When you’ve had your fill of diving with sharks and petting tigers and you’ve already jumped off Golden Gate Bridge and abseiled down the Eiffel Tower, what could be more natural for adventure junkies than to head for a holiday in one of the world’s disaster zones. The village ravaged by a volcano perhaps. A community swept away by a tsunami. Or maybe a region laid waste by radioactivity.
All are made possible in the fictitious world created by Yun Ko-eun in The Disaster Tourist, a novel that imagines what happens when travellers are driven to seek ever more daring and adrenalin-rich experiences.
Yona Kim is a programme manager for Jungle, a Korean company that specialises in delivering holiday packages that offer adventurous travellers “authentic” close-up encounters with disaster victims. from which they gain cathartic “moral lessons.”:
“ … gratefulness for their own lives → a sense of responsibility and the feeling that they’d learned a lesson, and maybe an inkling of superiority for having survived. The stage someone reached depended on the person, but ultimately, adventures like these reinforced a fear of disasters and confirmed the fact that the tourist was, in fact, alive. Even though I came close to disaster, I escaped unscathed: those were the selfish words of solace you told yourself after returning home.
Yona has spent 10 years devising these holiday packages. Her world is mapped by coloured pins indicating types of disasters; death tolls and Richter magnitudes being as much part of her daily life “as the changing colours of a traffic light.”
She’s good at her job but is merely a pawn in a corporate world that has Kafkaesque overtones. Customers have to be dead in order to cancel a trip and get a refund. Employees are under constant surveillance by CCTV and live in fear of the company’s ‘yellow card’, disciplinary notice. Receive one of the cards for a misdemeanour (“a foul”) and you know that’s the beginning of the end of your time with Jungle. One manager is a serial sexual abuser but when the women workers complain, they lose their jobs.
Afraid to make a formal complaint when she’s abused by her boss, Yona tries to resign only to be given an unusual offer: an all-expenses-paid business trip (Jungle doesn’t “do” holidays) to the island of Mui, just off the coast of Vietnam, one of the company’s least popular and least profitable packages. All Jungle asks is that she reports back on whether Mui should remain on their itineraries.
It transpires that the Mui package is beyond repair. The Desert Sinkhole itinerary promises guests they will experience a still boiling volcano an enormous sinkhole and the site of an ancient battle between two head-hunting tribes. They’ll be treated to hair braiding and nail art, will spend the night in an authentic native house and will get to build a well to supply fresh water to a village.
When Real Disasters Are Not Enough
To Yona’s expert eyes, however Mui’s days as a disaster holiday destination are numbered. The place has little to recommend it. The sinkhole is now so full of water it looks more like a lake, the desert resembles a dune and the native houses could easily be recreated at a museum or theme park. Even the battle re-enactment and head-hunting are not exciting enough to satisfy Koreans who want holidays “with something exotic.”
But the resort manager and Paul, the shadowy conglomerate that seems to rule everything on the island, have a rescue plan up their stage. The best way to rescue a tired disaster zone, is to stage a new ‘natural’ disaster. It’s an outrageous conspiracy but only the principal conspirators are clear about what’s at stake: for their plan to succeed, people will have to die.
“There’s not really a difference between dying in a natural disaster and starving to death, is there?” one of the plotters says to Yona. “In the current situation, dying in a natural disaster and starving to death, is there?”
The Disaster Tourist is an uncanny read. The plot might seem preposterous yet it does rely on some uncomfortable truths. There are already packages to disaster zones. You can take a tour of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion exclusion zone (and stay over night) or take a bike ride through the parts of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina. More destinations are in the works: there’s a group in Japan for example that is trying to turn the Fukushima nuclear disaster site into a tourism attraction.
Disaster tourism is even recognised as a sector of what’s called dark tourism: opportunities to travel to places associated with death and suffering (Jack the Ripper tours in London would be one example) .
In The Disaster Tourist, Yun Ko-eun highlights the ethical questions involved in this form of travel. Yona scoffs at the demonstrations of traditional cooking and the ‘homestay’ night she gets to spend in a tribal house on stilts, seemingly oblivious to the fact she’s spent her career devising these experiences. When the tour group leaves, the villagers’ performances end, only to start up again when the next group arrive. One boy has been so thoroughly schooled in his role of the orphaned victim, that he never stops approaching women with tearful eyes, asking “Mum”?
It’s a slim book and some elements and characters are only lightly sketched yet Yun Ko-eun makes good use of small details to create a surreal atmosphere. I was particularly taken by the lights in the shape of eyes that open and close outside Yona’s hotel cabin to signal “do not disturb” or “please clean the room.”
There’s a romance plot element which felt shoe-horned into the narrative and the ending fizzled out somewhat but nevertheless this was an entertaining darkly funny novel that satirises eco-tourism and the labyrinthine impersonal world of corporate business.
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun: Footnotes
First published in Korean in 2013, The Disaster Tourist translated into English by Lizzie Buehler was published by SerpentsTail in summer of 2021. It’s the second novel by Seoul-born author Yun Ko-eun. Her first novel The Zero G Syndrome and her short story collection Aloha have both won literary prizes.
There’s an interesting interview in the Bookanista newsletter in which Yun Ko-eun shares insight about her intentions in writing The Disaster Tourist and its connection to her experiences of the Korean business world.
I’m counting this book as part of my #20booksofsummer reading for 2021.