You can’t beat a good ole gawk — disaster-tourism is where it’s at

Sustainability as a tourist attraction requires that a building must be ancient and hold dead people (the pyramids), bendy (the Tower of Pisa) or linked with imprisonment, torture and execution (the Tower of London).

In this category, Ireland does well.

When, two years ago, Hurricane Katrina made bits of New Orleans, it scattered a community to the four winds and devastated a local economy. It also ruined a great tourist destination.

It could not be rebuilt for years, said the pessimists, and even if it were, it could be written off as a tourist attraction longterm. In the short term, of course, nobody in their right mind with money in their pocket and a week or fortnight’s free time was going to spend it in a semi-abandoned city, its buildings swathed, its jazz replaced by the sound of pneumatic drills and lump hammers.

The pessimists didn’t reckon though, on a principal human condition: we love disaster. Even when we’re on our way to work, we’ll slow down to gawk at two cars buried up to the crank shaft in each other. We might not want to pay for the privilege, but if you look at the huffy faces drivers develop when they are told by the gardaí to “move along, there now,” you can’t help but wonder if — given the choice — some of them would stump up a few euro to be allowed to stay and gawk.

Disaster-tourism turned all those expectations upside down. First of all, disaster-tourism brought international gawkers to the areas devastated by the tsunami as soon as the waters and the camera-crews retreated. They kept coming, thereafter.

Within months of the hurricane, daily bus tours for visitors had been reinstated, catering for passengers eager, not just to see what was left of the place, but to see the damage done by the muddy waters.

The visitors were not universally welcome. The Army Corps of Engineers, trying to co-ordinate the reconstruction, fiercely disapproved of the wandering vehicles getting in the way of their cranes and trucks. The locals — what was left of them — were confused. Some of them thought the idea of bus tour operators profiting from the death and destruction of communities was unethical. Some believed that the more people who saw the sequelae of the storm the better — they would help support the city’s lobbying for more assistance. Some saw it simply as a sign of recovery and resilience.

The gawker instinct has created a whole new unique selling proposition for New Orleans: “Come and tour the disaster area you saw on TV.” The visitors, unlike those who trekked to the southern city in the past, may not be connoisseurs of traditional jazz, but they are paying customers. The local taxi people, at first surprised to see their business picking up, have now seen it develop to such an extent that some of them have bought extra cars and trained sub-contracted drivers to run tours, so that tourists get to see where the levees broke and the river came ashore, where the locals were rounded up and sheltered, and where some of the more gruesome events of the flooding took place. Visitors drawn this summer to the United States because of the weak dollar can find any number of official tours on the web, available for advance booking.

What kind of people would want to spend their summer holidays listening to a guide listing off how death came to one unfortunate person after another? The short answer is: normal people.

The vicarious thrill of visiting the site of someone else’s tragedy has always been central to tourism. Trans-Atlantic tourism, pioneered by the Thomas Cook agency, took British travellers on tours of American Civil War battlefields within months of the end of the conflict, when it was still possible to pick up abandoned guns, clothing and other souvenirs from the torn-up soil. Nor can Thomas Cook be blamed for creating the hunger to stand in locations where history was committed. One unfortunate man whose house was demolished by a cannon ball in the early stages of the war moved as far away as possible, to a place called Appomattox. It was a bad choice. Not only did his new home become the venue for General Lee’s surrender, but the Union officers who were present, eager to bring home souvenirs to prove they’d been there, stole most of his furniture by way of souvenirs.

Today, the location of famous Civil War battles are popular tourist destinations, as are Waterloo, the landing sites during the second world war and the Battle of the Boyne and Battle of Kinsale sites.

It’s a significant indicator of our preference for death, disaster and destruction that few of the structures or cities that sprang up on the land where antebellum buildings were razed have become visitor attractions. New buildings have to deliver a great view and be controversial, like the Eiffel Tower, or deliver a great view and have cinematic gorillas, like the Empire State Building. Otherwise, they attract only other architects and architectural aficionados like Brad Pitt, who is reputed to get up on his motorbike every now and then and lash across Europe to look at the architectural wonders of the new Berlin. (On the other hand, if you’ve a family that big and that young, any excuse to get out of the house is good).

New and filled with the living, a building rarely becomes a tourist attraction. Old and destroyed and filled with the dead, on the other hand, is a hugely attractive combination. Sustainability as a tourist attraction requires that a building must be ancient and hold dead people (like the pyramids), bendy (like the Tower of Pisa) or linked with imprisonment, torture and execution (like the Tower of London). In this category, Ireland does well. It has Newgrange, it has mummified dead people in St Audeon’s Church in Dublin and it has St Oliver Plunkett’s head in a church in the main street in Drogheda, together with the door from his prison cell.

We’re good on graveyards, too, whether it’s graveyards holding the bodies of Irish artists or patriots, or German airmen or members of the travelling community. The latter tend not only to have spectacular funerals, but spectacular grave displays too.

The one death-related issue Ireland doesn’t include in its tourist maps or on the Fáilte Ireland website is murder. The Hughes&Hughes bookshops at the airport are stuffed with accounts of famous Irish murders but somehow this has not translated into a tourist attraction, whereas visitors to London always wanted to be taken to locations like 10 Rillington Place, to connect with Reginald Christie, arguably the most sanctimonious murdering necrophile who ever lived — not that there’s much competition to be top of that particular sub-group.

It’s a pity we don’t make more of our historic murders. In many cases, the buildings are still there. Turn into Hume Street in Dublin, for example, and you can still see the basement steps up which the mad old abortionist Mamie Caden dragged the two young women who died at her hands in the basement where she plied her trade.

We have blue plaques on buildings where famous people lived. Red plaques on buildings where famous (and historic) murders were committed might have their place in the totality of our tourist product.

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