Buddy Holly glasses marker at crash site
Entrance to the Buddy Holly crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa that claimed his life as well as fellow rock and roll legends, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Dr. Beth Heidelberg features this community as a case study in her research on dark tourism and local governments.

Dark tourism, a growing travel niche, features destinations known for a disaster or tragedy. Is it sensationalism, an exploitation, or simply curiosity and appreciation for history and a way to honorably pay tribute to the victims? I’m excited to collaborate with an expert who is researching dark tourism and its impact on local governments and communities.

So grateful Dr. Beth Wield Heidelberg agreed to share highlights from her research on dark tourism. She offers a unique perspective on how local communities are managing the notoriety, crowds, and revenue when dark tourism comes to town.

This post contains recommended links to products and services. As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases. While you will not accrue any additional costs to support my blog, I may receive compensation if you purchase these products and services. All images are taken by kmf and available for digital download.

Special guest blog: A ghost in the city: Dark tourism management from the local government perspective

photo of a woman profile
Dr. Beth Wielde Heidelberg

Guest blogger contributor: Dr. Beth Wielde Heidelberg is a professor of urban studies at Minnesota State University’s Urban and Regional Studies Institute in Mankato, Minn. Her research specialty focuses on the impact of dark tourism on local governments and how they react to hosting the ghost or a community with a primary tourist point of interest based on an infamous tragedy. Her other specialty areas include historic preservation policy and historic architecture.


Karen’s blog (kmfiswriting.com) is extremely exciting for people who love to travel; she’s explored the world and shared practical advice, historical perspective, and education about some of the most interesting places in the world. Her insights and tips helped me prepare for my recent trip to Cancun. I’ve enjoyed following her work, and was very pleased when she invited me to provide some insight into tourism from my research: dark tourism from the perspective of the local government that hosts it.

What is dark tourism? What is heritage tourism?

Salem Witch Trials Memorial Wall
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial Wall, dedicated in 1992, honors the innocent people who were executed during the notorious witch trials of 1692.

Tourism researchers go back and forth arguing whether dark tourism is a sector of heritage tourism or if it’s a whole new category in the tourism spectrum. They theorize its impact on the site, visitor motivations, and site management. But not many people think about communities that are simultaneously healing from a tragedy and need to manage widespread public interest in what happened. My primary research question is, How do local governments deal with dark tourism without being ghoulish?

Dark tourism: tourist travel to areas affected by or associated with disasters or other public tragedies

dictionary.com

Should local governments be involved in dark tourism?

I-35W Bridge Collapse Remembrance Garden and Memorial
The I-35W Bridge Remembrance Garden Memorial in Minneapolis is located near where the bridge collapsed in 2007. The memorial pays tribute to the 13 lives lost, the 145 injured, and the heroic efforts of every-day people and first responders.

Whenever I discuss my research, I inevitably get the question of why, and whether local government should be involved in dark tourism at all. Valid point. It’s easy to look at dark tourism and its connection to death and tragedy and label it exploitation.

This is an ethical question – one that can be debated back and forth and probably spark a lively discussion. The question I address isn’t should city government be involved, it’s how cities are involved. The reasoning behind that is simple: tourists are going to come, whether the community wants them to or not.

Embraced by some communities, scorned in others, dark tourism doesn’t stop visitors from coming to see where a tragedy happened.

Dark tourism case study: Buddy Holly Crash Site and Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa

Buddy Holly Crash Site Best Roadside Attraction in Iowa
Buddy Holly crash site and museum: The community of Clear Lake, Iowa welcomes tourists from around the world who come to pay their respects to Buddy Holly, J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson, and Richie Valens who died after their plane crashed in a cornfield here in 1959.

Clear Lake, Iowa is the site of the plane crash that claimed the lives of musicians Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. The community has embraced its role as a dark-tourism destination, crafting a community plan that focuses on its role in music history and education. An international tourist destination, Clear Lake, Iowa demonstrates a level of respect toward the victims that is so well done. In fact, the families of Holly, Richardson, and Valens have actively participated in commemorative events in Clear Lake, Iowa.

See kmfiswriting’s related post: Road trip to Iowa – Buddy Holly Crash Site and Museum.

Dark tourism scorned by Amityville, New York

Not all communities embrace dark tourism, such as Amityville, New York. The initial tragedy, the familicide of the DeFeo family, was usurped by the next family to reside in the DeFeo home, George and Kathy Lutz. The Lutzes claimed the house was haunted by demons and other dark forces. Their story became a bestselling novel, The Amityville Horror, and then a series of horror films – overshadowing the real tragedy that took place in the home.



Since the 1970s, people have traveled to Amityville to seek out the house and gaze upon the infamous address. Yet Amityville wants nothing to do with the ghost story. While Amityville is a lovely, welcoming community, they have disavowed the Lutz story and do not help tourists seeking to learn more about the story or the location of the site.

In hopes of discouraging unwanted visitors, the city allowed the current owners of the property to change the home’s appearance such as replacing the infamous lunette (half-moon) windows and granting them a different street number. However, persistent and resourceful tourists find the property anyway.

Ignoring dark tourism doesn’t make it go away.

Who manages dark tourism on behalf of the communities?

Private or the nonprofit sector primarily manages dark tourism, and my research doesn’t advocate taking tourism out of their hands. But there is an overarching value for a city to support tourism regardless of who is managing the main interpretive sites (aka the points of interest). For example, cities receive a great deal of tax revenue from services and sites that support tourism. Cities may even generate their own enterprise revenue by owning and operating these interpretive sites.  

Benefits of city governments investing and embracing dark tourism

Buddy Holly Place road sign

This sounds crass, I know, like I’m linking tragedy and revenue. But it’s a discussion that needs to happen at the community level. That revenue generated by dark tourism (e.g., admission, tickets, souvenirs, etc.) goes back into community investment, such as infrastructure improvements or developing parks. Or it might fund social or educational improvements.

In Clear Lake, Iowa, for example, tourism revenue funds music education programs coordinated by the Surf Ballroom as required of other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. This revenue allowed Clear Lake to make improvements along Buddy Holly Place, which connects travelers along Interstate 35 to the Surf Ballroom (Highway 35 to Highway 18, then just follow the signs and new streetscaping elements!).

Bench outside Surf Ballroom

Additionally, dark tourism revenue may even offset taxes enough to stave off an increase for citizens, and it often helps historical preservation efforts. While it sounds ghoulish to talk about the revenue made from dark tourism, the reality and value is communities reinvest this revenue to benefit its citizens.

How do communities or cities market their dark tourist sites?

Surf Museum Buddy Holly Museum
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa is home to the Buddy Holly Museum and is listed on the Natural Register of Historic Places. This museum features historical memorabilia from other big-name music legends who performed at The Surf Ballroom over the years.

Communities home to regular, non-dark tourist sites promote and market their points of interest openly. But dark tourism makes marketing more challenging. Done poorly, it can seem exploitative and unethical. The dark tourism cities I’ve seen that have successfully navigated this uncomfortable angle of their tourism industry seem to have one thing in common. They create an educational opportunity around the tragedy that is respectful to victims and highlights their lives and contributions to the community.

Top three things communities and governing bodies need to consider when planning dark tourism

Local governments and communities need to consider three overarching components when planning for dark tourism visitors, a concept that may sound familiar to you Constitutional scholars out there: time, place, and manner. When applied to local government involvement in dark tourism, which for some communities can make up a significant percentage of their annual tourism revenue, these ideas take on new meaning.

Dark tourism planning consideration #1: Time

Lower 9tn Ward Hurricane Katrina New Orleans house
Rebuilt house in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. A levee breach after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flooded 80% of the city, destroyed more than 4,000 homes, and caused nearly 2,000 deaths.

Time refers to the question of how soon is too soon. If the city is still recovering, if people are still without stable shelter, food, safety, or water – basic hierarchy of needs – it is far too soon. If a crime is still under investigation and evidence needs to be protected and collected, it is too soon.

Tourism becomes a blurred line when communities are still dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy.

One example of this is when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in 2005 where nearly 2,000 lives were lost. Even so, tour buses began giving Hurricane Katrina tours, despite people still grieving and reeling from their losses. One local researcher noted a deep sense of violation and felt they were on display for entertainment. Yet others saw it as an opportunity to bring awareness of the difficulties the community faced and encountered even before the hurricane, and that dark tourism revenue generated could help the local economy and other recovery efforts.

Dark tourism planning consideration #2: Place

Wide pedestrian walkway in front of stores
Salem, Mass. embraces tourists from around the world and uses the tagline: Still making history. They acknowledge their dark past, but also take the opportunity to educate and promote other historical and current events in Salem. For example, Salem is the birthplace of author of Nathaniel Hawthorne. You can tour his birthplace as well as the home that inspired his classic book, The House of the Seven Gables.

Place refers to identifying exactly which sites are involved. What does the city need to provide if visitors come to the site?

Another consideration is that sometimes tragic events occur on private property. The owners may not want to be part of a tourist plan. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop visitors from coming to their neighborhoods and knocking on their doors.

Many times tragedy is associated with just a single site, but the local government is hoping to move visitors beyond that site and into the larger community to experience other amenities and attractions the city has to offer (e.g., restaurants, hotels, shopping, entertainment venues, nature sites, etc.). In those cases, the local government may want to consider creating another point of interest to provide education and context to the tragedy.

For example, in Clear Lake, Iowa, the city developed Three Stars Plaza. This memorial features monuments and interactive displays that provide education about the legacies of Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. This additional point of interest moves visitors out of the two private sites with immediate connection to the musicians, specifically the Surf Ballroom (site of their final concert) and the privately owned crash site. And redirects dark tourism visitors into the community, while still accommodating the public interest for more information about Holly, Richardson, and Valens.

Dark tourism planning consideration #3: Manner 

the Witch House in Salem Mass dark tourism
Jonathan Corwin House – aka The Witch House – in Salem, Mass.

Manner indicates how the tragedy is presented to visitors and how the local government presents the community where it happened in the local historical context. When the dark tourism site is located on private property, the community may want to provide historical context the private tourist businesses cannot (or prefer not to) include. Alternatively, the city could purchase a property and run a museum to protect the integrity of the narrative from market-responsive interpretations and storytelling (e.g., relying on a sensational and exaggerated story to create interest and attract tourists).

You can find a good example of this in Salem, Mass., infamous for the 1692 Salem witch trials which executed innocent residents. The local government purchased the Jonathan Corwin House, aka The Witch House, and turned it into a museum that provides a history of what happened based on evidence. Additionally, this museum educates tourists about the conditions in the colonies and in the Salem region that likely contributed to the witchcraft furor in the early 1690s.

The local government’s purchase of the last remaining property directly related to the Salem witch trials doesn’t impede on local businesses’ reliance on its notorious history. Rather, it supplements these businesses by providing context and ensures The Witch House receives special consideration for architectural preservation.

Respect – the most important factor in dark tourism planning

Foggy image of the 911 Memorial and Museum and One World Observatory; New York City, New York
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City honors the victims who perished that fateful day. While this could be considered a dark-tourism destination, the memorial offers a positive message of healing, unity, and renewal.

The most important factor in dark tourism planning, and the concept of manner, is respect for those who were impacted by the tragedy. Many times, friends and family of victims still reside in these communities. When possible, the local government needs to build a relationship with surviving members to respectfully memorialize their loved ones.

This isn’t always feasible, particularly when the event was centuries ago, or when there are hundreds or thousands of victims. This can lead to loved ones feeling unheard. For example, it’s a dilemma places like the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation faced and needed to resolve when developing the 9/11 Memorial Museum at the ground zero site in New York City.

Next steps: Research to merge dark tourism with community planning

Mill City Museum view of Mississippi River and Stone Arch Bridge
Disasters of the Riverfront walking tour, hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society, begins at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis. This museum was built on the ruins of Washburn A Flour Mill where several people died during an explosion in 1879.

I plan to interpret and report on a body of qualitative data to create a guide for communities that are unsure or uncomfortable with how to merge dark tourism with their community-planning efforts. These guidelines will include factors communities need to consider in acknowledging and planning their dark tourism strategy.

A few key ideas to frame the tourism planning discussion:

  • Maintain respect for the victims and their loved ones
  • Focus on memorializing the victims and avoid publicizing the perpetrators
  • Create an educational opportunity about the event to ensure the tragedy remains an isolated incident in history that isn’t repeated

Learn more about dark tourism

If you’d like to learn more about my body of research about dark tourism, please watch my recent forum talk at Minnesota State University, Mankato: Dark Tourism and City Government. The presentation begins at 16:41.  

Thank you,  Karen, for giving me an opportunity to share my research, and to you, readers, for sharing an interest in this new, and unusual study of tourism. And safe travels! If you have any questions, or would like additional information, please leave a note in the comments or contact me directly.


Pin it for later: Dark tourism and community planning

Study on dark tourism and impact on local communities

Dark tourism how to do it right
Author

Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller

64 comments

  1. I have to admit, I had never heard of dark tourism. You’ve brought up some very good pro’s and con’s to the dark tourism issue for town’s and cities having to deal with it!

  2. I loved this article! So I had never heard of the term dark tourism, but some of the places I have visited are what I think you would consider dark tourism sites. These are the places I am drawn to. Recently I visited Biloxi, Mississippi, and was very drawn to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I have visited the museum and memorial and the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing site. I am respectful, and my heart hurts for the loss, but I am interested in the locations. Any location should be done respectfully and not imposed on the local community. In turn, I think it should be a contributor to the quality of the community.
    Thank you so much for your insight. I will think about locations differently when I visit them.

    1. Thank you and so grateful to share this insight about dark tourism and the impact on local communities and governments. Lots of great tips on how to do it right and respectfully.

  3. This was a fascinating article! I never realized that dark tourism had a name, much less was a thing… but I get it. Its definitely interesting to note how different places handle their history, and the tourists that come as a result.

    1. Thank you for reading. Very grateful Dr. Beth Wield Heidelberg shared her insights on dark tourism. I think it’s so important to remain respectful and educational.

    1. Thank you. I found this topic of dark tourism and the research findings fascinating as well. I’ve visited many historical places, memorials, and museums (like Pearl Harbor and Anne Frank’s House) very educational and respectful – and never considered them dark tourism.

      1. Great points to think about! I think most of the time it’s about preserving history and remembering those that were lost. But I do think a huge part is having respect. Nothing bothers me more to see young kids laughing in a photo at a place no one should be laughing.

        1. I agree. It is so important to pay tribute to those impacted by these tragic events. I learned so much about dark tourism from this study.

  4. I’m personally not very interested in dark tourism myself, but I’ve been fascinated with the subject ever since I watched the Netlfix series “Dark Tourist”. Very interesting to read Dr. Heidelberg’s take on it. I can see where it would really create some dilemmas for these communities.

    1. I’m not familiar with that show…will look into it. I had a very different perspective on what dark tourism was before reading this research. I didn’t think some of the places I had visited would be considered dark tourism (like Anne Frank’s Home or the 9/11 Memorial and Museum). I think it’s because of my personal motivation of honoring and remembering the victims and appreciating history and education while remaining respectful. Very thought-provoking topic.

  5. I have never heard of the term dark tourism. This is an interesting way to phrase it for sure. I enjoy visiting sites like this though.

    1. I found this research of dark tourism very insightful and intriguing. It’s so important to remain respectful and ensuring an educational element.

  6. I think it comes down to public vs private property. If it’s public, governments should take advantage of it as a source of income and to allow it to be visited respectfully as opposed to people coming and potentially doing things untoward to gain access. If it’s private, then it’s entirely up to the owners what to do.

  7. Great post. So many people become curious about a city’s past including the tragic parts. Definitely alot for cities to look into when deciding to have tourist sites and tours of these tragic events, must be done in a respectful way.

    1. So very true! I found Dr. Beth Weild Heidelberg’s research on dark tourism by and its relationship with urban planning enlightening. Focusing on the educational aspect while maintaining respect is so important.

  8. Besides the admittedly slightly voyeuristic pleasure I got from reading about all these dark tourism sites, I found it very interesting to have this scientific angle on them and how local authorities deal with them.

    “Creating an educational opportunity around the tragedy that is respectful to victims and highlights their lives and contributions to the community” certainly makes a lot of sense to me.

    Thank you for sharing this guest blog post, Karen.

    1. You’re welcome and my pleasure. I learned a lot from Dr. Beth Wield Heidelberg’s research on dark tourism. The passage you quoted about creating an educational opportunity while remaining respectful really resonated with me also.

  9. This is SUCH an interesting topic to me! I’ve had this conversation with people over the years – how going to Chernobyl is odd and exploitative but the 9/11 memorial is a “must” for tourists in New York. Thanks for writing!

    1. Thank you. I’m so grateful Dr. Beth Wield Heidelberg shared her research insights about dark tourism. Before, I tended to think of dark tourism as exploitative, controversial locations and the educational museums and memorials more as historical destinations.

  10. Such an interesting topic and fascinating post. I’ve been to a few of these sites – most recently, the Buddy Holly crash site in Iowa. Great insight here on how it should be done with respect!

    1. Thank you. I found this study about dark tourism and how local governments respond by Dr. Beth Wield Heidelberg very insightful. It’s so important to ensure respect and education and avoid exploitation.

  11. This was such an interesting and insightful read! I have often considered the ethical parts of dark tourism. There are definitely some memorials or historical sights that I think are important but a few can sometimes seem quite exploitative.

    1. Thank you. I think Dr. Beth Wield Heidelberg offered some fascinating insights about dark tourism. And that the most successful are those that honor the victims respectfully and create educational opportunities.

  12. Wow! What a read! I have never heard of dark tourism but it was explained really well. It really is controversial especially when the locals are against it and try to leave something bad in the past but it comes back to life with tourism.

    1. Dark tourism is a travel trend and while I don’t condone exploitation, there are places that have succeeded in creating educational opportunities. Fascinating study.

  13. An interesting read Karen, especially as I struggle with promoting dark tourism sites. So many places in Western Australia have a dark history relating to the massacre and treatment of the original landowners. However, this is sadly part of the history but needs to be handled correctly. I feel we are starting to head in the right direction.

  14. This was an interesting article about dark tourism. I’ve never really heard much on the topic, so thank you for sharing your research. I agree. If it is represented in the right way, it can be a source of education.

  15. This is so interesting. I’ve never heard the term before, nor did I really ever give it much thought. But, I did get a lot out of this, great research!

    1. I was surprised to find that some places that I’ve visited are considered dark tourism. I learned a lot about this travel niche.

  16. What an interesting read! I never heard about dark tourism before, so I discovered many new things. And honestly, I feel like you cleared all my doubts. Great works 🙂

  17. Very thought-provoking! I haven’t seen the term defined before but this makes good sense. I enjoy these sites (maybe more so the ones that straddle the line between dark and heritage). Agree with you, the motivation is purely to seek understanding, compassion, respect and history.

    1. I found this study on dark tourism very thought-provoking also. And appropriate motivation, respect for the victims and appreciation are so important.

  18. This is really interesting! I had never really thought about dark tourism before, but when I was visiting Iceland it’s super common for people to visit a plane crash and I couldn’t bring myself to do it! I learned a lot from your post!

  19. Very interesting article. You brought up many ideas that I have never really given much thought to. I agree that respect is the most important factor when considering dark tourism.

    1. I hadn’t really thought of some of the historical places I’ve visited as dark tourism previously. This research proves that it can be done respectfully with a historic perspective – and that it can also support historical preservation for buildings.

  20. This is such an interesting post! I’ve always thought of touring “dark tourism” sites as a part of learning history, when it’s done respectfully, of course. It’s interesting to think that dark tourism may be its own sector of tourism completely separate from heritage tourism. Thanks for sharing this perspective.

  21. I agree that having the subject matter treated respectfully is a top concern. If it is just being done for sensationalism then that is taking advantage of other people’s tragedy.

    1. I agree. I think this research on dark tourism offered great insights on how some local governments are doing it respectfully as an educational opportunity.

  22. What an interesting article! I live in Minneapolis (not far from the I35W bridge collapse memorial) and work for a local government agency so this really resonates with me. It’s so important to engage with survivors or those most impacted when deciding how design to memorials/ experiences for visitors to learn and appreciate what happened.

    1. Thank you for reading! I found this dark tourism research study very enlightening. So important to never forget this type of history in a respectful way.

  23. Very interesting and informative blog post! I am glad you explained the difference between dark tourism and heritage tourism in detail. I also liked the reasons why Governments must invest and embrace dark tourism. It is important for tourists to have a choice to explore these dark areas and understand their background. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I learned so much about dark tourism and the impact on communities. So important to do this respectfully that educates and preserves history.

  24. Fascinating topic! I know places like Salem definitely handle their darker history well. And then some places lean more into sensationalism. Lots to think about here.

    1. Thank you! I found this research on dark tourism and urban planning fascinating as well. I agree that Salem does a great job of preserving history in an educational way.

  25. This is such an interesting and insightful post. I have heard of dark tourism but never really thought anything of it. After reading this post, I am now I aware of the pros and cons to this type of tourism. Thank you for sharing.

  26. Thank you all for the comments on my research! I am excited to explore more aspects of dark tourism, and partnering with people like Kmf helps to bring my work out of dusty old academic journals (that, let’s face it, few people read) and into the public realm where it might be useful, both to local governments and citizens in these communities, and to people traveling to these communities, giving them some new insight into the places they visit. Thank you, Kmf!

    1. You’re welcome and my pleasure! I learned so much about dark tourism. Thank you so much for sharing your research and expertise on this travel niche.

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