Is disaster tourism a financial opportunity to help communities rebuild, or does it prevent communities from emotionally healing? This is just one of the tough questions being asked by Joplin, Missouri residents following the publication of a controversial “tourist guide” to the city. The guide, published by the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau, is a map to different parts of the community that were affected by the devastating May 22, 2011 tornado. Now, outraged residents have started a Facebook group protesting the guide, saying that it puts financial profit ahead of the town’s emotional recovery.
The F5 tornado ripped through Joplin on the day of the town’s high school graduation, killing 161 people and destroying more than 4,500 homes and structures. Nearly a year later, some neighborhoods have yet to be rebuilt, and some condemned buildings still sit, waiting to be demolished. Patrick Tutall, Director of the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau, says they published the guide in response to questions from visitors.
Joplin sits at the crossroads of two major highways that are frequented by tourists headed to Branson, Missouri, the entertainment capital of the Ozarks. Visitors traveling to Branson started pulling off to visit Joplin and spend money to help the economy.
“People don’t realize they [tourists] are already pulling off and taking a look,” he told ABC News. “The Joplin Welcome Center saw folks who said they want to stay in Joplin to help the economy.”
Joplin sits at the crossroads of two major highways that are frequented by tourists headed to Branson, Missouri, the entertainment capital of the Ozarks. According to Tutall, visitors traveling to Branson started pulling off to visit Joplin and spend money to help the economy.
When hotels weren’t able to effectively answer many of the visitors’ questions about the tornado, Tutall responded by publishing the map. The free tourist map is designed to keep visitors on main thoroughfares and out of neighborhoods, while accurately showing the storm’s wide path of destruction.
“We found that as the six-month point of this thing passed us, people in our restaurants and front desk people at hotels couldn’t really answer questions to guests about the volume and the magnitude of the storm and the destruction,” Tuttle told ABC News. “You know, 4,500 homes were destroyed, and so it became a tool to pull together facts so people confronting the tourist market could speak knowledgeably.”
But did creating the map without community involvement fail to treat Joplin’s “disaster tourism” with the proper reverence and respect? Residents who have joined the Facebook group protesting the map say that they feel “blindsided” and “sickened” by the idea that their town is encouraging visitors to come and see their damaged buildings.
In New Orleans, several tour companies ran “post-Katrina” tours, taking tourists to see the destruction of the lower ninth ward.
At first glance, natural disasters and tourism don’t seem to mix. But recent world disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, suggest otherwise. In New Orleans, several tour companies ran “post-Katrina” tours, taking tourists to see the destruction of the lower ninth ward. Jennifer Day-Sully, who works with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, told ABC News that the tours were a “double-edged sword.”
“You have to be sensitive to the communities that these buses and tours are coming through because it can be perceived as being very insensitive,” Day-Sully told ABC News. “But on the other hand, you can educate people from out of town and encourage them to make donations and participate in volunteer work.”
In Joplin, the tourist map proved so popular that many hotels have now run out of copies. For now, however, the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau is holding off on a reprint.