Disaster Tourism: Technology, Proximity, and Being a Neighbor

21 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant


That’s what many are alleged to be feeling over the continued tourism of Haiti.

Royal Caribbean cruise line is continuing to make stops in Labadee, Haiti. This means that guests may enjoy drinks on the beach while so many people are dying just miles away, behavior that some are calling “sickening.”

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean has addressed the issue by donating all profit from Haitian tourism to relief efforts, and even taken steps to donate much-needed supplies to the victims of this tragedy.


The objections leveled at Haitian tourism rest on this sole assumption:

proximity intensifies apathy.

Is this true? Somehow I find that doubtful. Last I checked, there were disasters before Haiti, and there will assuredly be disasters after. Are we really to suggest that Haitian tourism is any different than those of us who sit on our couches and watch TV, or go shopping despite the world’s problems?

At the same time we must recognize that the privilege of wealth all to often metastasizes into the numbing cancer of apathy. In America, wealth and technology usually enjoy a positive correlation. Which means that the wealthier we become, the more technological resources we have at our disposal.

Think about it. Who is really better equipped to help? The tourists on the beach, or you at home who can donate money with nothing more than a mouse-click? Sadly what I would argue is this: technology has simultaneously decreased our distance from worldwide suffering and concomitantly increased our apathy.

This attitude is seen in the film Hotel Rwanda, where Jack, an American journalist comes back to the hotel with shocking footage of the Rwandan genocide. The hotel manager, Paul Rusebagina thanks him for his efforts:

Paul Rusesabagina: I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.

Jack: Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?

Paul Rusesabagina: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?

Jack: I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.

On his blog, Tim Challies uses Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death to illustrate this phenomenon. Challies quotes Postman’s idea of a “peek-a-boo” world:

 “where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

Like U2 sang, “it’s true we are immune…when fact is fiction and TV reality.” The front-row seats purchased by our technological advancement has only caused us to sink further into the cushion of apathy, where we can be anesthetized into a sense of “immunity” to the world’s problems.


And none of us are innocent.

In the Hebrew scriptures, we find the prophet Amos addressing the Israelite women in a (ahem) less-than-polite manner:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (Amos 4:1)

Being called a “cow” isn’t a polite term in any culture. What was happening was that women were enjoying luxurious lifestyles while their neighbors lived in poverty. Where the rich sipped wine while the poor struggled to find water. Where one person’s shoe closet overflowed while their neighbor’s children went barefoot.

In Jesus’ famous parable of the “good Samaritan,” the focus was not on the question “who is my neighbor?” but rather on “to whom are you being a neighbor?” It wasn’t about labels or politics, it was about compassion that leads to action. This is how Jesus defines a “neighbor.”


Let’s be clear. We’ve all been guilty of this in some degree or another. But the solution is not to merely shrug our shoulders, but to shake ourselves awake.

Bono says:

“…the next step in the journey of equality is to get to a place where we accept that you cannot choose your neighbor. In the Global Village, distance no longer decides who is your neighbor, and ‘Love thy neighbor’ is not advice, it’s a command.” ( from Bono: In Conversation)

Let’s not blame the people on Labadee beach. We all live next door to suffering.

Let’s be good neighbors.

21 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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