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Dark tourism spooks its way into the mainstream

Dark tourism spooks its way into the mainstream

ONE recent morning in Salem in the state of Massachusetts, a witch ran out of wands. Teri Kalgren, the owner of Artemisia Botanicals, an apothecary and magic shop, attributed the shortage to a witch-inspired boom. People have long flocked to Salem to learn about the infamous witch trials of 1692, in which Puritan hysteria led to the executions of 20 people (and two dogs). But since 1982 when the city introduced Haunted Happenings, a daylong Halloween festival for local families, the event has expanded to a commercial celebration lasting a month that attracts 500,000 tourists.

Last year tourism pumped $104m into Salem and funded some 800 jobs. The revenues have been increasing by 5-6% every year, says Kate Fox of Destination Salem, the city’s marketing arm. Tourists can buy a spell kit, visit a witch museum, take a walking tour (ghostly, feminist or literary-themed) and have their fortune told. On the opposite coast, Scott Michaels has watched his Hollywood-based company, Dearly Departed Tours, grow from a one-man gig to an operation with seven employees who take tourists to celebrity grave sites every day of the week. “Just a few years ago, we were just the quirky ones doing tours in an old hearse,” he says.

That tourism is soaring is well-known—between 1999 and 2016 the number of people opting for a foreign holiday doubled, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). And travellers have shifted from beach-oriented leisure time to experiences. These include visits to “dark tourism” sites, a catch-all term that includes atrocity sites such as Auschwitz or Cambodia’s killing fields, nuclear disaster zones such as Chernobyl in Ukraine and the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan, as well as famous places of death, such as the Tower of London or the house where O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife was murdered. The internet has raised awareness of such places, and cheap flights have made them easier to access. “People are seeking unique experiences and we are seeing the market respond,” says Carolyn Childs of MyTravelResearch.com, a research firm.

Take Chernobyl. The nuclear disaster at a power plant in 1986 in what is now Ukraine killed more than 30 workers, afflicted thousands with radiation poisoning and forced 180,000 Soviet citizens to abandon their homes. A decade ago Dominik Orfanus, a Slovakian journalist, visited Pripyat, a modern city turned into a ghost town by the explosion, and founded a tour company just as the number of visitors to the “exclusion zone” took off (from 7,191 in 2009 to 36,781 in 2016). An easing of government restrictions in 2011 and Ukraine’s hosting of the 2012 European football championship helped numbers swell further. Mr Orfanus’s company, Chernobylwel.com, is one of three such firms, that collectively have more than 2,000 reviews on TripAdvisor, an influential travel-review website. Its guides wear shirts with slogans such as “Enjoy Chernobyl, die later.”

Commodifying Chernobyl can be justified because tourism is seen by locals as a boon to its stunted economy. Salem, meanwhile, is easy to commercialise because the deaths occurred so long ago. But recent tragedies that left a large community grieving demand more sensitivity. Japanese authorities have banned tours to the vicinity of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown after an earthquake caused a tsunami that engulfed the coast in 2011, killing nearly 19,000 people. Local guides take over 2,000 tourists each year anyway to villages near the stricken reactors.

Michael Frazier of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York bristles at the word “attraction,” even though the museum charges admission, sells souvenirs and markets itself on its website as TripAdvisor’s “#2” of 1,055 Things to Do in New York City. It is also “#6” of the World’s Most Instagrammed Museums. Last year, more than 3m visitors brought in $67m in revenue for the non-profit foundation that runs the museum.

At the 9/11 museum and at Auschwitz, crowds are controlled with carefully timed tours. Meanwhile, at Chernobyl, sometimes, “there are so many buses that all of a sudden the ghost town feels like Disneyland,” says Mr Orfanus. Leisure giants such as Disney, of course, are unlikely ever to enter the dark tourism market beyond scary theme-park rides. But Ms Childs sees plenty of room for architecture firms and design consultancies specialising in thoughtful curation to help sites walk the line between commemoration and commercialisation.

It has long been the case that death sells, says Philip Stone of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire. But most dark tourists seek meaning, not merely the deeply macabre. His research into their motives reveals not so much oddballs ticking atrocities off a list as amateur scholars of human nature. The Salem Witch Museum tries to cater to such cerebral interest, casting witch-hunts as a staple of America’s political culture, and citing examples such as Japanese internment after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s scapegoating of alleged communists in the 1950s. A guide asks a crowd clad in black and orange to come up with modern parallels. The visitors exit, deep in thought. 

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