Disaster Tourism | Honest Altruism or insensitive voyeurism?

Palestine Think Tank:By Mary Rizzo • Jan 14th, 2011 at 9:47 • Category: Analysis, Mary’s Choice, Palestine

WRITTEN By Pam Bailey — My subject today is “disaster” or, perhaps more accurately “dark tourism.” Just as humans by their very nature tend to “gawk” when driving by traffic accidents, many people seem to gravitate to places that have appeared in the news for all the wrong reasons. The term disaster tourism describes the phenomenon of travellers visiting areas devastated by natural catastrophes, such as the South-East Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, for instance, guided bus tours began visiting neighborhoods that were severely damaged by storm-related flooding.

Ground Zero in New York City 

Ground Zero in New York City

At the bleaker end of the scale, there’s dark tourism (known to the Germans as Gruseltourismus, or ‘shudder tourism’), referring to travel to areas associated with death and disaster. This includes visits to former concentration camps (a staple of the “Holocaust industry”), battlefields and crimes.  Perhaps the most famous contemporary example is the fact that Ground Zero in New York has become a prime tourist attraction.

The West Bank has long been a prime attraction for Western supporters of Palestinian rights, with tours offered by Sabeel, Interfaith Peacebuilders, Global Exchange and others. They are not billed as dark tourism of course, and the visits are packed with highly informative talks with vital organizations such as the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) and Combatants for Peace. But in some respects, they are: The participants are drawn to the region to witness the devastating impact of Israeli crimes against humanity, so that – in part – they can go back home and tell their friends where they’ve been and what they saw. And – to a significantly lesser degree, due to the obstacles created by Israel and Egypt – the Gaza Strip has become a target as well. One of the less principled participants in the 2009 Gaza Freedom March who opportunistically jumped on board the lone bus that was able to enter the Strip (Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak prevented most from entering) told one cameraman on hand for her arrival that “now I can say on Facebook that I’m in Gaza!”

Holccaust Museum in Washington, DC 

Holccaust Museum in Washington, DC

The question then becomes, is there any real benefit, beyond the interest/”titillation” of the participant? Most tour participants return home to educate many others about the “facts on the ground” and the imperative that their home country governments pressure Israel to end the occupation and siege. It is only through changing public opinion and moving as many people as possible to action (contacting their legislators, etc.) that the muscle of the pro-Israel lobby will finally be counterbalanced. However, the challenge to all of us is to reach beyond the “choir.” The audiences who attend our report-backs in friendly progressive venues are largely already knowledgeable and in agreement. People who are opposed, or who simply do not pay attention to this crisis and do not understand why they should (the best “targets” for our efforts), don’t come to our events. Instead, we need to be going to them. (One of the most effective, albeit controversial, activities in which I have participated is a regular vigil in front of Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum, directly across the sign that reads, “Think about what you saw the next time you witness hatred/see injustice.” A large volume of tourists visit the museum, and although a number are already set in their opinions, others are coming to learn and are curious about our posters and handouts. To a lesser extent, the same can be said about protests in front of stores selling products made or marketed by companies benefitting from the Israeli oppression. The traffic isn’t as heavy and shoppers aren’t in the same “learning” frame of mind, but at least they aren’t the choir. )

The other challenge for activists who have already traveled to the region once to consider when it’s time to stop going merely to learn and start volunteering. There are several organizations that offer this opportunity, and although most (including ISM) prefer stints of 1 month or more, others –including ICAHD (which puts participants to work rebuilding demolished homes) — offer “packaged” opportunities of just a week.

Gaza has been more or less isolated from such visits, due to the rigid control over its borders by Israel and Egypt. Groups entering have mostly been limited to aid convoys, which are often irritatingly focused on getting aid and people in rather than on breaking the siege so that Palestinans and their exports can get out. There are plenty of consumer goods in Gaza; the problem isn’t quantity, it’s that most are either of poor quality or are too expensive for many to afford. (And if we’re going to talk about poverty, I saw much sadder situations in Egypt.) The bigger problem from the Palestinian point of view is their lack of freedom – both to leave the tiny strip of land that has become their prison and to build a diverse economy (which is dependent on the ability to export).

A member of Codepink (4th from right) poses with Gazan students in front of a destroyed building 

A member of Codepink (4th from right) poses with Gazan students in front of a destroyed building

At any one time, there are about 200 foreigners in Gaza, some journalists, occasionally government representatives from different regions of the world, and – mostly — employees or contractors for international aid agencies like the United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), Oxfam and Mercy Corps. (Most, it should be added, live in what could be called a “Green Zone” – the secure area by the UNRWA headquarters, close to the still-lovely sea.) However, there is a steady, albeit still very small, stream of independents who make it into Gaza. CODEPINK: Women for Peace brought in one of the first such groups after the last major Israeli invasion, in March of 2009 (with me among them – my first trip to Gaza). Since then, it has returned twice and another small delegation will attempt to enter at the end of this month. Although Codepink had a specific task on its first two trips – solidarity with fellow females on International Women’s Day, then to build playgrounds for children – the last visit, and the upcoming one, could be accused by some as being merely the dreaded “dark tourism.” The mission is primarily to show first-timers the still-ruined buildings and hear from NGOs about the struggling economy.

When you enter Gaza, you stand out, because foreigners are still relatively rare. The most common question is, “Why are you here? What is your work?” I asked a number of admittedly random Gazans what they thought of such groups of foreigners, who “parachute in” for a look-see then just as quickly leave. On one extreme, some (including one who was reacting primarily to the promotion for the trip) didn’t like being regarded as “zoo animals to stare at” and questioned the actual benefit beyond satisfying participants’ desire for “adventure.” In the middle, there were many who hadn’t really thought about it and were more or less indifferent. Still others – most, I’d say, especially after pondering the question – said, “welcome!”

“When people from around the world come to Gaza, then go back to their countries, they will be just like ambassadors for Gaza and Palestine,” says Ashraf Hamad,  coordinator of the E.Work Unit at Gaza City’s University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS).  “They initially may not have anything to do, but when aggression happens (against us), they will talk, they will scream, they will take action.”

Coming next:

So…now that I have examined other people’s intentions for coming to Gaza, what am I doing here?

Can Gaza ever be a real tourist destination?http://ismdc.peacepress.info/2011/01/13/disaster-tourism-honest-altruism-or-insensitive-voyeurism/

(thanks Fra for forwarding this. Obviously, the author is Pam Bailey!)

Palestine Think Tank: Pam Bailey – Disaster Tourism: Honest Altruism or insensitive voyeurism?.

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