Monday, February 2, 2009

Morbid tourism in earthquake zone

Hanwang, Sichuan ©Paddy Booz

Shortly after the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan we heard of local Chengdu residents going up to the earthquake area just to rubberneck at destroyed buildings and surviviors camped out near the ruins of their previous lives. Indeed, so many people drove out to Mianyang and Dujiangyan (two of the closest areas near Chengdu hit by the earthquake) that their cars were blocking the roads and they had to be shooed away by the police. Admittedly for many it was  a way of trying to fathom what on earth had happened. The earthquake had come so suddenly and caused such enormous tragedy that Sichuan and a lot of China were in a state of shock. Seeing with your own eyes buildings that were leaning on their sides and whole villages completely obliterated in just a few seconds is something difficult for the mind and heart to comprehend, so many understandably sought answers by visiting in person. 

Others just came to gawk and take pictures, like tourists. This kind of voyeuristic tourism is well-studied and has many names: "morbid tourism", "dark tourism", "thanatourism", "disaster tourism", "grief tourism", etc. I'm the first to admit that there is a kind of magnetic appeal to places where something horrible has happened. I remember on a visit to New York friends being fascinated by an otherwise completely normal looking house that was the site of the Amityville Haunting on Long Island (which later evolved into the Amityville Horror book and movie). A large industry has grown up around this kind of tourism: Tourists visit the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died in a car crash. They join Jack the Ripper tours in London and visit The Killing Fields in Cambodia, the London Dungeon, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ground Zero, Pompeii and Khao Lak in Thailand. It also seems that the farther we distance ourselves from a tragedy the more legitimate (and less voyeuristic) a disaster site becomes: war graveyards, tombs, battlefields, execution sites in the distant past are labeled as "history tours" . Many make the distinction between a natural disaster and a disaster caused by man himself, but it is death, destruction, pain and suffering that is the common drawing card for them all.

China is no exception although many of the sites are clothed in the legitimacy of history, revolution and political legitimacy: Museum of the Nanjing Massacre, the battlefields of the Three Kingdoms, the route of the Long March. Everyday tourists gather around the Well of the Pearl Concubine in the Forbidden City, seemingly trying to figure out how such a small opening could swallow up a concubine. The questions going through their heads are easy to imagine: Was she chopped into pieces first or was she drowned in the well itself? 

...and now finally we have regular tourism to the earthquake areas of Sichuan as seen by this notice in the China Daily:

Holiday revives tourism in quake-hit Sichuan
Updated: 2009-02-01 19:01

The provincial tourism office on Sunday announced 16.5 million tourist visits in the holiday, which ended Saturday, up 21.9 percent from the Spring Festival week last year. The Donghekou Earthquake Relics Park, established to commemorate last year's May 12 earthquake, in Qingchuan County welcomed more than 64,300 domestic and overseas tourists during the holiday.
The park contains the ruins of Donghekou Village, where all but 300 of more than 1,400 villagers failed to survive a devastating landslide triggered by the earthquake.

Earthquake tours in the county attracted more than 100,000 visitors in the holiday, which helped revive small businesses, said a tourist office official.

Many tourists visited small restaurants set up by survivors in temporary settlements in Beichuan County, one of the worst affected areas, and were drawn to countryside tours to see farmhouses built after the earthquake.

Source: China Daily online

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