Plans for commercial bus tours of Christchurch's red zone have received mixed reactions. Some people think meeting tourist demand for such a service is just fine; others feel that offering sightseeing trips through streets where death and destruction occurred is tacky and disrespectful.
In fact, it's just our own local version of so-called disaster tourism - a travel trend sweeping the world and proving that there really is no scene so grim, no atrocity so gross, no loss of life so appalling, that hordes of tourists won't want to visit and take photos to show the folks back home.
According to travel-industry-dictionary.com, disaster tourism is "[t]ravel undertaken for the purpose of visiting the scene of a natural disaster, usually with a connotation of voyeurism." Disaster tourism along with "grief tourism" - which entails visits to memorials, cemeteries and possibly places such as Graceland Mansion, Memphis - is a subset of "dark tourism", a growing force in the travel industry. I'm not sure exactly where Jack the Ripper walking tours and visits to battlefields fit but they're certainly in the mix.
Tourism of this nature has little appeal to me. I had a week in New York in 2010 and steered clear of the 9/11 memorial for a mixture of vague reasons. It felt touristy, voyeuristic and disrespectful; I couldn't shake the suspicion that a visit in some way would have been glorifying the terror attacks. If I'd lost a loved one at the World Trade Centre, I wouldn't relish the prospect of eager tourists lining up to visit the scene - or worse: purchasing a souvenir bow-tie, baseball cap or T-shirt.
But I'm not as squeaky clean on the gloomy tourism front as I hoped. In the 90s I visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, and there's a photo of a much younger me posing beside a cannon which I'm almost certain is at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. I've also visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Clearly once sufficient time has elapsed to make an event part of history rather than fresh memory I have no qualms about queuing with the rest of the tourists.
These days my ideal overseas trip involves sipping mojitos poolside but for those with other aims for their travels there are attractions to meet every requirement. As well as tours through concentration camps (long a staple part of our OEs), there have been bus tours through neighbourhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and guided tours through Chernobyl's exclusion zone. Visitors also flocked to see the devastation wrought by Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami.
A bespoke service can be procured from disastertourism.co.uk: "Have you just learnt of a disaster ... and want to get out there and see it for yourself? Get in touch and we'll make it happen." And proving our ghoulishness really knows no bounds were the thousands of day-trippers drawn to the English village of Soham, Cambridgeshire, where two little girls were murdered in 2002. I seriously hope they don't sell commemorative baseball caps and T-shirts there.
So what's your approach to disaster tourism and dark tourism in general? Where do you draw the line between what's acceptable and what is downright creepy?By Shelley Bridgeman