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Disaster Tourism: Why Tragedy Draws Tourists

There’s a natural human urge to lay our own eyes upon the worst disasters that have befallen our fellow humans and our planet. It doesn’t even have to be a major disaster — simple rubbernecking at a fender bender while commuting taps into the same basic inclination.

But when something really big — and even really awful — happens, this human urge can be writ large, resulting in something that has taken on the name “disaster tourism,” or “dark tourism.” It is not a new phenomenon, and it often mingles with historical interests in a very honest way. Take the example of Pompeii, the site of the famous 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius that has become one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. A more recent example is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which saw more than 50,000 casualties over only three days of battle during the Civil War. Both are formidable tourist destinations, with more than 2 million people visiting Pompeii each year and more than 1 million flocking to Gettysburg.

Pearl Harbor is another memorial site that attracts tourists in droves; the fact that there is still oil visibly leaking from the USS Arizona adds a level of intensity, poignancy and immediacy that cannot be denied. The experience of visiting is very solemn and affecting, as the 1,177 lives lost there altered the course of history, and the site is their official grave site. As a corollary, the site of the Hiroshima bombing has become a tourist attraction as well, allowing individuals on opposite sides to find solace and let go of past conflicts. The concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau are visited by over 1.4 million visitors each year, representing as complex a response to human-caused disaster as I can imagine.

Often, disaster tourism is officially encouraged. After tornadoes devastated Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, the local tourism agency created a map directing visitors to the hardest-hit neighborhoods, a controversial move that found both supporters and detractors. (The agency claimed that many visitors to the area were coming to help survivors of the storm, and the map was meant to help with that effort.) Many officials believe that New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina was helped somewhat by the influx of money from disaster tourism — certainly I did some myself.

Such sites do not always need to be the scene of large scale tragedy, and can take on much more personal or individual aspects as well, such as the places where famous figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King were assassinated. Heck, disaster sites might even be quasi-fictional; a few miles from me is a memorial to the spot at which the aliens were supposed to have landed in the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, a fake disaster in every sense. Still, folks take time out of their lives to go visit the spot.

As it turns out, the practice of “disaster tourism,” or “dark tourism” as it has become known in academia, has become a serious subject of a number of intellectuals and professors. I asked Brigitte Sion, Ph.D., for her thoughts on the subject; Sion is an independent scholar who specializes in commemorative practices such as memorial sites, ceremonies and rituals. She is the editor of the forthcoming “Death Tourism: Disaster Sites as Recreational Landscape” (Seagull Books).

Q: What is it that creates the urge or even compulsion to visit sites where disaster, tragedy or some other cataclysmic event occurred?

A: There are various reasons that bring people to visit sites of violent death: some have a personal connection to the tragedy as survivors, relatives of victims or witnesses. Others have an intellectual or cultural interest — to understand what happened, or connect the tragedy to other historical events (typically educators, historians, academics and students). Others have no connection to the site or the event, but happen to be there as tourists and visit those places as part of their sightseeing. A classic example is tourists to Cambodia who go to see the temples, the Royal Palace, etc. and end up visiting the Killing Fields or the S-21 prison without originally intending to see it.

Q: Have you seen any benefits for folks who visit these places? That is, does something positive come of it, or is it more often a case of natural human voyeurism?

A: From my observation of tourists who visit sites of violent death (in Europe, Latin America, North America and Asia), I think that voyeurism is a marginal motivation. Most visitors come for the reasons I listed above. The benefits are multiple, but each person has a different experience and different takeaway. It can be a source for closure after mourning, a source of education, a political statement (visiting Mandela’s prison) or the fulfillment of a personal need (Jews traveling to Auschwitz, Americans to Ground Zero, etc.).

Q: Should we be concerned about how we react to these sites and memorials, or how others around us react? Is there a “right” or “wrong” way to respond?

A: Each memorial site is embedded in the local culture. It is inappropriate to visit Auschwitz in shorts and flip-flops; it is inappropriate to visit the Cambodian Killing Fields with shoes on. It is fine to take pictures at Ground Zero; it is not okay to speak loudly in the ESMA (a torture and detention camp in Argentina). Some rules are clearly described (on panels, etc.). Others are culturally inspired [or] inspired by the site itself and the tragedy.

But there is often a tension between the rules of the place and the visitors who (usually inadvertently) break those rules. Such behavior (being loud, dressing inappropriately, eating and drinking, littering) is frowned upon by survivors, relatives of victims and locals. But whether rules are enforced or not depends on the administration of the site. The challenge is that some sites need tourists for financial reasons, and have to be a bit flexible. But here lies one of the tensions.

Q: Are there any types of sites you would recommend that people visit? Any that you don’t recommend?
A: From an educational perspective, if you want to understand a country’s history better, I recommend the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia; the ESMA and Memory Park in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Treblinka or Auschwitz in Poland; and the Hiroshima Peace Museum in Japan.

Q: What’s your opinion on stewards of a specific memorial inferring very strong directions on how to respond — whether it be solemnly, or patriotically, or some other emotion?

A: Every memorial makes a political statement having to do with the politics of the time, funding, memory politics, etc. Visitors may be influenced by the narrative of the museum (through panels, brochures or guided tours), but they can also ignore that and make up their own mind about the place and its history.

Q: Many recent memorials can be very ambiguous, or at least complex, in their presentation; do you see this as a problem?

A: The challenge of new memorials being designed today is that they have to take on many functions: they not only must serve memorial purposes, but also make a political statement, be an architectural landmark, meet educational purposes, be a public place that is integrated in the urban landscape, generate income and many, many more. When memorials have to multitask so much, it is inevitable that some functions conflict with others, that some visitors will be in conflict with others, that some emotions with clash with others.

Have you visited any disaster or “dark” tourism sites? If so, please share your experiences in the comments below.

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