Daily Recco, November 23: Explore dark tourism with The Disaster Tourist
In a year when pretty much everything around tourism has been a disaster, The Disaster Tourist takes us to a world where people pay to see others' miseries.
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If there is a perfect year to read The Disaster Tourist, it is the one we are currently in.
For starters, the title speaks to all of us travel junkies. This year has been a disaster for those of us who derive our life-breath from the trips we keep undertaking to survive the mundaneness of everyday life. However, Korean author Yun Ko-eun has something a little hatke in store for us in The Disaster Tourist.
The novel centres around the life of the 33-year-old protagonist — Yona — who works for Jungle, a Korean travel company. The unique selling point that Jungle offers is that it specialises in package holidays to destinations ravaged by disaster — commonly known as Dark Tourism — catering to people’s love of ogling at others’ miseries.
Yona has been a part of Jungle for 10 years now and is portrayed to be brilliant at her job. However, the undercurrents of sexual harassment, casual sexism at workplace, unexplained demotion and Yona's fierce streak of feminism surface soon after. When she tries to resign after being sexually harassed by her boss, the company offers her a free ticket (a work-vacation) for one of their most sought-after trips instead — a classic attempt by a conglomerate to bury sexual harassment under the carpet. Yona accepts and here is when the novel starts picking up pace.
When Yona reaches the desert island of Mui, she looks forward to seeing the supposedly "dramatic" sinkhole, along with the other tourists. However, much to their (and her) frustration, the sinkhole is underwhelming, to say the least. Yona continues her stay and goes on excursions of “sightseeing” the poverty of Mui, while she (and the rest of the tourists) are lodged in luxury resorts. Something is amiss, and even Yona realises that the tour is not as authentic as it is packaged to be. And through a quirky turn of events, she gets separated from her tour group and ends up stuck at the village, extending her stay.
Call this the chilling turning point of the novel, if you may. Here is when Yona realises that all that meets the eye is a total reversal of the reality. And what the company has been marketing as a first-hand experience of dark tourism is a fabricated and manufactured disaster. The lives of the people of Mui (with whom Yona develops a bond during her extended stay) is the collateral damage of the fabrication. If Yona had been the quintessential heroine who rises up to save them from this mass murder, it would have been yet another didactic tale. However, that is not to be.
The author draws you into discomfiture as one reads into the lead characters’ complacency towards the sufferings of others. While we are not directly to be blamed for their sufferings, are we indirectly responsible and do we have the courage to face the question?
Further, the story has chilling comparisons to the current predicament. The lockdown and Covid-19, for example.
The book was originally written in Korean and translated in English by Lizzie Buehler. You need to pick up The Disaster Tourist to understand the voyeurism of others’ devastation and the complex layers of moral responsibility, as you begin to wonder where your own moral responsibility starts and where it ends.