A Different Kind of Medical Tourism

Of course you are obsessed with death.

Everyone alive is, we all know it’s out there, waiting for us.  The only thing that varies between people is the depth and degree of repression of this knowledge.

Travel, of course, is not about death.

Travelers don’t like to think about demise, as a topic — except for the legions who visit cemeteries, concentration camps battlefields, memorials, slums and sites of natural disasters. And anything to do with the Titanic.

A theory: travelers have a preference for death by war or natural disaster, which seem avoidable by dint of geography and luck, rather than by illness, which after all  may be lurking within those Bermuda shorts at that very moment. Which may be why, despite a penchant for “living like a local” when on vacation,  tours of hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices have never really caught on.


Part of the reason why “authentic local” itineraries often avoid medical facilities is the problem of turning human struggle or suffering into spectacle. This was an issue of concern when I visited Kalaupapa National Historic Park on Molokai, the quarantine site for people with Hansen’s Disease.

In other words, a leper colony.

Yes, the setting is beautiful. But from 1866-1949, this was also a very effective prison — bounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side, and beneath highest sea cliffs in the world on the other. There was only one road to “topside” Molokai, an arduous three mile trail with 26 switchbacks, and a guard at the top.

Today, the trail remains the only way to visit the settlement and the park from the rest of Molokai, without an airplane. And although Hansen’s Disease is now very manageable as a chronic illness, there are still patients living there — they chose to stay after the quarantine was lifted.

For that reason, although it is a national park, visitors are only allowed access on a guided tour. Also for that reason, tour does not include the Post Office and the grocery story, and other places that a resident would be likely to go in their daily lives.  One exception is the Catholic church. And you can see the mixed feelings that tourism creates for its residents:

Kalaupapa Molokai, St Francis Church

In case you can’t read it, it says: “Do not touch or steal anything from this church pew!! This means you…tourist!!”

These are thorny issues. Less complicated, although perhaps no less unsettling, is to visit a museum of medical history. Oh, do we have some good ones in this country. More on that next week.


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