Natural Disasters: An Eco-Tourism Tool?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 5, 2011 4

Places of natural beauty can become tourist hot zones if disaster strikes. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In 1951, Kirk Douglas starred in a B movie titled The Big Carnival (originally released as Ace in the Hole). I saw it as a kid, many years later, when the trend was to play old movies on TV on Saturday afternoons. In the flick, Kirk plays a former big-city journalist on the downside of his career. Stuck writing for a small Albuquerque newspaper, he needs that one, big story to put him back on top. When a local miner gets trapped in a collapse, Kirk sees his opportunity. His first article about the disaster manages to garner him regional attention, so he continues to write more. With each story, his reputation and reach grow. In fact, he begins to hope that the rescuers take their time in freeing the man, since prolonging the trapped miner’s agony only builds his career.

Kirk isn’t the only one hoping the miner remains a captive of nature—for a bit longer. On the grounds just above where the man lies, a tent city of marketing reps, media personalities and interested onlookers is building: more concession stands, T-shirt vendors, button-selling booths and media equipment trucks arrive every day. In effect, the scene turns into a big “carnival.”

At the time of its release, the movie was a bit of a box office flop. Audiences in the 1950s, it seems, wouldn’t buy the fact that people could be so heartless. If the movie were released today, however, I don’t think we’d have that problem. It seems more and more that we consider environmental disasters a cause for tourism.

Post-disaster tourist hot zones

Flash floods or volcanoes erupting may mean a tourist boom. ©Mark Hickey

Cornwall, Great Britain, is a case in point. On August 16, 2004, the small village and fishing port of Boscastle suffered the worst flash flood in its history. Almost eight inches of rain fell in just 24 hours, causing a torrent of water to flow through the community. More than a hundred cars were swept into the harbor, and thousands of dollars worth of damage was done to homes, businesses and the surrounding vicinity. More than a hundred residents were airlifted to safety. Luckily, there were no fatalities.

News of the flooding, of course, brought Boscastle to the media’s attention—and the world’s. The event not only increased public knowledge about the village, but it caused an uptick in tourist interest. One year later, so many people were touring Boscastle that bed-and-breakfast owners were struggling to find adequate accommodations for all of the visitors.

That sort of occurrence doesn’t surprise Sif Gustavsson, the North American manager for Visit Iceland, the country’s official tourism and travel entity. When the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010, it created an ash cloud that rose to 30,000 feet and that led to the closure of most of Europe’s airspace for six days. Consequently, a great number of flights within, to and from Europe were cancelled, creating the highest level of air travel disruption since World War II. On the ground, however, it was a different story. “Volcano tourism” quickly sprang up in the wake of the eruption, with local tour companies offering day trips to see the volcano. By January of this year, Sif reported that tourism in Iceland was up 40 percent compared to the same time last year. And just last month it was announced that a tourism center with artifacts, exhibits, films and photographs is set to open on April 14, the first anniversary of the eruption.

The effects of rapid climate change may hurt—or help—a region’s tourism industry. ©Colin McNulty

More recently, on March 8, 2011, it was reported in USA Today that an eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano boosted visitation to the region. Lava bursts of up to 65 feet drew throngs to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, according to the National Park Service. Air-tour companies even added some flights to accommodate the demand.

Would you consider visiting a place that had just experienced a natural disaster, or do you think you’d just be contributing to the big carnival?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Art Hardy April 12, 2011 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    Wasn’t it Hollywood agents that said any press is good press? From an advertising or marketing point of view, anything that creates awareness of your location is a good thing.

  2. Mary Kuppenheimer April 5, 2011 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    I completely agree with Joan C!!!

  3. Joan Campbell April 5, 2011 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    I think there’s a distinction to be made here. The sort of situation in the Kirk Douglas movie (which is like Floyd Collins trapped in Kentucky’s Sand Cave in 1925), where people are drawn, predator-like, to an ongoing situation where a person or a group are in danger, seems deplorable, showing a morbid fascination, like gawking at the scene of a traffic accident in hopes of seeing blood. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with wanting to witness evidence of nature’s power after any related human crisis has passed. I remember going to Yellowstone Park as a kid in 1960 and visiting the site nearby of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake where a number of people had died from the resulting landslide. I was awe-struck and read everything I could about the event and about earthquakes in general. I’d love to see an erupting volcano, too, provided I could do so relatively safely. Maybe we need to be explicit in our terms. A volcano, earthquake or flood is a natural occurrence (often a very dramatic one) that illustrates geological or meteorological forces that are an inherent part of our planet. Its effects may be disastrous, but that’s another issue. I don’t see anything wrong with being curious about the natural world.

  4. Jack April 5, 2011 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Have vacations to Thailand increased since the hurricane?

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