The Disaster Tourist

Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, is a further example of the increasing number of Korean novels reaching an English-speaking audience. It’s a sharp satire (though one where the line between satire and reality can be difficult to distinguish) of the tourist industry, and, more generally, of the commodification of every aspect of our lives, and deaths.

Yona is an employee of a travel company, Jungle, which specialises in holidays to disaster areas:

“Yona has worked at Jungle for over ten years, surveying disaster zones and moulding them into travel destinations.”

Now she is beginning to feel less certain of her job security in a company that is ruthless with both staff and customers. (We see this in the opening chapter when she tells a customer that no refund is possible when, three months before the trip, he attempts to cancel as his child is sick, and later with another customer when his travelling companion has died).

“Recently, whenever Yona went into work, she felt like a dandelion seed that had somehow drifted into a building. The chair she sat in each morning was definitely hers, but for some reason, sitting in it was awkward, like this was the first time she’d ever touched the piece of furniture.”

She is particularly uneasy when she turns up for a meeting only to find no one else there. “Today’s a foul,” she is told, and is too afraid to ask what this actually means. Later, she is molested by her boss, Kim, in a lift, and her primary fear is that he is rumoured only to target “has-beens”, those whose career is over, even if they don’t yet know it. Eventually, when she is taken off the project she is managing, she decides to resign, but Kim suggest that, instead, she take some time off and use it to review one of Jungle’s less popular holiday destinations. She decides to go to see a desert sinkhole on the (fictional) island of Mui near Vietnam.



The trip is a disappointment. The sinkhole also marks the site of a tribal massacre, but there is very little to see:

“She wondered how a place ravaged by disaster could look so peaceful.”

The desert visit also takes place on the first day and Yona feels “they’d seem Mui’s highlights too early.” Other elements of the trip include a visit to a volcano that is not noticeably a volcano, and a night spent in a traditional house on stilts.

“When Yona glanced at the itinerary, everything looked dull. Who had come up with such a poorly organised schedule? Yona understood why this trip was targeted for cancellation.”

Among the other tourists on the trip are a screenwriter, a college student, and a teacher and her five-year-old daughter. Ko-eun chooses not to give us their names, although they feature extensively during this section. The child in particular is always asking questions and demanding attention, and her presence highlights the eeriness of the holiday.

Up to this point, however, the novel’s satire of the tourist industry has been tame. Only when Yona is separated from the other travellers on the way to the airport at the end of the holiday and is forced to stay in Mui longer than she anticipated (which also emphasises the difference between being a tourist and simply being in another country) do we see the lengths to which those who own the resort are prepared to go to ensure that the island remains on Jungle’s list of destinations:

“Since signing a contract with Jungle and building the resort, Mui has been tailoring everyday life to fit its role as a disaster zone… Now, if disaster disappears from Mui, life disappears, too.”

The screenwriter has, in fact, been hired to create a new disaster scenario which will be enacted on the island thus ensuring continued value for tourists:

“Some people will die because of the sinkhole, but others will live because of it. And a lot more will live than die.”

Yona has to decide whether to go along with the plan or not, a situation complicated by her developing relationship with a local man at a time when the local population are regarded as expendable.

The Disaster Tourist, like all successful satires, takes the worst of the present day to its logical conclusion. It’s not simply an attack on ‘disaster tourism’; it also highlights, more generally, the way in which third world countries must create a culture to cater for tourists to be economically viable, and the damage this can cause to those who have to live there. While this may bring some income for the inhabitants, the novel shows that it is faceless corporations which lie behind it – here brilliantly named ‘Paul’. In the novel Paul’s yellow construction trucks disappear when tourists are visiting but return as soon as they are gone; they also have a history of knocking down islanders with impunity. What the novel loses in characterisation (only Yona is really more than a sketch) it makes up for in exposing both corporate and individual greed, and how quickly we can lose sight of the real cost of travelling. The Disaster Tourist is a disturbing expose of capitalism without restraint, though its (literally) deus ex machina ending might be seen as softening the satire’s blows, while at the same time emphasising that nature cannot be tamed.

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2 Responses to “The Disaster Tourist”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    What a great find, Grant! I haven’t come across this before, but you make it seem very appealing. It’s a terrific subject for satire, soulless corporations exploiting less developed cultures and communities for monetary gain. There are echoes of this theme in certain elements of the recent Brazilian film, Bacarau, which might be of interest to you if you haven’t seen it.

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