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From Costa Concordia to the Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight, Tragedy Tourism is on the Rise

July 14, 2014
The capsized Costa Concordia
The capsized Costa Concordia

The capsized Costa Concordia (Photo: European Commission DG/Flickr)

It’s a new, ghoulish trend — the ultimate rubbernecking — bad news is now establishing unlikely tourist destinations.

The Costa Concordia cruise ship, which ran aground off Italy’s Giglio Island on January 13, 2012, killing 32 people, is such a place.

The stranded vessel became a morbid tourist attraction, and led to an influx of day-trippers who wanted a closer view.

Just one week after the disaster, more than 10 times the usual number of weekend island visitors filled up ferries for a first-hand look, according to a USA Today story at the time.

Costa Concordia onlookers
Costa Concordia onlookers

Costa Concordia onlookers (Photo: Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

The half-submerged craft was advertised in nearby Santo Stefano as “a chance to see the stricken cruise ship as the ferries pass within meters of the Concordia, meaning tourists can take photos of the vessel,” according to the Daily Mail’s report from 2012.

In preparation for this Monday’s re-floating of the ship (it’s being towed to Genova to be dismantled for scrap), authorities made plans to block the expected onlookers. “To prevent the Concordia-mania’ from interfering with the operation, authorities [established] a security area around the cruise ship,” reported Yahoo News Italy. “Also, a no-fly zone [was] set above the route that the Concordia will follow.”

The Costa Concordia isn’t the first catastrophe to have caused what some call tragedy tourism.

Malaysian Airlines flight
Malaysian Airlines flight

The missing Malaysian Airlines flight has sparked a possible tourism boom. (Photo: Glenn Beltz/Flickr)

Some suspect the recent Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappearance will bring the curious to Australia, near where the plane is believed to have gone down.

“I would say that there is nothing in my mind that clearly identifies people who are spectators,” Australian Hotels Association CEO for Western Australia, Bradley Woods, told Yahoo Travel. “But my sixth sense tells me those people do exist and it wouldn’t surprise me if people did travel here to be close to observe the action. But there is nothing I have seen as concrete evidence.”

He added, “There is no doubt in my mind that if the plane is located somewhere offshore and [if] there is a memorial then the families of the victims would want to have a continuing relationship with Perth.”

Abandoned Chernobyl
Abandoned Chernobyl

Abandoned Chernobyl (Photo: Roman Harak/Flickr)

The Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine has become an off-beat destination for small groups of extreme travelers, who are willing to brave potential health risks in order to see the eerie home of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

Auschwitz counts an annual 600,000 visitors who walk the morbid grounds, where more than one million died.

Just as visitors pay their respects at the powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., others who wish to commemorate more recent tragic events can plan a visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which opened in May.

Given the subject matter and proximity to the actual disaster, museum officials must often skate a fine line of what people consider appropriate.

National September 11 Memorial
National September 11 Memorial

The 9/11 Memorial fountain (Photo: Edward Stojakovic/Flickr)

Before the institution opened in 2014, an online petition protested the $24 ticket price, which stands. (9/11 victims’ family members get in free.)

The museum caught flak after it held a pre-opening VIP event. “You don’t have cocktail parties at a cemetery,” retired FDNY fire marshal Joe Kisonas told the New York Daily News.

While not your typical tourism, it is common enough to earn its own term, according to New York University professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: “Dark tourism.”

“9/11 is no different from any number of sites in the world where something of cataclysmic importance happened and where there is a moral imperative to remember it, to commemorate it, to feel it,” she told the local website Gothamist.

Natural disasters also spur interest. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, tourism naturally dropped to the affected region. But a special breed of traveler came to inspect the devastation — and helped bring money flowing back into New Orleans.

A Katrina-ravaged church in New Orleans (Photo: Thinkstock)

“We had Katrina tours pop up,” Jennifer Day-Sully of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau told ABC News.” It’s a double-edged sword. You have to be sensitive to the communities that these buses and tours are coming through because it can be perceived as being very insensitive. But on the other hand, you can educate people from out of town and encourage them to make donations and participate in volunteer work.”

Joplin Missouri’s Convention & Visitors Bureau also decided to educate travelers and promote volunteerism to the town flattened by a deadly 2011 tornado: It put out a map marking the twister’s path. Patrick Tuttle, bureau director, saw the map as telling the town’s story and disputes the action as exploitative. “Never have we gone after promoting loss of life, someone’s personal damages,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

It seems clear that as long as there are tragedies, the tourism will follow.

Claudine Zap is a writer for Yahoo. She got her start at the company tracking web trends. Since then, highlights have included blogging the royal wedding of Kate and William, covering the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and reporting on any and all red carpet events. With family in New York City but settled in San Francisco, Claudine considers herself happily bi-coastal. 

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