The Disaster Tourist is a short (185 pages) novel, a surreal satire translated from Korean in a crisp tone. I was about to say it’s deadpan and heartless -“The deaths were unadvertised disasters, unexpected by the travellers” – but instead I’ll say it’s angry. Funny, but angry. Appalling and appalled.
It makes me feel much better about not being able to travel. And much worse about previous holidays in other people’s misery.
The Disaster Tourist looks at the contemporary (pre-COVID) model of Third World tourism, specifically Pacific island tourism, and lays bare the commercial drivers and marketing strategies, in catastrophically exaggerated form.
The premise is this: A disaster occurs. Lives are lost. But a catastrophe is also an opportunity. A sensational disaster will attract foreign funding (foreign aid) and put an otherwise obscure location on the map (even as it wipes it off the map). Righteous tourists will come to put things right. They will come to experience authenticity, what life is really all about (death). They will come to rubber-neck: to gape, to tut-tut, to experience shock and awe.
If a community has nothing else to offer, being poor, not scenic, its indigenous culture beaten down or dismissed as unremarkable, might it not make sense to manufacture a disaster? To script a catastrophe? To create spectacle? Might that not also provide vested interests an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, to rebuild to design, eliminating or minimising undesirable elements?
Ko Yo-na – or Yona Ko, as the translation insists – is clinging precariously to a ten-year career designing and promoting “Disaster Tourist” travel packages. She’s on the out at work, possibly for reporting her manager for sexual harassment. Her resignation is not accepted. Instead, management proposes she tests out one of their holiday packages, as a guest (expenses paid by the company), writes a token report, then reports back at work refreshed after her “break”.
Yona chooses the Mui package: an island off the coast of Vietnam where an ethnic massacre occurred decades ago. It has sinkholes and a dormant volcano.
Things go terribly wrong for Yona, her own personal disaster tour. But even more terribly wrong is the context: Mui is run by a shadowy corporation known as Paul, and the mechanics of what Paul has planned for Mui’s people and its future is something most tourists would wish to shut their eyes to.
By the time Yona realises she is living within the constraints of a script – an actual script, written by an actual scriptwriter – she’s lost all control of her circumstances.
What is her assigned role? What is the role of Luck? And what of the crocodiles?
The Disaster Tourist recalls for me Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish From Drowning, and some of J.G. Ballard’s satire. Also the 1998 film Wag the Dog, and its precursor The Mouse That Roared (1959).
Did I enjoy reading it? Not hugely. It was hard and cold, like a pebble. Like a pebble in my shoe, it disturbed my comfort.