Marketing Manager & Content Boss @ Urban Adventures. Writer, traveller, amateur runner, expert wine drinker and very clumsy adventuress.
When the earthquake struck on September 19, 2017, the residents of Mexico City had just finished their annual drill. It was the anniversary of the 1985 8.1-magnitude quake that killed some 10,000 people. Every year on that date, the city runs through safety drills, in the hopes that if a big one ever strikes again, the community will be better prepared.
The fact that the next big one came just two hours later was an eerie coincidence. And while they were more prepared than in ’85, the city was still rocked. Hard.
“We have an alarm system around the city that gives us 40 to 60 seconds before the earthquake starts, so we can go from the buildings into a safe area,” explains Pilar Carrasco, a tour guide with Mexico City Urban Adventures. “But the problem with the one on September 19 was that the earthquake originated between Morelos and Puebla, a very short distance from Mexico City. So the alarms sounded during the earthquake and not before.” The epicentre was a mere 100 kilometres from the city — too close for the sensors to register activity and alert the city with a one-minute warning.
Nearly 3,000 buildings were damaged by the quake, and some 40 collapsed altogether. Thankfully, the death toll this time didn’t match the 1985 numbers, but there was still substantial tragedy: more than 300 people lost their lives.
“All that afternoon was like a dream,” says Milton Estrada, the local owner of Urban Adventures tours in Mexico City, Merida and Playa del Carmen. “The whole city was blocked off by the government. They cut the power, they cut the natural gas. They had to close all the possible red points. No transportation. A lot of people walking in the streets. We couldn’t move for probably five hours. It was like being in a movie.”
For the next three days, all Urban Adventures tours were cancelled as the team waited for updates on the extent of the damage, and determined what that would mean for their business. Milton ran through all his tour routes over those days, ensuring it was secure and that sites like museums or archaeological grounds would be open and operating. Once the okay was confirmed, the tours were back up and running at 90%, even while parts of the city were still under repair.
At first glance, it may seem odd and even a bit heartless to focus on resuming tours for tourists while a city is still reeling from tragedy. But for many local businesses, it’s tourism that will help bring a faster recovery. For business owners like Milton, his tours not only support him, but also all the guides who work for him — some of whom had to evacuate their homes.
“There are people who are 100% dependent on working as guides,” he says. “We support and give jobs to guides, drivers — some of them have been directly or indirectly affected [by the earthquake]. By being paid for tours, they can take care of themselves and their families. And so the best thing I can do right now is keep working. And then after that, I can see what other ways I can help.”
Tourism accounts for some 16% of Mexico’s GDP, and employs more than eight million people, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Mexico is the tenth country in the world for the importance of travel and tourism to local GDP. If tourism to the region were to drop now, it would only further damage an economy that’s now paying out for repair efforts. By getting his tours back up and running, Milton is showing the world that his city is recovering. “We need people to not be afraid to come here,” he says.
But for travellers, the question of whether to visit after a natural disaster isn’t an easy one. There are safety issues to monitor, for sure, but also ethical ones. Is it disrespectful to wander around a badly hit neighbourhood? Will you be in the way of clean-up efforts? How do locals feel about tourists arriving — and spending what seems like easy money — while they’re rebuilding their homes?
When the water came
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the US, the city of Houston was pounded with torrential rains and flash floods as more than 160 centimetres of rain came down over two days. There were some 30,000 homes evacuated and more than 60 people died, many of them from drownings.
Michael Schmidt, the owner and guide for Houston Urban Adventures, had to evacuate his own home and stay with friends. His tours were cancelled for about a week and a half as the city was assessed for damage and he dealt with his own personal displacement. And even though the city has long been declared safe for visitors, some travellers still seem to be wary.
“September has been slower than it has in the past,” says Michael. “And I’m hoping that October is going to shape up. But I’ve had people call and say, ‘Can we even show up? Will we be able to get into the city and do this tour?’ I’ve seen a few cancellations and I can only assume it’s due to the fact that people think they just won’t be able to do it.”
It feels like 2017 was a mother nature nightmare for many tourist destinations, with storms, earthquakes and volcanoes wreaking havoc around the world. Not long after Harvey, hurricanes Irma and Maria rolled through the Caribbean, knocking out areas in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other islands, and of course, causing devastation throughout Puerto Rico.
“There was severe damage to areas of Havana,” says Clarita Derwent, general manager of Havana Urban Adventures. “Flooding of 100 metres from the coastline into the city. Already crumbling buildings further crumbled and were smashed by strong winds, causing old balconies and walls to fall. One wall fell onto a bus. Winds tore electricity poles and wires from their fixings. Many people’s homes were flooded. Electricity all over the island was affected and most of the country was without power for 24 hours. Some areas hard hit by the hurricane, such as Varadero, parts of Havana, Camaguey and Matanzas, were without electricity for days.”
In the Dominican Republic, it was the northeastern villages that were most affected. “The heavy rains caused extreme floods of the main rivers that start in the high mountains,” says Jose Alney Uribe, director of Santo Domingo Urban Adventures. “There was flooding of entire villages under 10 and 12 feet of water. Even today, there are still villages without land communication, and the local people have lost everything.”
And meanwhile, as the Caribbean and southern US were being battered by hurricanes, floods were raging on the other side of the globe as well, in India and Bangladesh — the latter of which was already struggling to encourage tourism in the wake of last year’s terrorist attack.
“The flood this year was one of the worst in recent history,” says Mahadi Hasan, local operator of Dhaka Urban Adventures. “More than 3. 5 million people were affected by the flood. We had two floods in the most fertile areas, which affects our food supply for the upcoming year. Our capital, Dhaka, was affected in the low-lying areas. Some of the roads to tourist sites were badly affected because of bad drainage systems. Cities like Rangpur and Kurigram [in the north] faced the worst.”
But in the wake of the damage, Mahadi believes visiting the country is the easiest way to help the local community. “It is always good if someone wants to come and share in the difficulties of the locals. Even sitting next to them, listening to their struggles, gives hope.”
So should you go?
Some destinations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic were ready for tourists within just a few days. Others, like Puerto Rico, where the destruction was extensive, will need more time (the local tourism authorities have announced they expect to be able to be taking travellers in the coming weeks). Deciding whether you should visit a destination post-disaster of course depends on whether it’s safe and whether the community and infrastructure are prepared to handle tourists coming in. But in many cases, staying away actually causes more harm than good. The key is knowing before you go.
“Look into each area,” recommends Michael. “It would be great to have people coming back to Houston because it would help the local economy. We’re not so debilitated that we feel like [tourists] would be in the way. But [in places like] Puerto Rico, you will be in the way. For anyone going there right now, it’s just going to be frustrating for the locals because now they’re having to deal with you… Do the research on how that recovery effort is going. If the recovery effort is in full swing and life has kind of been breathed back into a place, then absolutely go and support the local economy.”
“We really encourage travellers to return to Cuba and not to postpone their travel,” says Clarita. “Tourism brings very necessary funds into the country. Support the country by staying, travelling and eating at local places — this is one of the best ways to support recovery for local Cubans. The Cuban state does a lot of repairs, however, any direct funds into local service providers such as guesthouses, local restaurants and local drivers can only come from tourists directly.”
In Houston’s case, budgets for the city, the state of Texas and the US overall are going to be heavily impacted by recovery. Economic researchers are pricing Harvey as the second most costly natural disaster in US history, second to Hurricane Katrina. Which means, just like with the other affected destinations, tourists (and their tourism dollars) are appreciated right now — and needed.
“A lot of businesses are going to be failing because they just have no business right now, particularly tourism-type businesses,” Michael says, not just in reference to his own city, but to other destinations where disasters have occurred. “Hotels will be hit really hard, as will companies like ours. Any of the museums and amusement parks and things like that are going to have been hit hard. So if you’re inclined to go travel to one of those places, go and give them your business.”
But is it safe?
In Houston, the city was back up and running relatively quickly, and while some businesses are indefinitely shut down and some neighbourhoods are still in recovery, the city itself is safe and ready for travellers. The sprawling size of the city meant that some areas remained relatively unharmed — and the ones on Michael’s tours were only “softly hit,” he says.
In Mexico, the most damaged areas were the states of Puebla, Morelos, Estado de Mexico and Mexico City. Within the city, Zona rosa, Roma norte, del Valle centro, Portales, Tlalpan, and Coapa were most affected. The small village of San Gregorio in Xochimilco was badly hit. As well, the states of Oaxacan and Chiapas were damaged by the earlier earthquake that happened on September 7. Yet, while there are still substantial repairs to be made, many areas of Mexico are still open to accepting tourists.
“All the tourist attractions are operating at 95%,” says Milton. “You won’t miss out on restaurants, street food, markets or museums, as these are all already back up and operating. The areas you should avoid are damaged structures, but these will be clearly marked with a yellow or red barrier. But I’ve been walking around the city in several areas without any problem at all.”
In Cuba, resorts in areas like Playa Santa Lucia, Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Maria, Varadero and Playa Jibacoa all suffered damage and may need time to rebuild, says Clarita. “But there are no particular areas to avoid for safety reasons. The country was declared safe for travel within 24 hours of the hurricane passing Havana. There is clean water and electricity in all areas, and most things are back to normal.”
The story is much the same in the Dominican Republic, where it’s possible for tourists to visit and not even realise there was any hurricane damage at all. “The tourism areas of the north coast are strong and already receiving people,” says Jose. “The east part, although because of river floods was severely impacted, has strong infrastructure in place for big storms, and is operating as normal. The southern part of the island didn’t have any issues; Punta Cana, La Romana, Santo Domingo — they’re all having beautiful, bright days.”
Jose does warn, however, that you should avoid travelling to the north coast without the advice of local guides, to be sure that the area you’re visiting is safe and that you won’t be in the way of any recovery efforts.
“Just don’t be a gawker”
You see it all the time on highways — people who slow down to stare at accidents. It’s human nature to look at tragedy, to want to see the horror with our own eyes. To find ourselves sometimes unable to look away even when it’s painful to see.
Which is why, above all else, respect needs to stay front of mind when visiting disaster-affected areas. Remember that these cities aren’t just tourist sites. They’re where people live and work, and any damage you may see could be someone’s home or livelihood, taken away from them.
“Even as a local, you want to see what happened,” says Pilar in Mexico City. “My only advice is to be respectful of the situation.” She points to taking selfies, going into zones that are still unstable or the site of rescue efforts, or making jokes as things that would be harmful to the community. “There are people suffering because they’ve lost their homes or even families.”
Jose says he’d be happy to take travellers into affected areas in the Dominican Republic, so long as they do so with proper understanding and respect. “It has to be under some conditions: to help the situation, to educate people on climate change, to support local organisations or to research the social and environmental impact.”
“Just don’t be a gawker,” says Michael in Houston. “Don’t point at or take pictures of someone’s damaged house. Don’t drive around neighbourhoods to see the damage, as it’s disrespectful and that’s what looters do. Tensions are high in those areas. You can take photos of public places, but when you personalise it, that’s when it becomes disrespectful.”
It all seems obvious: tread carefully and respectfully when you visit a place post-disaster. But what might seem less obvious and what those in the tourism industry in these cities desperately want you to know is this: just come.
How you can help
Even if you’re not travelling to any of these destinations and therefore can’t support local businesses on the ground, there are still ways to help from abroad.
Mexico Urban Adventures has partnered with local operator Bamba Experience to create a GoFundMe campaign for recovery efforts, with 100% of donations going toward rebuilding efforts, purchasing tools and materials for clean-up and rebuilding, and purchasing water, food, toiletries and medicine for donation. Milton also works regularly with Greenpeace Mexico, who are soliciting donations for rebuilding efforts, and Pilar suggests donating via PayPal to Topos, a group of local volunteers that was formed after the 1985 earthquake, and who continue today to help out in natural disasters.
Havana Urban Adventures has been posting on social media various ways to donate. Several associations have opened up bank accounts in solidarity with Cuba. These include Asociación Sueco-Cubana (Sweden-Cuba) (the account is “Medicinas para Cuba”); Asociación Valenciana de amistad con Cuba; Asociación Miguel Hernández de Alicante; Plataforma Andaluza; and Plataforma Defensem Cuba.
As well, Cuba’s Banco Financiero Internacional has opened an account. Those interested in donating can deposit funds into the account HURACAN-DONACIONES, number 0300000004978829. Address: Sucursal del Banco Financiero Internacional, Calle 18 entre 1ra y 3ra, municipio Playa, La Habana, Cuba.
The team at Santo Domingo Urban Adventures are members of local Dominican organisations that are helping affected communities. Jose says non-monetary donations can also be made, in the form of clothing, shoes, medicine, linens, water, canned food, and more. If interested, contact Jose directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.