Whether it’s divers exploring underwater shipwrecks or impressive cathedrals built to ward off catastrophic plagues, disasters and mysteries shape the tourist landscape much more than we realise.
For a start, there’s a lot of tourism that stems from historic events—think of the catacombs underneath the Basílica y Convento de San Francisco in Lima or the tours exploring Jack the Ripper’s London.
Macabre or Dark Tourism sites often capture the headlines (such as trips to vist the sites of environmental disasters) and it isn’t new. Professor J. John Lennon, a professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University coined the phrase ‘Dark Tourism’ in 1996, believing that it stemmed as far back as the public hangings in London in the 16th century and continued with the people who reportedly watched the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 from their horse-drawn carriages.
However, a lot more of our global tourist itineraries are filled with buildings that serve to remind people of past disasters, even if they aren’t aware of the fact.
In the early 19th century, cholera was plaguing the Mediterranean city of Marseille so devastatingly that city planners spent ten years building aqueducts and tunnels to bring a fresh water supply to residents, notably the impressive Roquefavour aqueduct. In central Marseille, the chateau-like Palais Longchamp (inaugurated in 1869) commemorates the canal’s completion and today, it’s one of the first stops on any visitor’s itinerary.
The Plague Column in Vienna was built to commemorate the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1679 that killed 12,000 people, and during the recent pandemic it became a shrine once more, a collective way to think about loved ones by lighting a candle at its base.
Likewise, one of Venice’s most visited buildings, the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, was built to ward off the plague that was ravishing the Italian city in 1631.
Venice’s Basilica and the Plague Column in Vienna are just two examples of many monuments built around the world to remember people who perished during pandemics.
It isn’t just disasters that shape tourism either. Often people will head to places with wildly idiosyncratic customs, many of which seem a little spooky or creepy to foreign visitors.
Nagoro is a small village in Japan with a dwindling population of just 27 (all over 50 years old). As every person has died or moved out, a local resident has replicated them in the form of a life-sized doll and there are now 350 of them, to be found on benches, behind desks and in shops around the village.
Likewise, Xochimilco in Mexico might be a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed for the famous canal system built by the Aztecs, but there are many tourists as keen to try to hire boats to catch a glimpse of the Island of the Dolls, where a tiny island is adorned with dolls and parts of dolls, hanging from every tree. It used to be the home of a man (now deceased) who hung the dolls up to ward off evil spirits after he found the body of a small girl nearby.
In Sagada in the Philippines, it is a village-wide custom that attracts the tourists, who arrive to muse at the hanging coffins—part of a centuries-old tradition of making your own coffin and then being hoisted up the local cliffs inside it to live out your afterlife.
Of course, one of the most ancient disaster sites is possibly the most well-known. It is still attracting visitors ever since the local volcano erupted in the Italian town of Pompeii in AD 79. Part of the continued fascination is that the locals were preserved well-enough by the volcanic ash in their final actions, so that archaeologists were able to make perfect molds of the local population at the time of eruption—one of the most powerful ways to visit the past through historic events.