WWJV: Where Would Jesus Vacation?

Thaibeach1postcard_1I just got off an airplane returning from a brief research trip to Tampa, where I spent a wonderful day at the Poynter Institute talking to the usual cast of bright people about newspapers, blogs, religion news, editors, reporters, producers, the future of news and all kinds of connected stuff. What can I say? It’s what I do.

And what I normally do not do is read the travel pages of daily newspapers, especially USA Today. I guess I don’t do a good job of relaxing or dreaming of spending large sums of money in exotic locales. The travel pages don’t have much to do with how I live. Whatever.

Anyway, I happened to glance at the bottom of the travel page in today’s McPaper travel page and, lo and behold, I think I saw a religion-story ghost. I am sure that I saw and ethical ghost. I’m not sure about the religion part. I’ll let you decide.

The story is about the moral — religious? — questions raised by people whose first response to the tsunami in Asia and Southeast Asia is to . . . well, let’s let reporter Laura Bly describe what some people did.

The day after the earthquake-spawned tsunami killed thousands and ravaged coastlines across the Indian Ocean, Jeff Burleson posted a message on FlyerTalk.com, wondering whether the disaster would translate to lower Asian airfares.

Slammed by fellow posters, the Encinitas, Calif., globetrotter was unrepentant: “Did airfares & room rates fall after 9/11? Yes. By your logic, you would have encouraged everyone to avoid NYC & DC because going would afford those who went with an ‘unseemly disaster discount,’ ” he wrote. “I plan on going to Asia this spring, and I invite all of you to join me in a tangible demonstration of goodwill & sympathy vs. useless pity.”

So there you have it. You can send aid to the region, aid that may get caught in all kinds of government lockboxes and global red tape and, dare we say it, corruption, or you can grab your wallet and your flip-flops and head to the beach? Clearly, the major source of income in some of these regions is tourism. Is it unethical to attempt to pour money back into those economies?

Or, as Bly puts it, does it show an immoral disrespect for the 150,000 dead to jump into the beach chairs with a parasol drink in hand? Which will help the survivors more? Which form of direct aid will work best? Here is another piece of the feature:

“Nobody is making light of the huge human cost of the disaster (or) suggesting we should go and get in the way of the clear-up. But for many in the developing world, no tourists this morning can mean no food on the table tonight,” says Lonely Planet guidebooks co-founder Tony Wheeler, writing in London’s Independent newspaper. “We can all dig into our pockets to contribute money to relief efforts. But in the longer term the best thing we can do is, simply, go there.”

Simply stated, what happens to the living if the bottom drops out of their economy? Yet the mind spins at the thought of this. Mine spins for religious reasons. Yet I can see why people are asking this question.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://wetzell.blogspot.com/ dlw

    You also got to ask who benefits from US tourism. My experience seems to indicate that the gains are rather concentrated and so it seems a no-win-no-win situation. We USAmericans do not learn much about the existing culture at many tourist resorts and not too much of the benefits trickle down to the average people in the crowded over-competitive labor markets of the area.


  • JoJo

    Given that the traveller didn’t cause the disaster and didn’t manipulate it to his/her advantage, I don’t see the moral problem. But it’s an awkward situation to be sure. How does one balance the respect for tragedy and grief against the need to get on with living? Obviously you need to strike a balance, one that many folks would find impossibly difficult to finesse.

    It seems like this topic can be extended to so many other areas in life. It’s a lot easier to give lip service to some idealized moral high ground. But sometimes we are called to be practical and choose the lesser of two bad options even if we get criticized for it. It’s hard to argue against a little more grieving, but I think that God asks you to draw the line somewhere.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Do you think that the reporter and editor for this story should have RAISED this as a religious question? Should they have talked to relief workers on the scene of the story? You know that many, many of the people on the ground there are with religious groups.

  • http://lakeneuron.com/blog John Carney

    I work for a small daily in rural Tennessee. A local physician and his wife are natives of Sri Lanka, and they had, prior to the tsunami, planned to take several of their Tennessee friends there in March.

    One of my co-workers did a rushed, close-to-deadline tsunami story last week; she found out about the trip (which will still take place) and described it as a mission or relief trip.

    The Sri Lankan woman wrote the newspaper to complain about a couple of minor factual errors, and (while she expressed sorrow at the tragedy and included information about relief efforts) she insisted we make clear that her March trip “is not a mission of mercy. Our guests will be touring the island.” (!)

    By the same token, one of her guests, a woman who is very active in community affairs here, found out about all this and told me she didn’t know what the first woman was so upset about. In fact, this second woman and her daughter are going to take the trip a week early so that they can combine a little relief work with their tourism.

  • webwalker

    I think one of the common misassumptions about ‘tourism’ is the idea that people ‘tour’ purely for enjoyment. I know of very few ‘eco-tourists’ who come home from an eco-tour happy and proud and relaxed. Usually the come back with a graver idea of what the habitat is up against. Perhaps if tourism were considered in that light….

    But no, this is tourism USA Today style: sipping a rum ‘n coke with an unbrella in it while gazing on the aftermath and saying, “Wow. I mean, really…wow.”

    I think the combination ‘work tourism’ I did in Mexico might be good way to both get out and see (“tour”) as well as ‘understand’ by putting you in direct contact with the people who need it. They say travel broadens the mind; imagine what travel to provide aid could do to the heart?