Morbidly curious tourism

The Wall Street Journal reports that "after being scared off by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, Chinese tourists are visiting Japan in record numbers again, generating much-needed business and optimism for the nation's struggling retail and tourism sectors." (And in a nod to the economic might of the world's most populous country the article goes on to note that Chinese customers on average spend 7 times as much as a Western tourist in Japan.)

While Chinese tourists visiting Japan don't quite fall into the latest niche labeled as "Disaster Tourism" the seemingly morbidly curious do constitute a relatively meaningful subset of the tourism economy. Disaster tourism has a fairly long post-war history starting with visits to the concentration camps of Germany to droves of camera-toting visitors to what was till recently known as "Ground-Zero" the site of the bombed out Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

The sinking of the Costa Concordia and resulting death of over 17 passengers has not deterred operators from organizing trips to see the coastline and the oversized whale like hulk of the doomed ship. Ireland's economic woes spawned its own unique version of disaster tourism where laid-off – strategically downsized in banking parlance – workers on their own initiative ran factory tours of idled plants.

Within the US, Disaster Tourism has not been without controversy. Last May Joplin, Missouri was struck by a catastrophic EF5 tornado, leaving a 22 mile long path of destruction that was a mile wide in some areas.  The tornado killed 162 people and injured thousands.  Nearly eight months later, the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau was under fire for offering visitors a free “tornado travel” map which highlights areas hit by the tornado and can be picked up for free at local hotels and businesses. Six years after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that heaped opprobrium on the US administration of the time, tour operator Gray Line, offers $48 tours that provide "an eyewitness account of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster on American soil."

No one has come up with a sugar-coated euphemism such as Memorial Tourism in honor of the dead and injured. Regardless of whether it is morbid curiosity, as seen in rubber-necking on the road, or a desire to commiserate and memorialize a disaster there seems to be a sufficiently robust demand for this sub-market.


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Vijay Dandapani

Co-founder and president of a New York based hotel company for 24 years. Grew the firm to five hotels in Manhattan and also developed a greenfield project at MacArthur airport, New York. Speaker at numerous prestigious forums including Economy Hotels World Asia, Lodging Conference, NYU, Columbia University Real Estate Roundtable, Baruch College's Zicklin School and ALIS. President and ceo of New York City Hotel Association since January 2017.