Disaster tourism can be an unsettling descent into voyeurism as visitors ghoulishly gawk at, and photograph, those caught up in catastrophe as if they're at a petting zoo. The concept has prompted widespread condemnation of insensitive tourists and travel companies exploiting disasters as marketing opportunities.

In the years following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, opponents of disaster tourism have claimed that its economic benefits are overstated while the ethical shortcomings are legion. Advocates counter that the economic benefits can be significant, crucial to regional recovery, and that there are important lessons to be learned.

There is no longer much to gawk at along the Tohoku region's tsunami-ravaged coast, however, save for some shattered buildings preserved to memorialize the tragedy. Bus companies and hotel operators pocket profits, but they also generate jobs and expose outsiders to a region that has always been a neglected backwater.