The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun: darkly funny satire on travel

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.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

34 thoughts on “The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun: darkly funny satire on travel

    • December 3, 2021 at 6:56 pm
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      So much of normal life and the things we enjoy got turned upside down

      Reply
        • December 3, 2021 at 7:01 pm
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          Just been looking at your posts about Zion. That brought back some lovely memories for me

  • September 5, 2021 at 5:59 pm
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    Interesting–I read this one a while back and looked up “disaster tourism” but hadn’t seen some of the tours you mention, like the bike ride through New Orleans.

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    • September 5, 2021 at 6:13 pm
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      They may be tours that just run for a short time while the disaster is fresh in people’s minds

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  • September 3, 2021 at 8:08 pm
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    I’m so glad you enjoyed this one; I was a bit nervous when you mentioned planning to give it a go, because we don’t always have the same taste in stories, but I agree that she balances the entertainment and satire astutely. It’s such a compelling read! I was surprised by the ending (but not surprised that the “romantic plot” didn’t have a satisfying conclusion….hope that’s vague enough, not wanting to spoil thoroughly…I don’t think there can BE satisfying romance under the circumstances that, um, happen near the end).

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    • September 3, 2021 at 9:47 pm
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      Thats true about the romantic plot ! One of the things that resonated most with me was the way the islanders are putting on a show so visitors can have that authentic experience. It happens all the time doesn’t it in holiday spots

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  • August 31, 2021 at 10:44 pm
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    I’m intrigued. I remember reading another satire on tourism, the Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain, which I found actually very negative and didn’t like at all. Have you read it? Any comparison?

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:36 pm
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      I’ve not read that sorry. I’m sure tourists have been ridiculed by other authors though. Didn’t E M Forster do that to some extent with A Room With a View?

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  • August 31, 2021 at 8:30 pm
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    This sounds so interesting! I never knew that disaster tourism was a thing and now I am intrigued. Great review!

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:37 pm
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      There’s a fine line between visiting a place of disaster to get a thrill and visiting to understand history – like the millions who visit Pompei every year. Are they there to learn about the past or to just look at the mummified bodies???

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  • August 31, 2021 at 6:53 pm
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    I’m attracted by your note that it’s a slim volume with some tautness in the narration—I think that a story with ‘messages’ (as this one seems to have) needs to avoid overkill and let carefully chosen and curated details get the job done—while simultaneously entertaining the reader.

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:38 pm
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      Yep, there’s always a danger with the ‘message’ kind of book that it gets in the way of the narrative. I think this one manages to stay on the right side of the line

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  • August 31, 2021 at 1:31 pm
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    I suppose that even scumbags are entitled to some literary attention as long as they end up miserably. Most serial killers in literature also don’t get away with their behavior (one of the few exceptions that comes to mind being Hannibal Lector). And the #me too angle became also a little bit worn out trope. I’m afraid this isn’t for me.

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:40 pm
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      I can see an argument that the #metoo connection was uncessary. The author had to find a reason why her protagonist was on the point of quitting the job and Korea has such an anti-female culture in the workplace, I’m sue that it felt a natural idea to use that

      Reply
  • August 31, 2021 at 12:38 pm
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    You’ve reminded me of reports of a student who went to Afghanistan on holiday this summer because he enjoyed extreme tourism.

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:41 pm
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      And then he needed rescuing didn’t he? Just like the idiots who climb Snowdon in shorts and flip flops and then have to summon help when they get into difficulty

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      • September 1, 2021 at 6:49 pm
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        He did, and what’s worse, showed no contrition or regret. I think he’ll be presented with a bill for repatriation, though, which is some comfort. Perhaps the emergency services should bill the Snowden idiots.

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        • September 3, 2021 at 5:39 pm
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          100% behind you on that. They are asking the rescuers to put their own lives at risk

  • August 31, 2021 at 8:55 am
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    I’ve read SF novels with a similar premise, which isn’t to say The Disaster Tourist mightn’t be good fun. You say the author shoe-horned in a bit of love interest, but that’s also how some of the office stuff sounded, like she had boxes to tick off.

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:42 pm
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      The office set up felt more authentic to me based on conversations I’ve had with (now ex) colleagues from Korea about the culture in some of the companies.

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:46 pm
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      It was funny at times but it also reminded me of experiences on holiday that left me feeling uncomfortable. the worst was in he Gambia where after a trip out on the river we were taken to a village and encouraged to look inside someone’s hut. I couldn’t do it – it was too intrusive.

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      • September 2, 2021 at 4:51 am
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        Ah yes. I remember going to Poland in 1998 and being consumed by a giant crowd seeing the ‘black Madonna’ in a church where people were praying and I remember thinking these crowds should not be here, intruding on people’s faith and their desire to pray in solitude. It just felt so wrong.

        When I went to Rio for a friend’s wedding a few years back we were given the option of going on a tour of a favela but I chose not to. Poverty tourism just isn’t my thing but there were a few others in the group who went. They came back shocked at what they saw and I’m like WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? 🙄

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        • September 3, 2021 at 5:38 pm
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          I’d heard about those favela tours – a bit like the township ones in South Africa. They have no interest for me either. Where is this all going – are there going to be tours of hospitals so we can see people who are suffering because we don’t believe what we’re told and have to see it for ourselves??

    • September 1, 2021 at 6:47 pm
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      It’s a good mix of humour and serious message

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  • August 31, 2021 at 1:29 am
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    It sounds interesting.
    I remember when the White Island disaster occurred in NZ — there are tourist flights over it…

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    • September 1, 2021 at 6:47 pm
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      It doesn’t take long does it before someone spots an opportunity to make money

      Reply

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