Tourism has been an industry hit harder than almost any other by Covid-19. Restarting it is one of the major post-pandemic priorities, although mass tourism has itself often been an environmental and, especially in developing countries, social scourge. Although written well before the outbreak, Yun Ko-Eun’s entertaining eco-satire The Disaster Tourist is only just now appearing in Lizzie Beuhler’s English translation, at a unique time when travel has all but come to a standstill.
Yona Ko has worked for the Jungle travel agency in Seoul for ten years. She prides herself on the tours she puts together to showcase exotic locations that have suffered natural and other disasters (tsunamis, earthquakes and massacres, to name a few). But one day her boss Mr Kim sexually assaults her in the company lift. While The Disaster Tourist begins this way, the novel is not centered around the assault, but rather takes aim at the packaged tour industry.
Yona worries more about a demotion than the violation itself.
Kim only targeted has-beens—employees who’d been given a yellow card, or who were about to receive one. She was horrified to think that her rejection of his advances might be the grounds for a yellow card.
Yona’s apprehensions seem to come true when Kim assigns her to personally evaluate a location on their tour circuit. It might seem like a nice change of pace for Yona, who is usually behind a desk developing tours rather than going on them. But she knows that the person she replaced a decade earlier was also a tour developer and was sent on a trip for his final assignment. He never returned. Yona’s destination is an ersatz island nation called Mui, a half-hour boat trip from Phan Thiet in Vietnam. Mui’s claim to fame is a desert sinkhole and massacre in the mid-1960s.
This is where the #MeToo part of the book fades and environmentalism takes over. Money is the name of the game and danger is secondary to tourist dollars. While talking to the manager of the Mui resort, Yona suggests the hotel build another location adjacent to the crater of the active volcano: tourists who stay right at the brink of danger would enjoy a heighted travel experience. The entrance to the volcano is meanwhile surrounded by “Korean-style street stalls”.
The tour itself engenders guilt. The local tribes have been Disneyfied to accommodate overnight homestays, but are prohibited from accessing tourist areas and shops. A single tourist consumes more water than all the locals in their houses on stilts.
To alleviate their guilt, the guide brings the tourists to a four-hour volunteer job to dig a well, an ongoing project.
They don’t want to accept that they’d gone on a trip to a disaster zone only to create a disaster of sorts on their own, by disrupting the lives of the locals.
Yona slips into a travel nightmare that has nothing to do with volcanoes or sinkholes. She ends up back on Mui with no way to return to Seoul; Mr Kim blames her for losing the group.
Tourism, especially package tourism, has long been an easy subject of satire. English-language readers may however be aware of an irony perhaps missing in the Korean original: those once considered an exotic destination and subject to some of the less than benign forms of international tourism are now themselves inflicting it upon others.