TIMES SQUARE, EMPTIED OUT by the coronavirus, then suddenly packed again with people in masks, holding up lit cell phones to protest George Floyd’s murder. Hollywood’s Walk of Fame denuded of tourists, then filled with protest marchers, flanked by soldiers carrying big black guns. The images are surreal, apocalyptic, and I’ve become hypnotized by them. This year has turned me into a virtual voyeur, staring at photograph after photograph on my laptop of the cities I’ve lived in, wondering at their transformation. I’ve become a disaster tourist of my own country.

All the upheavals of 2020 perhaps make now the perfect time to read Yun Ko-eun’s latest novel, The Disaster Tourist. This slim work centers around Jungle, a Korean travel company that caters to people’s love of gawking at accidents. Jungle coldly quantifies natural catastrophes and human suffering into tourist dollars, designing tour packages that tug at people’s heart and purse strings. Yona, the 33-year-old protagonist who has worked at Jungle for 10 years, explains:

Jungle offers about one hundred and fifty different travel packages. Programmers are constantly designing trips, so a package has to be powerful to survive. We’ve got earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes, avalanches, droughts, floods, fires, massacres, wars, radioactivity, desertification, serial killers, tsunamis, animal abuse, contagious diseases, water pollution, asylums, prisons and more. The packages Koreans like are those with something exotic, the spirit of adventure.

Yona is good at her job, but she too is a pawn exploited by Jungle. She spends her days getting surveilled by the CCTV, denying customer requests for refunds (provided only in case of death, if then), and tolerating sexual advances and molestation from her supervisor Kim. Knowing an official complaint to human resources will hurt only her own career, Yona tries to quit — but her resignation is rejected. Instead, Yona is offered a working vacation of sorts. She is to go on a week-long Jungle trip to a desert sinkhole in Mui, a small island near Vietnam, to determine whether or not to keep the unpopular offering on the program.

Disaster tourism is an age-old pastime. Pompeii, after all, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that today attracts millions each year because it was wiped out by a volcano nearly 2,000 years ago. Yet as more and more of the world gets trammeled by tourists — and as more and more natural disasters become accelerated by global climate change — so-called authentic experiences of discovery and immersion have become difficult, near-impossible to achieve.

The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, lays bare the inherent inauthenticity of the tourist experience — especially those that purport to be beneficial, even humanitarian, for the local community — and does so in a way that will make you creepily uncomfortable about all your past travel adventures. After all, even a purportedly altruistic trip is, to a large degree, motivated by selfish desires:

On a disaster trip, travellers’ reactions to their surroundings usually went through the following stages: shock → sympathy and compassion, and maybe discomfort → 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 arrives in Mui to go on excursions to see a village plagued by poverty — meanwhile staying at a luxury resort. She finds the site of the actual sinkhole underwhelming — it just doesn’t scare her enough on a visceral level. She experiences a reenactment of the night of the sinkhole and is disappointed that the event feels fake and put on.

Nothing, in fact, looks satisfactorily authentic to Yona, even as she helps build a well for the locals and does an overnight homestay in the village. She does spot a “wrinkled woman, with eyes too deep-set to read,” but she too is a knowing participant in the tourist economy. “As soon as Yona pointed her camera at her, the woman said, ‘One dollar.’ All of a sudden, she began to pose zealously like a model, and as a result, the picture didn’t come out well.”

Through an accidental snafu, Yona gets separated from her tour group and ends up stuck at Mui for an extended stay. She then learns just how performative the tour experience is. Exploring the village on her own, she learns the locals speak English and watch TV in their huts. The crippled boy now appears able-bodied. The new well has been replugged, ready to be redug by the next bunch of do-gooder tourists.

In fact, she discovers that the truly impoverished don’t live on the island at all, but are relegated to living on floating homes offshore. Called “crocodiles,” these destitute people are forbidden to go into the tourist areas from Monday through Saturday, so as to keep those places satisfactorily sanitized for the public eye.

If the novel stopped there, The Disaster Tourist would read like a simple, didactic tale. But it’s at this point the novel turns into a thriller. When Yona reveals to the resort manager that she plans to recommend that Jungle discontinue the tour, she’s offered enticements to create a new, more attractive tour around a new, more impressively catastrophic, manmade sinkhole.

“Will this incident be suitable for a new Jungle trip?” the manager asks. Yona feels some misgivings, but with the opportunity to escape her oppressive job, she’s lured in. With that, Yona gets fully immersed in helping to orchestrate the new disaster to its highest potential. She knows too well that in a world where calamities happen frequently, “not all disasters catch your eye. The ones that become real issues are distinct.” The disaster has to have an intensity “over a certain threshold” and happen somewhere new, as “frequently repeated names are no fun. They’re expected.”

Most importantly, the disaster must have an emotionally resonant story, which is why a scriptwriter is hired, giving people roles, contracts, and attendant backstories to share with the media. “Locals would be paid to act out a performance of survival.”

As Yona gets deeper into the scheme, however, she learns some disturbing facts about the disaster — namely, that hundreds of people will be killed. The rationalizations for this planned mass murder sound disturbingly similar to the recent economic rationalizations for reopening quickly even the areas where COVID-19 infection rates were still rising:

Some people will die because of the sinkhole, but others will live because of it. And a lot more people will live than die.

[…]

Logically, Mui can’t wait any longer. There’s not really a difference between dying in a natural disaster and starving to death, is there? In the current situation, dying in a natural disaster would be preferable.

As the day of the disaster draws near, Yona grows increasingly torn. “[A] massacre was being planned, but so cleverly that no one was directly responsible for it,” she muses, aware that she’s complicit in this planned tragedy, but also that she can neatly escape blame for it.

That’s the uncomfortable place we all find ourselves in today, complicit but not directly to blame for the catastrophes of today: the failure of our political leaders to effectively address the coronavirus crisis, the massacre of innocent black people at the hands of brutal police officers. We don’t need to look far to be discomfited by our own participation in the postcapitalist culture that values profit over human lives and condones racism in the guise of societal safety. That’s the pleasure and peril of reading The Disaster Tourist in 2020. It brings too close to home the disasters that we like to believe are far away, separate from us.

If you Google “volunteer tourism” today, warning articles pop up about the problems inherent in well-off American denizens going to “help” people in a less developed part of the world. But the practice is still popular, simply marketed with different words. Google “service spring break,” and you’ll see a plethora of links from nonprofits urging you to sign up to “travel, meet new people, and feel the satisfaction that comes from working to improve communities — and lives.”

Perhaps these endeavors really do some good work in some places. Yet “service trips” have never appealed to me, simply because any place I’ve lived, whether Nairobi, Kenya, or New York, I’ve seen plenty of problems that needed attention right there. If you live in Los Angeles, you don’t need to go to Kibera, in Nairobi, to cluck over mass poverty. You can just head over to Skid Row.

Why is it that so many of us still look to faraway places in search of disaster? Yona puts it simply: “It’s too scary to visit disaster destinations close to home,” she explains. “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?”

¤

Siel Ju is the author of Cake Time, a novel-in-stories.