The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

Many forms of travel and tourism are currently off the agenda, so it’s an interesting time to contemplate the needs that are not being sated due to these pandemic-imposed restrictions. What precisely is it about being elsewhere that we crave? To help you think about that, take a journey with The Disaster Tourist, a short novel that wonders about the ethical implications of our need to be entertained by excursions to other places.

Yona Ka, the story’s protagonist, is a member of the Jungle travel company based in Seoul, with ten years’ experience planning itineraries that send travellers to locations where catastrophe has struck – volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, atomic bombs and the like, causing death and environmental devastation. Though she is a loyal employee who works hard, something is not quite right at Jungle.

When she experiences the indignity of unwanted sexual advances from a colleague, she finds herself caught up in the company’s bureaucratic web following her complaint. She is eventually sent away to survey a disaster travel experience on an island in Vietnam where sinkholes are the calamity of the moment. Here, Yona becomes enmeshed in an increasingly bizarre situation, where all is not as it seems, and the role of the mysterious Paul company is beginning to raise Yona’s suspicions. Will Yona’s expedition reach the point of no return?

This surreal adventure is a perceptive critique of the touristic urge for authentic experience – of nature, of the events of history, of local and Indigenous cultures. As the absurdist plot reveals itself, serious questions about the costs of travel – economic, environmental, cultural, psychic – and the myriad ways travel can exploit people and places cannot help but play on the reader’s mind. A cast of well-drawn characters, sometimes verging on the grotesque, add to this novel’s appeal. The Disaster Tourist really is quite a trip, and I do recommend you take in its charms – from your armchair, of course.

Alison Huber is the head book buyer at Readings.