Travelling to a Disaster Zone
Considering a vacation to a country or region recently damaged by a natural disaster? Here are some of the ethical questions.
Australia' s recent bushfires are the latest in a spate of terrifying natural disasters across the planet. Can tourists help more by visiting or by donating?
By Tim McDonald
BBC – TRAVEL
19 February 2020
Lorena Granados and Gaspar Roman have set up a temporary leather goods stall by the edge of the road in Mogo, a bushfire-ravaged town in New South Wales, Australia. It sits in front of their old store, which was reduced to warped corrugated iron and ashes when the fires tore through this tiny tourist town of about 300 on New Year' s Eve.
"We can continue to have a purpose in life and get up in the morning and have something to do," Granados told me. The next few months will be a grind, they said. They' ll be seeking government assistance and dealing with insurers and depending on help from family and friends.
The small stall won' t replace their large store and leather workshop. But it' s a start. And every purchase is a step towards returning to normal. Their message is clear: Mogo is safe, and tourist dollars are badly needed, so please visit.
Australia' s recent bushfires, which started raging in September, are the latest in a spate of terrifying natural disasters across the planet. The fires were particularly devastating in New South Wales and Victoria, killing at least 33 people and destroying thousands of homes. More than 11 million hectares of land " an area nearly the size of England " were burnt.
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.
Although the immediate bushfire crisis is over, travellers should be prepared to see burnt forests and destroyed homes (Credit: Credit: Phillip Wittke/Getty Images)
Although the immediate bushfire crisis is over, travellers should be prepared to see burnt forests and destroyed homes (Credit: Phillip Wittke/Getty Images)
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.
Jervis Bay on New South Wales' South Coast is a summer playground for Sydney and Canberra residents (Credit: Credit: Roman Skorzus/Getty Images)
Jervis Bay on New South Wales' South Coast is a summer playground for Sydney and Canberra residents as well as international tourists (Credit: Roman Skorzus/Getty Images)
"We' re just asking people to come to the region and do what they would normally do," she said.
Many tourists are happy to help.
Maree Gwynn travelled from her home in Canberra to Batemans Bay, which is perhaps the most accessible beachside retreat for residents of the capital. She came for a few days of rest and relaxation several weeks after the fires swept through the area. It was a deliberate choice, because she wanted to help an area that had not only faced a natural disaster, but also economic stress.
"It' s a considered decision. I will buy gifts for my family. It' s not a lot of money, but it' s something to put into the town," she said.
Many others are doing the same. A social media campaign has emerged, encouraging people to head to the region with empty eskies (the Australian term for cooler) to fill up on food from local businesses. Tourism bodies are urging Australians to holiday domestically this year, and local councils want people to return.
Go, or just give?
It' s possible to help fire-affected towns without visiting. Cobargo is one of the hardest-hit towns in southern NSW. The fires destroyed 823 buildings (both homes and other structures such as sheds) according to the Bega Valley Shire Council.
Peter Logue is a director of the town' s folk festival, which was due to take place at the end of February. The organisers cancelled it, because some of them lost their homes in the fires, but also because the fire danger hadn' t passed and looked like it could potentially persist for months.
The festival' s website now points people to a community bushfire recovery fund, aimed at helping the town rebuild. And there are plenty of other options for anyone wanting to donate, whether that' s to help injured wildlife or aid indigenous communities affected by the fires. For those who want to donate goods (something some charities discourage), Givit helps link people with items they need.
Major highways in NSW and Victoria are open, although some back roads remain closed (Credit: Credit: mikulas1/Getty Images)
Major highways in NSW and Victoria are open, although some back roads remain closed (Credit: mikulas1/Getty Images)
A few weeks ago, Logue would have advised people to donate rather than visit. But now that the fires have subsided, he thinks the town desperately needs visitors. He said many businesses have faced a drastic downturn because tourists didn' t come over the summer, but they aren' t eligible for government assistance, which is focused on people who have lost property. He said more customers will help revive the town, and tourists will enjoy themselves despite the damage.
"There' s plenty to do, and plenty to see. Music venues are open again. Cafes are open," he said.
Is it altruism or voyeurism?
I witnessed people pulled up on the side of the road watching a bushfire at village of Bodalla, about four hours' drive south of Sydney " and in truth, I was among them. I also watched a group of people snapping pictures of burnt houses near Batemans Bay. Perhaps it' s human nature to stop and stare.
Visiting the scene of a disaster or an atrocity can be powerful and moving. But there' s a difference between visiting a museum commemorating a catastrophe years after it happened and traipsing through someone' s recent tragedy, said Matt Beard from the Ethics Centre, a Sydney-based non-profit.
"Visiting a bushfire site to have this experience now might mean putting your own moral experience above the basic needs of those who have been directly affected by what’s happened," he said.
Some in political leadership positions appear to agree. The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has encouraged people to return to bushfire-affected towns. But he wants them to spend money rather than just being "stickybeaks".
Given the scale of the fires, visitors won' t be able to avoid seeing burnt forests, and it' s likely that they' ll see destroyed homes too. They should bear in mind that for some locals, the memories will be recent and very raw.
How else can I help?
Ursula Vonbergen and Heinz Wigner are Swiss tourists volunteering with BlazeAid, a rural charity that helps farmers get back on their feet after natural disasters. The married couple took a detour on their three-month tour of Australia to work for several weeks with the charity.
"It was a very good experience," said Vonbergen, explaining that they made new friends, enjoyed the work and came away with the satisfaction of knowing that they helped people in need.
At present, there are more than 20 BlazeAid camps across the fire zone, with about 50 people at the Braidwood camp, located between Canberra and the coast, where Vonbergen and Wigner are volunteering. Most volunteers are tourists on lengthy trips in caravans or campervans, who have put their travels on pause to help. Some are older "grey nomads". Most of the work here has been stripping out burnt fences and replacing them with new ones, a labour-intensive task that many farmers are faced with after a bushfire passes.
Small towns and villages on Australia' s east coast were filled with smoke and illuminated by otherworldly red and orange skies (Credit: Credit: Tim McDonald)
Small towns and villages on Australia' s east coast were filled with smoke and illuminated by otherworldly red and orange skies (Credit: Tim McDonald)
According to camp operators, the work doesn' t require any special skills. Anyone who' s reasonably fit can help, and the work has an immediate positive impact on the farmers who were affected.
But volunteering or working in a disaster zone is sometimes a more fraught decision. Although many people are willing to put their hands up to help, they may not have the skills or the equipment to really make a difference.
During the response to Indonesia' s tsunami and earthquake in Palu in 2018, for example, the authorities kicked out a number of aid groups and volunteers because they didn' t seek permission, and in some cases because they didn' t have the equipment to take care of their own needs and to help others.
"As a general ethical principle, it’s just as important that you’re competentin being able to offer help as it is that you’re well-intended," Beard said.
It' s for this reason that volunteering opportunities in the bushfire zone are fairly limited. For example, the Red Cross and WIRES (an Australian wildlife rescue organisation) won' t send untrained volunteers into emergency zones.
The Victorian government encourages anyone who wants to volunteer to get involved with an emergency volunteering organisation well in advance of any disaster. Anyone who does have specific skills that might be helpful can register with Australia' s peak volunteering body.
Lorena Granados stands among several old sewing machines. They were completely destroyed by the fire and are useless now. She shows me a video on her phone of their panicked retreat from the town when they realised they wouldn' t be able to save the business they worked so hard to build.
She tears up at times. It was clearly a traumatising experience, and now she' s dealing with the financial fallout. Tourist dollars could help her small community of Mogo rebuild. And there are many other towns going through hard times.
"All the little towns are relying on tourism to come back to get us back on our feet. If people want to help, this is one way you can help," she said.
Many other business owners will feel the same.