Should you vacation at a destination hit by natural disaster?

Booking a winter vacation to a sunny destination? You may wonder if it's OK to lounge on a beach while the locals rebuild after devastating hurricanes. Karla Boluk, an expert on ethical tourism, says it's still OK to go. But beforehand, think about how you can help the community.

It's OK to go on vacation to areas hit by natural disaster but think local, expert says

From hurricanes to earthquakes, many sun destinations have been affected recently by natural disasters. But should that make you rethink your winter vacation plans? (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

Going south for a vacation during the cold winter months common for many Canadians.

But after a devastating hurricane season in many sun destinations, this year's travellers may be wondering if they should go relax on a sunny beach while the locals around them rebuild their lives.

At the same time, those destinations may depend on tourism dollars and not going may hurt the country's economy even more.

"If local people are without their basic resources and fleeing, it may not be the best time to visit," said Karla Boluk, author of Managing Ethical Consumption and an assistant professor of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Waterloo.

Ethical tourism means sourcing products and services locally. Boluk said that means if you do plan to visit a sun destination, she suggests you stay at a local guesthouse or inn instead of staying at a chain hotel – some of which bring in foreign employees and don't hire locals. 

"Instead of eating at McDonald's every day when you're travelling overseas you may choose to eat at a locally owned and operated restaurant," Boluk said. "The goal is to create benefits for people and also the environment."

Residents walk near downed power lines felled by Hurricane Irma in Caibarien, Cuba. Reports say Havana is recovering, but tourist areas along the country's north coast are struggling. (Desmond Boylan/The Associated Press)

Research before going

The idea of whether it's ethical to head south this winter is something Michael Garritsen of Kitchener, Ont. has discussed with friends.

His friends plan to go to the British Virgin Islands this winter – an area hit by Hurricane Irma.

"Hotels, boat charters, and restaurants have all been heavily damaged in the area," he said.

"Ethical tourism, in my mind, would include supporting these areas by proceeding with plans to visit, and adjusting expectations," he said. "There may be limited shade due to downed trees, and a lesser selection of restaurants while damaged buildings are repaired, but the essence of the place remains and by visiting, you will be contributing to its recovery."

Boluk said this is absolutely a factor for many countries Canadians visit during the colder months.

"Sometimes, destination communities are completely reliant on tourism," she said.

But people should do some research.

She cancelled her own trip to Florida just after Irma struck, and by speaking to friends and colleagues she learned they were leaving the state and going north because they didn't feel safe themselves.

Listen to the interview with Karla Boluk, author of Managing Ethical Consumption:

'What do the local people need'

People who want to volunteer their time while on vacation may also find the agency they're going down with isn't really benefitting the community.

"There's a myriad of research in the area of volunteer tourism and sometimes, it can be quite commercial. So you can be paying a large amount of money to go on a holiday and little money can be benefitting the local people," Boluk said. "What's really important with volunteer tourism is to ensure that we're listening to the voices of the locals – what do the local people need."

This photo shows flooding and damage after hurricane Irma passed over Providenciales on the Turks and Caicos Islands on Sept. 11. (Cp. Darren Legg RLC/Ministry of Defence/Reuters)

Travellers may also want to check out groups like Fair Trade Tourism which provides certification in South Africa to organizations that pay their employees fair wages.

She also suggested New World Community, which along with providing sustainable tourism experiences also run cloud projects where money collected goes directly to people in communities to help them rebuild.

"If we do a little bit of research, we can find organizations that are doing a lot of work for us," Boluk said.

"It's difficult to determine whether to travel to a destination if there's a natural disaster for example or not, but if we contact a hotel that we're going to stay with, they're likely going to give us some answers in terms of whether it's an appropriate time to visit."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.