It can be morbid. It's always a bit voyeuristic. But it seems like a fundamental human urge. Like drivers slowing to gawk at a gruesome accident, tourists often feel a profound need to see the aftermath of disaster and devastation wherever in the world they strike.
The result is a form of travel increasingly coming to be known as "dark tourism."
From ground zero in New York and Katrina's destructive force in New Orleans to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, witnessing places where horrific deaths have occurred has for many become an integral part of experiencing a destination.
The latest such disaster is the deadly Jan. 13 Costa Concordia accident off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio, where the partially submerged vessel remains. Demolition and removal of the ship will likely take 10 to 12 months to complete, according to estimates from several salvage companies that submitted plans to Costa Cruises.
So far, operators who offer Italy say they have seen no demand for travel to Giglio, although Italian news outlets report that Tuscany tourism officials are encouraging travelers to visit the island as a "gesture of love" to help counter what they fear will be a drop-off in tourism following the incident.
That plea, coupled with the dramatic image of the Concordia resting on its side on a reef, raises the question of whether people will actually want to visit Giglio just to see the stricken vessel with their own eyes. Will they feel a need to bear witness to a disaster made all the more curious because it was such a rare maritime tragedy?
"Reports of tourists making excursions to see the stricken vessel suggest the spot of the disaster is likely to become a 'dark tourism' destination," Philip Stone, executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the U.K.'s University of Central Lancashire, wrote in a Jan. 22 article for the Huffington Post.
"The commodification of the disaster has already seen the retailing of T-shirts lampooning Francesco Schettino, the Italian captain of the ship, and his apparent refusal to get back on board," Stone observed.
He went on to draw parallels between the Costa Concordia accident and the Titanic, which is being commemorated this year with numerous exhibitions and special events marking the 100th anniversary of its sinking on April 15, 1912.
"It is the appropriation of the Titanic by Costa Concordia survivors and the media alike that indelibly imprints into tourists' perceptions a vision of panic, fear and mediation on 'mortality moments,'" Stone wrote. "Life and death is viewed through a touristic lens. The hedonistic tourists' gazes become, briefly, morbid."
For some, however, the morbidity of such tourism goes too far.
On Feb. 28, as search teams were still working to recover victims of the accident, Diana Ferro, vice president of sales for Italy specialist Perillo Tours, wrote in an email: "Ordinarily, disaster scenes can be interesting to tourists, but in this case, there are still dead bodies in the wreckage. Gawking is in bad taste. We haven't gotten any requests [to see the vessel] and wouldn't fulfill any for this reason."
Several other tour operators that sell Italy, including Trafalgar, Central Holidays and Friendly Planet Travel, also reported that, despite the plea from Tuscany tourism officials, they had not yet received requests from travelers interested in seeing the partially submerged ship.
Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, wrote in an email: "For the safety of our customers, we tend to avoid travel to destinations that have recently experienced disaster, unless it is for the purpose of aiding in recovery. Otherwise, we feel that bringing travelers to a disaster-ridden area is simply adding to [the destination's] troubles or getting in the way of cleanup and recovery."
Goldman said Friendly Planet Travel had several customers in Italy at the time of the accident, but she said none of them expressed any interest in visiting the site. Disaster tourism's mass appeal
Whether people will begin seeking travel to Giglio to see the Concordia wreckage, and in what numbers, remains to be seen. Nor is it clear how long the ship will be there.
But certain disaster sites have become major must-see stops for hordes of tourists.
By the end of 2011, just three-and-a-half months after it opened to the public, the 9/11 Memorial had already welcomed more than 1 million visitors, according to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the nonprofit that oversees operation of the memorial and museum at the World Trade Center.
In the first weeks and months after the 2001 attack, crowds would gather at the site in shocked silence to witness the destruction and cleanup efforts. For the remainder of the next decade, visitors clandestinely watched as a gigantic hole, in the ground and it the country's psyche, was slowly transformed by concrete and workers.
"For 10 years, people were only able to walk the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, stealing glances at the progress through construction fences," 9/11 Memorial President Joe Daniels said in a statement.
Arguably, the 9/11 Memorial site now gives visitors a way to properly and meaningfully engage with the emotional ravages of terrorism. To that end, it joins memorials around the world built to honor victims of violence and, in a very real sense, to offer visitors an experience that is both educational and cathartic.
In 2011, 1.4 million people from all over the globe visited the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz, a record figure for the memorial, which has been open for 65 years.
"Auschwitz is to the world the symbol of the atrocities and the total, mass extermination of the Jews in gas chambers, carried out by Germans," Piotr Cywinski, director of the Memorial and Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, said in a statement about the 2011 visitor numbers. A visit to the site is "not only a history lesson but also a lesson in responsibility resulting from memory."
Auschwitz is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, a designation normally reserved for places of extraordinary cultural or natural value.
Unesco said Auschwitz was put on the list for, among other things, being "a place of our collective memory of this dark chapter in the history of humanity, of transmission to younger generations and a sign of warning of the many threats and tragic consequences of extreme ideologies and denial of human dignity."
What's interesting about the sheer numbers of tourists who take the time to visit these sites is the emotional and psychological weight of them. It is never easy to look these atrocities in the face.
Anyone who has visited Auschwitz, Cambodia's Killing Fields, Hiroshima, the 9/11 Memorial or any of the vast number of sites around the world recalling victims of war, genocide, massacres or other forms of violence or of man-made or natural disasters knows the heaviness a visit to these places bears. The mood is somber, the places usually eerily quiet. One could even say that death seems to linger in the air. These are not fun stops on the vacation itinerary.
Yet many people feel an inherent need to visit them.
The growing interest in disaster or dark tourism, which evolved from a practice formerly called "battle tourism," has led to the creation of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire. On April 24, the institute will host a Dark Tourism Symposium, marking the formal launch of the research center and the articulation of its mission.
The institute defines dark tourism as travel to sites of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre.
The institute's website states that dark tourism "is a subject that has received increasing academic and media attention over the past decade or so. Yet, despite this increased attention, the subject area remains eclectic and theoretically fragile."
The aim of the institute is to bring together scholars to research the ethical, social and scientific underpinnings of dark tourism and heritage as well as the appropriate development, management, interpretation and promotion of dark tourism sites, attractions and exhibitions.
In the realm of dark tourism, what might seem respectful or acceptable to some might strike others as appalling. Earlier this month, a Milwaukee company's offer of tours inspired by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was met with charges of insensitivity.
Sharr Prohaska, a professor at New York University's Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management, cautioned that dark tourism can cross a line into disrespecting death or the dead, offering as an example ghost tours in cemeteries.
"I don't think anybody should have fun at the expense of death," Prohaska said. Dark tourism's bright side
Keeping in mind the sensitivity this type of tourism requires, Prohaska and others in the travel industry believe that dark tourism can and should be executed respectfully, educationally and in a way that can benefit the victim communities.
Prohaska noted that disaster tourism also raises awareness and often leads directly to visitors wanting to be part of the solution, helping with cleanup and recovery efforts.
"Tourism is changing," Prohaska said. "There is this whole new emphasis on voluntourism. People are going to these places, and out of that comes this sort of new type of tourist. They see these things, and once they've experienced it, they say, 'What can I do to help?'"
Prohaska said that positive examples of disaster tourism evolving into voluntourism efforts include New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Haiti after the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010.
Kelly Schulz of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau recalled that "after Katrina, the tours that happened in the city were controversial because some people thought it was insensitive to have bus tours going through neighborhoods that were devastated."
But, Schulz said, "from a tourism standpoint, for us, after Katrina, the tours were a positive thing."
For one thing, she said, the tours helped show people where the devastation was relative to the city's popular tourist areas such as the French Quarter and Garden District, which were not as severely damaged by the hurricane and flooding as most of the rest of the city.
Beyond that, she said, many of New Orleans' travel and tour companies were struggling financially after Katrina and the evaporation of visitors to the city, and the Katrina tours actually helped keep them in business.
Seven years after the hurricane, several companies continue to offer Katrina tours, including Gray Line Tours, Historic New Orleans Tours, Louisiana Tour Co., Tours BaYou, Celebration Tours, Dixie International Tours and Tours by Isabelle.
Schulz said that the tone of the tours today is positive, focusing on the progress being made and the rebuilding efforts since the levies broke on that ill-fated day in 2005.
The tours "also make people want to help," she said. "One of the most positive things after Katrina was the whole voluntourism trend of visitors who came and wanted to help. Some people helped by donating money. Some people helped by taking in Katrina evacuees. Some people are helping by coming to the city and rolling up their sleeves to build houses."
Put another way, the tours helped to personalize the devastation, serving as a call to action for many.
A year after the tsunami that ravaged Japan on March 11, 2011, travel companies and tour operators are promoting travel to the island-nation as a crucial component in Japan's recovery. For example, Travcoa recently partnered with the Japan National Tourism Organization to introduce a promotion intended to stimulate travel to Japan.
Call it disaster tourism or just routine tourism recovery efforts, but when calamitous death and destruction are involved, the urge to develop travel products goes beyond mere business.
Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, said it derives from a certain sense of duty to the destination. Beyond mere voluntourism, Upchurch cited the vital role the travel industry plays in bringing tourists and tourism dollars back to crisis-stricken destinations at a time when they most need the help.
"Whether it's compassion or curiosity driving the consumer's decision to visit is really irrelevant," Upchurch said. "If you believe that there is inherent good in people, then you operate under the assumption that the purpose of making such a trip is not to gawk but to gain an understanding of the situation."
Upchurch added, "And if that's the underlying motivation, then yes, travelers can satisfy their desire to witness certain events in a respectful manner. I believe that the tourism industry has a responsibility to support and promote destinations in need." For news on tour operations, wholesalers and river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.