Tour operators are understandably expressing no desire to launch Covid-related tours while the pandemic is still ongoing. But as themes like death and tragedy already feature prominently in numerous trips, history suggests some tour operators will eventually include visits to Covid memorials in their offerings.
Death, destruction, war, and illness have fascinated people for decades. So not surprisingly, several destinations associated with those aspects of humanity — such as Auschwitz, Ground Zero and Chernobyl — have attracted large numbers of visitors.
So could places with connections with Covid-19 join them in becoming popular attractions in the realm of dark tourism? You can almost count on it, considering the sector has seemingly grown in popularity in recent years while the pandemic is undoubtedly one of the biggest events of the 21st century.
But what is dark tourism? The term, coined in 1996 by professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, refers to the practice of visiting places associated with death and tragedy. While no official statistics exist stating how many travelers participate in dark tourism annually, certain destinations linked to disaster had experienced growth in visitor numbers prior to the pandemic. Chernobyl welcomed a record 124,000 visitors in 2019, attracted in large part by the popular eponymous TV series. Meanwhile, roughly 2.15 million people visited Auschwitz the previous year, an increase from the figure recorded in 2018.
And even after emerging as the epicenter of Covid-19, Wuhan already seems to have already joined the list. The city ranked first among domestic destinations Chinese travelers would like to visit, according to a study conducted by the Tourism Research Centre in China. Although the rise in domestic visitors to Wuhan may, in large part, stem from a duty many Chinese feel to support the recovering city, it may also benefit from a surge in foreign visitors in years to come.
But do tour operators see a market for pandemic-inspired tourism? Andreas Fatouros, an executive at one company that has created dark tourism trips examining events in numerous European countries, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Covid-19 is still affecting millions of people. While there are people still suffering or losing their lives to Covid-19, the pandemic can’t and shouldn’t be seen as a tourist product at this exact time,” said the CEO of Greece-based Clio Muse Tours, adding that dark tourism should be focused on events that occurred decades ago. “In that way, you show respect to those affected and (ensure) there is enough time to do proper research and present an important historical event the right way.”
Neverthless, Fatouros believes the future could be a different story as a market might emerge for Covid-related dark tourism excursions, considering the pandemic’s significance to the 21st century. If and when those trips do take place, he opines they would most likely feature monuments and memorials erected to honor those who passed away due to Covid.
“However, I believe it’s too early to make conclusions about what exactly dark tourism tours in Covid-related places will look like,” he said.
There are certainly memorials around the world that such trips could take travelers to — one of them being the National Covid Memorial Wall in London. Volunteers in the city have painted 150,000 red hearts on a wall along the south bank of the River Thames, and people have written the names of loved ones as well as messages on the hearts to pay tribute to those who have died from Covid. More than 200 political figures — including Members of Parliament and mayors throughout the country — have called on the 500-meter wall to be made a permanent landmark.
The National Covid Memorial Wall may not be the only prominent location in London to pay tribute to victims of Covid as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has expressed support for a Coronavirus memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Elsewhere, New York has unveiled plans to erect a memorial to victims of the pandemic although it’s uncertain where the monument will be located.
But will any of those places be featured in pandemic-inspired trips in the near future? Several tour operators contacted by Skift said they weren’t considering Covid-related excursions or hadn’t seen them emerge as an industry trend. Meanwhile, Fatouros loudly states launching a Covid-centered trip is definitely not on the horizon for Clio Muse Tours.
“First of all, the pandemic is still here affecting people all over the world. We would never take advantage of what people are going through to create a tourist product,” he said.
Young Pioneer Tours is in the same boat. Despite taking guests on tours to locations such as the Belarus Exclusion Zone, which was decimated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Managing Director Gareth Johnson doesn’t envisage trips to Wuhan as ever being in the cards for the China-based company. Although its website states that dark tourism can, from an economic standpoint, help places recently affected by tragedy, Johnson fails to see Wuhan benefitting from dark tourism.
“China and Wuhan have dealt with the pandemic very well and, for all intents and purposes, are back to normal. The economy is also strong,” he said. “Aside from day trips and talking to people who went through the lockdown, I do not see the interest.”
And despite his belief there will be somewhat of a market for Covid-inspired dark tourism trips due to a growing interest in not-so-pleasant periods of history, Johnson also cast doubt on the likelihood of moments honoring Covid victims becoming major tourist attractions. “The nature of the virus does not create natural dark tourism spots,” he said.
But as the calls for permanent monuments honoring victims and first responders grow louder, so do the concerns that Covid-19 and those who died due to it will be forgotten. While sites dedicated to the victims of diseases may have been rare prior to the pandemic, experts believe memorials believing monuments paying tribute to those who died from Covid will grow in stature — and perhaps join the ranks of popular tourism sites.
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Photo credit: A signer at the National Covid Memorial Wall in London. Matt Brown / National Covid Memorial Wall