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Mourning sickness? A brief look at disaster tourism

Last week I did an interview with the Daily Mail about disaster tourism and why people flock to see disaster areas. I briefly mentioned the topic in a previous blog that I wrote on people that collect murder memorabilia (‘murderabilia’) and argued that the psychology behind disaster tourism and murderabilia were very similar. According to the Wikipedia entry:

“Disaster tourism is the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity. Disaster tourism took hold in the Greater New Orleans Area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There are now guided bus tours to neighbourhoods that were severely damaged and/or totally destroyed by the flooding”.

The same article also highlights the March and April 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. The article noted that disaster tourism quickly sprang up following the first eruption, with tour companies offering trips to see the volcano. Academically, disaster tourism is closely associated with ‘Dark Tourism’ and also has its own Wikipedia page:

“Dark tourism (also black tourism or grief tourism) has been defined as tourism involving travel to sites historically associated with death and tragedy. More recently it was suggested that the concept should also include reasons tourists visit that site, since the site’s attributes alone may not make a visitor a ‘dark tourist’. Thanatourism, derived from the ancient Greek word thanatos for the personification of death, refers more specifically to violent death; it is used in fewer contexts than the terms ‘dark tourism’ and ‘grief tourism’. The main draw to dark locations is their historical value rather than their associations with death and suffering”.

When I started researching this blog I was quite surprised by the amount of academic writing on the topic (although the vast majority of it is theorizing rather than the collection of empirical data). The academic field appears to have been kick-started by the publication of Malcolm Foley and John Lennon’s 2000 book Dark tourism: The attraction of death and disasters. Most of the papers I read speculated on the many motivations that people have for visiting places associated with death along with typologies of different kinds of dark tourism and what dark tourism means in a wider social and cultural context. In 2012, Dr. Maximiliano Korstanje speculated that “dark tourism could be a mechanism of resiliency helping society to recover after a disaster or catastrophe, a form of domesticating death in a secularized world”. However, many academics have different views and/or explanations. Before looking at some of the academic theorizing, I wanted to share some of the pros and cons of disaster tourism from an article on the WiseGeek site (‘What is disaster tourism?’) as non-academic articles seem to get straight to the point without the caveats and psychosocial babble:

“Disaster tourism is the practice of traveling to areas that have recently experienced natural or man-made disasters. Individuals who participate in this type of travel are typically curious to see the results of the disaster and often travel as part of an organized group. Many people have criticized disaster tourism as exploitation of human misery and a practice that demeans and humiliates local residents. Others argue that tourism to devastated areas can offer a boost to the local economy and raise awareness of the incident, both of which are often needed after a tragedy. When a geographical region suffers a major incident, the media may spend a great deal of time reporting on the situation and the plight of local residents…As a result, some people will actually visit the affected areas so they can experience the situation firsthand. These individuals are typically motivated by curiosity and do not necessarily plan to participate in relief efforts…In some cases, those who participate in disaster tourism will simply travel to an area on their own, while others will purchase a package tour from a travel business”.

Many of the more populist articles on disaster tourism and dark tourism would have readers believe that the phenomenon is new, but it isn’t. Throughout human history there are dozens of examples of people visiting places associated with death and destruction. As I argued in my interview with the Daily Mail, people are intrigued by death and the macabre (and was the subject of a previous blog I wrote on people’s fascination with death).

As a child I remember going on school trips to battlefields, visiting graveyards and cemeteries, and making brass rubbings from burial places in churches and cathedrals. As an adult I have visited Ground Zero in New York and Alcatraz prison island off San Francisco. Is this really that far removed from dark tourism? Many academic writers such as Dr. Philip Stone (who has written paper after paper on dark tourism and has his own ‘Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, UK) note that war-tourism is a small subset “of the totality of tourist sites associated with death and suffering”. He makes reference to people visiting assassination sites (e.g., the building where President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas), Holocaust sites (such as the Auschwitz concentration camp), celebrity death sites (of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Buddy Holly, etc.), terrorism sites, major disaster sites (e.g., plane crash sites, tsunami sites), slavery heritage attractions, and ‘entertainment’ locations (such as Vienna’s Funeral Museum, Whitby’s ‘Dracula Experience’, the Tower of London). In short, he argues that a full categorisation of dark tourism is extremely complex. He also goes on to say that:

“Despite the diverse range of sites and tourist experiences, Tarlow (2005) identifies dark tourism as ‘visitations to places where tragedies or historically noteworthy death has occurred and that continue to impact our lives’ – a characterisation that aligns dark tourism somewhat narrowly to certain sites and that, perhaps, hints at particular motives. However, it excludes many shades of dark sites and attractions related to, but not necessarily the site of, death and disaster…Consequently, Cohen (2011) addresses location aspects of dark tourism through a paradigm of geographical authenticity and sense of victimhood. Meanwhile, Biran, Poria, and Oren (2011) examine sought benefits of dark tourism within a framework of dialogic meaning making…Jamal and Lelo (2011) also explore the conceptual and analytical framing of dark tourism, and suggest notions of darkness in dark tourism are socially constructed, rather than objective fact….dark tourism may be referred to more generally as the ‘act of travel to tourist sites associated with death, suffering or the seemingly macabre’ (Stone, 2006)”

I was also surprised to learn from Dr. Stone and other papers that dark tourism has been given lots of other names in the academic literature including ‘morbid tourism’, ‘fright tourism’, ‘horror tourism’, ‘black spot tourism’, ‘hardship tourism’, ‘grief tourism’, ‘tragedy tourism’, ‘[extreme] thanatourism’, ‘warfare tourism’ and ‘genocide tourism’ all of which concern “milking the macabre” and “dicing with death”.

Dr. Jeffrey Podoshen (2013) has noted that an interest in death is general, and not person-specific and leads to the conclusion that there are a wide variety of potential manifestations related to dark tourism consumption motivations. Various academics have speculated that the motivations for dark tourism include sensation seeking and voyeurism. Citing the work of Dr. Richard Sharpley, he notes that “schadenfreude sparks dark tourism interest and likens these tourists to rubber-neckers who gaze at the tragedy of others”. However, as Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley note in a 2008 issue of the Annals of Tourism:

“The question of why tourists seek out such dark sites has attracted limited attention. Generally, visitors are seen to be driven by differing intensities of interest or fascination in death, in the extreme hinting at tasteless, ghoulish motivations. More specific reasons vary from morbid fascination or ‘rubber-necking’, through empathy with the victims, to the need for a sense of survival/continuation, untested factors which, arguably, demand verification within a psychology context”.

A recent study by Dr Takalani Mudzanani published in a 2014 issue of the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences examined why people visited the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum in South Africa (named after one of the pupils who died during the Soweto riots). Via 15 in-depth interviews his study highlighted factors such as novelty, escapism, enhancement of kinship relations, nostalgia, education and the media played an important role in motivating visitors to visit the site. Finally, it’s worth noting that there are also those in the field that believe there are levels of dark tourism (such as Dr. William Miles in a 2002 issue of the Annals of Tourism Research) who talk of dark, darker, darkest tourism. Furthermore, most academics in the area would agree that dark tourism is not a single concept (something that with just a brief dip into this fascinating literature I totally agree with).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dann, G. M., & Seaton, A. V. (2001). Slavery, contested heritage and thanatourism. International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Administration, 2(3-4), 1-29.

Foley, M., & Lennon, J. (2000). Dark tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 19(1), 68-78.

Lennon, J. & Foley, M. (2000). Dark tourism: The attraction of death and disasters. London: Thomson Learning.

Miles, W. F. (2002). Auschwitz: Museum interpretation and darker tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 29(4), 1175-1178.

Mudzanani, T. (2014). Why is Death so Attractive? An Analysis of Tourists’ Motives for Visiting the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum in South Africa. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(15), 570-574.

Podoshen, J. S. (2013). Dark tourism motivations: Simulation, emotional contagion and topographic comparison. Tourism Management, 35, 263-271.

Sharpley, R., & Stone, P.R. (Eds.). (2009). The darker side of travel. Channel View Publications.

Stone, P. (2005). Dark tourism consumption: a call for research. E-Review of Tourism Research (eRTR), 3(5), 109-117.

Stone, P. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions. Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, 54(2), 145-160.

Stone, P. R. (2011). Dark tourism and the cadaveric carnival: mediating life and death narratives at Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds. Current Issues in Tourism, 14(7), 685-701.

Stone, P. & Sharpley, R (2008). Consuming dark-tourism a thanatological perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 35, 574–595.

Korstanje, M. & Ivanov, S. (2012). Tourism as a form of new psychological resilience: The inception of dark tourism. Cultur: Revista de Cultura e Turismo, 6(4), 56-71.

Miles, W. F. (2002). Auschwitz: Museum interpretation and darker tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 29(4), 1175-1178

Strange, C., & Kempa, M. (2003). Shades of dark tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island. Annals of Tourism Research, 30(2), 386-405.