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.
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Special guest blog: A ghost in the city: Dark tourism management from the local government perspective
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?
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?
Should local governments be involved in dark tourism?
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
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
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!).
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.