Footage from Tokyo's Narita International Airport last week showed lines of people trying to leave Japan after the country's devastating earthquake and tsunami. Meanwhile, travelers with scheduled trips to Japan have wondered what they should do with their tickets and future plans.

Once a natural disaster happens, when can tourists think about going back? It's a delicate situation, one that most people feel uncomfortable discussing. No one wants to go to a place that may be experiencing shortages of much-needed food, gas, or shelter for residents and refugees. But for many countries that rely on tourism, a natural disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane or volcano eruption can plunge their economy into a freefall that can take years to reverse.

In New Zealand, which suffered a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in February, tourism officials have been aggressively telling travelers that while Christchurch is still recovering, there are plenty of other places to visit. (Frommer's guidebook author and Christchurch resident Adrienne Rewi has written about this here, "Christchurch, NZ After the Quake: Closures and Clean-Up", and on her own blog)

"The country is very much open, operating and welcoming," said Ian Long, public relations for Tourism New Zealand. "Some parts of Christchurch City are closed, but the airport and all transport links to all centres in the South Island are operating normally."

To help spread that message, a group of travel bloggers based in New Zealand have set up an international social media campaign, Blog4NZ, aimed at promoting travel elsewhere in the country between March 21-23. You can find their posts, photos, videos and podcasts on Facebook at or Twitter under the hashtag #Blog4NZ.

In Japan, the situation has been more fluid because of the nuclear concerns. The Japan National Tourism Organization has been telling people with upcoming travel plans to check their website ( as well as the Japanese embassy (

Here are five considerations if your trip or vacation plans have been affected by a natural disaster:

1. Monitor airline websites. Most major airlines have been allowing passengers holding tickets to Tokyo to rebook -- or get refunds, in some cases -- their flights without charges or change fees. What you're eligible for depends on the date on the ticket and the country's changing conditions, so if you're already booked, stay tuned to your airlines' website.

2. Bookmark tourism organizations online. Tourism New Zealand has all sorts of information about conditions in Christchurch on its website, as does the Japan National Tourism Organization. Most destinations these days also put out up-to-date conditions through Twitter, so if you're heading to a place where conditions are in flux, you'll want to get an account.

3. Make alternate plans within the country. As New Zealand has demonstrated, other areas of a country can be eager for tourists, even if recovery elsewhere is still taking place. Go to online communities and forums, such as the one here at, to ask other travelers for advice about alternate destinations.

4. Don't rubberneck. Iceland, which experienced two eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull volcano last year, actually had to turn back visitors after the first emissions took place, said Olof Yrr Atladottir, Director General of the Icelandic Tourist Board.

"The Civil Protection Agency had to issue advice to people to take heed of the warnings and not get into danger because of the excitement of being able to get into the proximity of the volcano," she said, adding that tourism to Iceland has actually gone up since the eruptions took place.

5. Don't complain. Yes, your trip may be altered and your plans have to change. But no one wants to hear about a delayed vacation when lives have been lost. Hit the travel forums to find out what's going on, but be respectful for those who have suffered.
Have you changed your plans because of a natural disaster? Tell us what you did in the comments below.

Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans back in 2005. Read more travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World (