Book Review: The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun

Eco-tourism has become increasingly popular in recent years, travel intended to help conserve and contribute to remote communities and delicate ecosystems, but…disaster tourism? We’re all familiar with rubbernecking drivers, and South Korean novelist Yun Ko-Eun escalates our morbid curiosity with catastrophe into a full-blown industry in The Disaster Tourist. This is Yun’s second novel to be translated into English, and let’s hope for many more to come.

Yona Ko is a hardworking programming coordinator in Seoul who designs disaster-themed vacations for a company called Jungle. The company itself is no less a disaster than the destinations it advertises. Jungle’s predatory culture of harassment and shame drives Yona to accept an assignment abroad: evaluate a low-ranking tour to Mui, a fictionalized island whose landscape closely resembles the real-life fishing and resort town of Mũi Né in Vietnam.

In Mui, Yona quickly determines why the tour isn’t more popular. First, their disaster happened years ago between two warring tribes. When the victors beheaded the losers, a sinkhole opened and swallowed the severed heads of the defeated tribe, but all that’s visible now is a lake in the desert. Yona and her fellow travelers also tour a nearby volcano, which hasn’t erupted in ages and doesn’t feel as dangerous as the tourists want. “The warning sign posted at the entrance to the volcano tried hard to re-enact the horrors of the past, but the atmosphere didn’t live up to such sombre descriptions.” The disasters are, in short, not disastrous enough—not when there are tsunamis and earthquakes everywhere, newer and more exciting catastrophes striking every day.

The novel moves from satire into remarkable social commentary when Yona becomes drawn into a plot to reinstate Mui as a premier disaster destination. Up to this point, the reader sees humans as both audience to and parasite upon disaster, but the narrative moves seamlessly into a more scathing commentary of human behavior towards our planet.

One of the most insightful aspects of The Disaster Tourist is that it never attempts to draw a line between natural and man-made disaster. Hurricanes and avalanches are billed alongside radioactivity, war, prisons, and animal abuse. With the now ubiquitous consequences of climate change, there’s no easy separation of the tragedies humans have or haven’t caused. And the impetus behind man-made disasters is frighteningly clear: “People sacrifice each other for money.”

Yun underscores this point in a number of absurd and increasingly horrific ways. In Mui, the number one cause of death isn’t sinkholes; it’s traffic accidents. Because it costs more to support an injured person and their family, drivers prefer to pay the fine for manslaughter and routinely run pedestrians over in the middle of the street. The reader never sees who is driving the truck, and we don’t know exactly who came up with the plot to put Mui back on the disaster map, either. The threats are depersonalized and therefore more terrifying. A specific nemesis or mastermind would allow the reader to place their discomfort. By resisting the characterization of individual villains, Yun delivers an indictment of tourism, capitalism, and humanity on a much larger scale.

Yun’s direct style and brisk pace make The Disaster Tourist a deceptively easy read, but the story and its commentary linger long after the trip is finished, making us confront whether Mui is really as fictional as we want to believe. Yona delivers the truth beneath the story as she prepares to depart on her own disaster tour. “Travel was nothing more than the recognition of the path they were already on.”

Mindy Mejia
Mindy Mejia is the author of The Dragon Keeper, Everything You Want Me To Be, and Leave No Trace.