Do people who leave their brains at home deserve to be ripped off?

We’re very lucky. The devastating earthquake that struck Japan last week caused only minor damage here in the States.

The most high-profile casualty was Dustin Weber, a 25-year-old man in Crescent City, Calif., who was swept out to sea as he tried to photograph the tsunami.

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(Before I go any further, an important note about the photo I used to illustrate this post. It is not from a real tsunami. It’s from an event called a “tidal bore” which took place in Hangzhou, China in 2002, and it is not real.)

I was little surprised when I talked about this event privately with colleagues. Some half-jokingly suggested that the California photographer deserved to die, because he obviously hadn’t heeded the warnings about the waves.

Darwin Award finalist, they snickered.

The discussion quickly broadened to a more general discussion about tourists and the tourism industry.

Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t think Weber deserved to be swept away. He was a young man, and people of that age can easily misjudge a situation.

I have a close relative who, at about that age, went to the beach to get a closer look at the remnants of a hurricane. She was almost pulled out to sea.

I also had a brush with the Japanese tsunami on Friday, and it was seriously frightening.

I’m not going to turn this post into a “tourists do the dumbest things” post (done enough of ’em already, and I’ve made plenty of dumb mistakes, too).

But as a consumer advocate, I was curious about what comes after the, “People who leave their brains at home, deserve …” statement.

Deserve what?

It’s a pretty well-documented fact that people on vacation behave differently than they do at home. I’ve lived in tourism-dependent places, so I also know that this reckless behavior is sometimes given as an excuse for taking advantage of visitors.

You’ll find stores, restaurants and hotels in popular destinations that think 1) tourists are stupid; and 2) because they are stupid, we might as well take advantage of them.

I rarely get complaints about this low-level scam — and yes, it is a scam — because people are normally too embarrassed to tell me about it.

Yeah, they bought an overpriced T-shirt. They paid $50 for lunch at that dive, and they even tipped the rude server. They also paid a confiscatory $350 a night, plus a mandatory $20-a-night resort fee. Chalk it up to a lesson learned.

Who knows, maybe it’s not stupidity. Maybe they’re just thinking, “Hey, I’m on vacation. Might as well splurge”?

I believe a tourism industry that sees its guests as walking dollar signs isn’t sustainable. It is caught in a cycle of taxing guests so it can spend more money on promoting itself, constantly searching for new suckers to shake down.

I’m troubled by that. As troubled as by anyone who says a daring photographer deserved to meet his untimely demise.

(Photo: astan hope/Flickr Creative Commons. Not a real photo. Repeat: Not a real photo.)