The residents of Joplin, Missouri suffered unspeakable tragedy when the May, 2011, tornado left the small city in ruins and 161 people dead. Today, Joplin is in the midst of a new crisis as city leaders, under fire, backed down from proposals to market the devastation and recovery as “tornado tourism.’’ While every effort should be made to respect the solemn nature of Joplin’s history, the city should reconsider: Disaster tourism is a natural part of any tragedy that engages, and sometimes enrages, a nation. There is no stopping people who want to view places they have seen on television and that, in many respects, they feel a part of. It is not about gawking; it’s about connecting with others.
Joplin’s story is essentially one of recovery as the city rebuilds, Home Depot reopens, and a new high school buzzes with the sounds of noisy teenagers. In telling that story, city planners can inspire visitors, protect residents, and also earn some money.
In Hiroshima and Chernobyl, in New Orleans and New York City, and now even on the island of Giglio, in Italy - which hopes the haunting and sometimes beautiful pictures of the capsized Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia will attract tourists - a past tragedy is a part of a shared narrative. In Joplin, local residents should tell their own story.