Summer Break at the End of the World?

Summer cabin at Big Bear Lake? Check. Bed-and-breakfast in rural Virginia? Yep. David Copperfield in Vegas? Been there, done that. For those of us who have exhausted the possibilities of America’s tourist attractions, Eric Smillie of GOOD Magazine has helpfully compiled a list of must-see attractions for the ultimate alternative vacation: the nation’s hottest and happening man-made disaster sites.

His article, entitled “Beautiful Messes: A Travel Guide to Man-made Disasters,” gives an unconventional twist for travelers who enjoy a more natural vacation setting. One of the locations that he highlights is the Eastern Garbage Patch – a swirling whirlpool of refuse located just a thousand miles off the coast of California. Smillie helpfully includes suggested times of the year to visit, places to stay, where to eat, and must-see activities. As he wryly notes, dining choices in the Eastern Garbage Patch’s polluted waters are limited: “You could bring a fishing rod, but your safest bet is probably canned sardines and crackers.”

Another gem he mentions is Nevada’s Apex Landfill, the nation’s largest dump site, where visitors can “drive up and toss in a few bags of trash for posterity.”

Initially dubious of this new brand of tourism, I’m eventually left feeling vaguely disturbed at what NPR dubs “disaster tourism.” It’s not enough, is it, that we’ve killed or displaced the thousands of fish, birds, and various mammals that used to populate these sites … now we’re setting up ticket booths and charging people to see the wrecks go down in flames? Then there are the more insidious implications of turning America’s various toxic waste locations becoming veritable tourist attractions. After all, isn’t it bad taste to turn Nevada’s Apex Landfill into Sin City’s version of the Haunted Mansion? Isn’t there a very real danger that commercialization of man-made disasters will eventually blur into glorification of that environmental tragedy? There is the sense that we’ve done wrong to the environment not once, but twice: the initial crime of human-inflicted harm followed by the second offense of financially exploiting that damage.

That’s one point of view.

Looking on the bright side – perhaps more effectively than “go green” ads and energy-saving campaigns, “disaster tourism” brings us face-to-face with the consequences of man-made disasters in a way that the indirect or third-party messengers could never do: by forcing us to confront the state of our dying planet and the absolute urgency of action. There is something about the individual experience, after all, that speaks louder than all the endorsements for change by political leaders, celebrities, and humanitarians (God bless Angelina Jolie and Bono). All of which, of course, might be a little bit on the heavy side for those of us looking for that traditional spring break trip.

What do you guys think the so-called trend of “disaster tourism”? Yet another case of perverse exploitation of our poor Mother Earth or a potentially effective, in-your-face anti-pollution campaign?

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