When disaster strikes

When the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami hit, many tourists raced back to beloved beaches to help. Because everyone was desperate to help, even in some small way. People have donated generously to Haiti, but few have raced back to its beaches. Because, sadly, Haiti was only just starting to paddle its feet in the murky waters of tourism before disaster struck. But it is not tourism Haiti needs now. It is money, water, food, energy and expert support. Not tourists. If you want to travel to Haiti as a volunteer, do so only if you can offer expert help, and through an agency or charity. Haven (havenpartnership.com), for example, is an Irish charity already with substantial experience on the ground, and which is looking for volunteers to go there in April. This charity has also been recommended by Richard Morse, whom I have been following on Twitter. He runs the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince, and has been Tweeting ever since the earthquake struck. Do check him out for an up to date voice from someone on the ground, at www.twitter/RAMHAITI.

In the meantime, one thing we can do as tourists is support other areas struck by natural disasters in the past, but now on the road to recovery. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan swept away 80% of Caribbean island Grenada’s infrastructure, devastating its spice and tourism industries. Hotels have been rebuilt, but a great ethical choice is to opt for a homestay, and homestaysgrenada.com has received international recognition for its work in bringing tourism right into local communities. Or check out Paradise Bay Beach Resort (paradisebayresort.net), an eco-accommodation committed to helping local farmers get back on their feet. Just staying here will help the local economy, but you can do even more by choosing their volunteer holidays, where you give hands-on help on a farm in the morning, and holiday at the beach in the afternoon.

Hurricane Katrina was not strong enough to stop the Mardi Gras Carnival in New Orleans either, and it is not too late to go and support the many businesses in need of tourist dollars. The party is just about to start, but keeps going until 16 February (mardigrasneworleans.com). Or Cyclone Aila, which hit Eastern India & Bangladesh in May 2009 and which also left a massive path of destruction. Ethical travel organisations Travel to Care and Help Tourism both rose to the occasion, raising funds for many of the small communities they represent. Their websites traveltocare.com and helptourism.com will lead you back to the ones which are ready and more than willing to have visitors back in their homes.

And let’s not forget the people of L’Aquila, Italy, where an earthquake struck last April. Nearly 300 people were killed, and 40,000 left homeless. Bizarrely, there is no obvious mention of it on the Italian Tourist Board (italiantouristboard.co.uk) website, unless you dig deep. Many hotels in the region of Abruzzo have been accommodating those who lost their homes, so they deserve a helping hand from tourists as the season begins. But do check that they are open for business. For information on agritourism, (farm-based) holidays in this region, see also, http://en.agriturismo.it/abruzzo.

The opportunities to holiday ethically in post-Tsunami destinations are many. A first port of call should be Tourism Concern (tourismconcern.org.uk) which has campaigned for fair and sustainable post-Tsunami tourism development. Its book, The Ethical Travel Guide, available on their website, lists leading ethical tourism providers, such as Andaman Discoveries, born out of the relief efforts, and which now brings tourists to community-led tourism projects and homestays (andamandiscoveries.com).

In the meantime, let’s hope that if Bill Clinton, UN special envoy to Haiti, is considering tourism development there in the future, he does so sustainably. By consulting with experts who have successful rebuilt from grassroots level, such as those above, he could eventually create a tourism industry which will benefit all Haitians well into the future.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times, 30 January 2010