Hello everybody. Today’s post is a spoiler free review of Yun Ko-eun’s eco-thriller The Disaster Tourist, followed by an interview with the author, with translations provided by Lizzie Buehler.
For ten years, Yona has been stuck behind a desk as a coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specializing in vacation packages to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. Her work life is uneventful until trouble arises in the form of a predatory colleague. To forestall any disruption of business-as-usual, Jungle makes Yona a proposition: a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui. But Yona must pose as a tourist and assess whether Jungle should continue their partnership with the unprofitable destination. Yona travels to the remote island, whose major attraction is an underwhelming sinkhole, a huge disappointment to the customers who’ve paid a premium. Soon Yona discovers the resort’s plan to fabricate a catastrophe in the interest of regaining their good standing with Jungle–and the manager enlists Yona’s help. Yona must choose between the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or the possibility of a fresh start in a powerful new position. As she begins to understand the cost of the manufactured disaster, Yona realizes that the lives of Mui’s citizens are in danger–and so is she.
My review of The Disaster Tourist
This book is a satirical exploration of natural disasters through the lenses of tourism and consumerism. The book also looks at Nature in terms of its untamable power and its unpredictability. The book uses dark humour to comment on how people react to natural disasters. A lot of focus is put on tourist agencies that capitalize on such disasters to sell niche travel packages. It also looks at the entertainment value of such disasters, by commenting on the popularity of media content filled with images of natural disasters and human tragedies. In line with this, the book also seeks to explore the reason behind people’s fascination with these disasters. Is it due to human empathy or does it have more to do with morbid fascination? As such, the book also looks at the voyeuristic nature of the tourism that grows from disaster sites.
With regards to the prose, the book has a clear and precise writing style that makes the story almost compulsively readable. In addition to this, the book has a well-paced plot, filled with both social commentary and dark humor, which makes for a very enjoyable reading experience.
Interview with Yun Ko-eun, with translations by Lizzie Buehler
1. One of the main themes in the book is the fascination that people have for dark tourism. As discussed in the book, disasters offer entertainment value to corporations that are willing to capitalize on them and tourists who specifically seek out those disaster sites to visit. What would you say is the driving force behind such interest? Do you think it’s due to human empathy, or do you think it has more to do with a sense of morbid fascination?
Morbid fascination is one motivating factor for disaster tourism. But it’s not the only reason, especially when you think of disaster tourism as something mainstream. Morbidity might attract some tourists, but not enough to create a robust customer base. Attracting the mainstream vacationer requires an element of empathy alongside tragedy, to put travelers at ease.
The tourism market is mostly saturated and lacks innovation. Of course, vacation trends come and go, and some people enjoy the journey independent of what’s fashionable, but those who like to think about the future of travel might be a bit disappointed by the lack of novelty. Imagine you’re the editor of a monthly travel magazine. In order to come up with new content and inspiration for your readers, you might look to what were once fringe forms of travel—like disaster tourism. Just as small-town travel had its moment in the sun, and the staycation was hip for a time, disaster tourism might be the next trend for consumers. It could be repackaged, sold as a new “product” for the average consumer rather than the niche adventurer. In the process of bringing esoteric travel like this to the mainstream, you have to think about the following three factors: cost (space travel will never be popular until it becomes cheaper!), length (travelers typically have only five or six days to spare) and amenities (especially accommodations—people don’t want to give up their luxurious bedding and spacious bathrooms).
Of course, in order to popularize disaster tourism, it may also be necessary to control travelers’ level of exposure to the disasters themselves. In the process, those who were drawn to this kind of trip from a morbid fascination alone might lose interest. They’ll leave in search of a different type of travel, a slightly less polished vacation.
2. In the book, Yona’s employers view disasters strictly in terms of their potential as profitable tourist packages. They overlook the loss of human lives that have resulted from those disasters, except in the capacity of adding value to the tragic narrative sold to prospective tourists. A lot of their packages focus on disasters that have occurred in disadvantaged locations. While such tours are advertised as ways to promote those locations and improve the quality of life of locals, as we see in the book, this is not quite what happens in reality. In Mui for example, as Yona eventually comes to learn, some locals are faced with the very real threat of forced eviction. Therefore, at the end of the day, wouldn’t you say that locals are the ones to gain the least from such tourism? And perhaps, while seeking to promote past disasters, aren’t such packages in fact only serving to create more disasters?
In the novel, the types of tour packages offered by Jungle have become somewhat mainstream. Disaster tourism still isn’t the most common choice for would-be vacationers, but Jungle makes its customers feel comfortable by refining and polishing their disaster sites. Customers are stimulated, but not put in danger; in other words, the boat isn’t rocked too much. Jungle’s clientele value the distance between their own lives and the disaster zones they visit. Yona sums it up when speaking with her fellow tourists:
“It’s too scary to visit disaster destinations close to home. Don’t we need to be distanced somewhat from our ordinary lives-from the blankets we sleep under, and the bowls we eat from every day-in order to see the situation more objectively?”
This belief, that a safe distance exists between disaster and customer, is an essential insurance policy for disaster tourist companies. A well-organized travel agency, like Jungle, does just this: it strengthens that belief in distance. Jungle allow travelers to look in awe at disaster, but from a safe distance. This detachment is the beginning of another disaster: it endangers vulnerable locals, putting their lives on display like animals in a zoo, like paintings in an art gallery.
3. As shown in the book, the authenticity of a disaster site is one of its main selling points. In the tour that Yona and the other tourists take, emphasis is heavily put on the disadvantaged state of Mui, as well as on the poverty faced by the locals. In turn, locals play along and can be seen trying to sell various trinkets and services to the tourists throughout the tour. Would you agree that perhaps the presence of tourism in such locations is the very thing that destroys such authenticity?
There’s a problem with structural inequality in places like Mui, and it’s made evident by the local sale of goods and services. I love to attend craft fairs, even when I’m at home in Seoul. I prefer buying goods that are made by hand rather than mass produced; products that seem to hold some sort of meaning. When I’m in an unfamiliar destination, too, I get excited buying something from the local who made it. But I’ve always wondered how much of the money ends up with the creator. Some surveys I’ve seen say that less than ten percent of the sticker price of souvenirs goes to locals. Where does the other ninety percent go? This unequal structure needs to be overhauled. The disconnect between artisans or laborers, and the money they should be earning, is what destroys authenticity.
4. At one point in the story, after being confronted by the stark reality of the disaster site that they have come to explore, the tourists experience a moment of identity crisis where they find themselves questioning the true purpose and reason of their presence there. Eventually, they shake off the moment by reminding themselves that there is nothing to worry about because they are only tourists after all. How would you describe tourists who take part in dark tourism? Would you say that there is something a bit voyeuristic about it? Or perhaps do you think that there might be a bit of saviour complex at play in their decision to travel specifically to these disaster sites?
Voyeurism and a savior complex both play a role here. Dark tourism gives a complex surge of emotion; like watching Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. To excite travelers, to agitate them, travel agencies provide an itinerary more elaborate than anything reality could provide. Not all disaster tourism is like this, but the Mui trip in The Disaster Tourist is; it serves as a kind of 4D movie, stimulating those who don’t know real disaster.
Travelers–even those with no interest in disaster tourism—dream of melding into unfamiliar landscapes, but the problem is that too many share this dream. When fantasy translates into action en masse, it causes destruction—despite noble motives. Travelers pollute the earth as they move from east to west, from west to east. This is a fact. But we can’t stop humanity from travelling; instead, we need to figure out how to minimize our environmental impact.
In this era of Covid, people worldwide have, for the most part, stopped travelling. Post-Covid travel won’t be a return to normal. Perhaps travel will cost more; perhaps group vacation packages will end. In the future, the desire to travel will also mean the desire to avoid inflicting harm.
5. Without spoiling what happens in the book, one of the many things that the book comments on is that nature is unpredictable and that in the end, no matter how much humans try to shape and bend it to their will, nature will always have a will of its own. Would you say that this unbridled unpredictability is perhaps one of the reasons why people are so fascinated with disasters? For example, here in Mauritius, we have a volcano called the Trou aux Cerfs which has been dormant for 700,000 years. The volcano is however not extinct and experts claim that the volcano still has the potential to erupt one day without warning. The Trou aux Cerfs is one of the most visited tourist attractions on the island and is extremely popular with locals as well. People are aware that the volcano might eventually erupt one day, but they talk about it with detachment and curiosity, the same way people talk about local legends and folklore.
I once spent the night in a city called San Luis Obispo, in Mexico. While relaxing in the jacuzzi, I decided to look at the hotel’s Instagram. I was surprised to see photos not only of only peaceful scenery, but also of blazing fires. Wildfires had hit this resort only a year earlier. There’s no particular boundary between the quotidian and the tragic, between vacation and disaster. This is why I write about disasters. They hit the places where you don’t expect. They’re unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unexplainable; they don’t cease to put us on edge. I often wonder if I should allow myself be fascinated by them.
But even in the midst of unpredictable calamity, I see nature as a partner with whom we can communicate. Communication is more difficult, however, when humans get involved. More than nature itself, human interference is hard to control; it ruins what doesn’t need to be ruined. When human choice affects nature, the damage eventually comes back to human beings. I can’t say I have as much interest in this cycle; when humans meddle with disaster, I no longer see a detached phenomenon, but rather a fire under my feet.
About the author
Yun Ko-eun is the author of several novels and short story collections published in South Korea. She is a recipient of the Hankyoreh Literary Award, the Lee Hyoseok Literary Award, and the Kim Yong-ik Literary Award. The Disaster Tourist is her first book to be published in English. She lives in Seoul, South Korea.
About the translator
Lizzie Buehler has translated The Disaster Tourist (Serpent’s Tail) and Table for One (Columbia University Press), both by Yun Ko-eun. Her writing and short translations also appear in Asymptote, Azalea, Litro, the Massachusetts Review and Translation Review. Lizzie studied comparative literature at Princeton University and holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa.