to do is donate cash, via charities like the Red Cross. If you want to physically help, wait until local authorities put calls out for volunteers, and work with them directly. Ms Nicholson-Doty says, “In the USVI, the Purpose in Paradise programme allows visitors to assist with recovery efforts like coral restoration, or student literacy, while still experiencing the destination.”

Email volunteering inquiries to [email protected]

Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)