Is it ever right to make money from tragedy?

Memento Park Budapest

The streets and public squares of Budapest were once dominated by a series of giant imposing statues that celebrated the power of communist philosophy. When the Soviet influence was overthrown the newly elected government had to work out what to do with these over-sized symbols of repression. They decided to set up a dedicated park on the outskirts of the city to house these statues.

A visit to Memento Park is a popular part of the itinerary for many tourists coming to Budapest. These statues were once a graphic reminder of a life where even whispers within the family home could lead to trouble with the authorities. Now tourists adopt humourous poses in front of Lenin and his disciples, with the symbols of terror now taking on a definite air of retro coolness.

Our visit to Memento Park was fascinating, yet it did leave me thinking about how we often completely change our view of historic moments over the years. Events that are undeniably tragic become dramatic and even romantic over time. No single event demonstrates this better than the tragedy of the Titanic. An accident that results in over 1,500 deaths qualifies as a tragedy on anyone’s scale. Yet dozens of movies have romanticised the events on board the sinking ship, none more so than James Cameron’s 1997 three hour epic. Exhibitions, merchandise and tours make up the Titanic marketing mix.

Anniversaries become a major opportunity for tourist boards to cash in on the public interest in these tragedies. The 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in 2012 is being hailed as a major opportunity for Belfast, Southampton and other regions to bring in millions of pounds of additional tourism revenue.

So what makes a tragedy fair game for commercialisation? Is it a question of time elapsed? 99 years is a long time to mourn and all those directly involved have now died. Will we see the same pattern commemorating the events of September 11th in New York? Perhaps a travelling exhibition where you get a ticket that assigns you as an investment banker or janitor or waiter, and then as you pass through the interactive displays you find out if your character lives or dies? It sounds distasteful now, but how will it sound in another 70 years?

What about murderers? Society looks at today’s killers with revulsion, yet we can pay good money to follow Jack the Ripper trails across East London, led by characters in period costume hamming up the horror and blood lust. Which of today’s evil men and women will become the legends of tomorrow?

Looking at those statues in Budapest, erected by a regime that killed thousands and affected the lives of millions, I watched as young Hungarians laughed and faced the exhibits with total irreverence and even ridicule, something their parents would never have been able to do. Perhaps there is a line to be drawn under tragedies; a point at which solemnity and respect give way to humour, nostalgia and even financial exploitation. Where that line is drawn is another matter entirely.


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Freelance travel writer

9 Responses to “Is it ever right to make money from tragedy?”

  1. Great post, Andy.

    I’ve had similar ponderings and, whichever way I look at it, I can’t work out if it’s OK or not.

    I’m definitely guilty of indulging in a little “Dark Tourism” myself…I just find it, well, oddly (morbidly) irresistible.

    My thoughts here:

    Pleased I found your blog.

    Happy travels,


    December 13, 2011 at 11:28 am
  2. Hi Andy,

    Appreciate the shared thought. I visited Chernobyl back in May, and was rather unpleasantly disturbed by how little respect the visitors were showing to a place of such incomprehensible tragedy. Unsuspecting foreigners were like a swarm of bees, opening closed doors to enter buildings and ecstatically photographing every inch on their way. Without in the least being able to relate to the far-reaching consequences of the disaster.

    The main reason was of course that, in their presentation of events, the tour companies did not bother going beyond playing a disaster documentary during the morning trip to the site. That most of the visitors slept through, anyway.

    But the worst? I have to admit I found it hard to dampen my own excitement when I got there myself. And smiled, and photographed away, too. Shocker.

    December 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm
  3. Miranda #

    So interesting… Same thing applies to Japanese teenager’s flashing ‘peace’ signs for photos in front of the Hiroshima atomic dome, and numerous other situations.

    December 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm
  4. It’s interesting food for thought. It’s one thing if the city of New York benefits from additional tourism. But if a business is selling 9/11 T-shirts for personal profit (rather than donating proceeds to 9/11 victims or a similar charity) then that’s poor taste, I reckon.

    December 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm
  5. This is such an interesting article. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t want people to make money from tragedy, as it’s in bad taste, but as I began to read your examples then I realised we can’t all pretend we don’t jump on the bandwagon.

    There are instances when it seems more ‘worthy’, such as visiting the concentration camps from WWII, which I’d love to do, though I know it’s incredibly morbid. I’d also really like to go on a Jack the Ripper tour, but it’s something I’d be taking seriously rather than just gawping – I’ve read loads of books on the subject and I guess it would bring it to life for me (sorry if that sounds wrong!).

    If dark tourism is conducted with respect, and if visitors are briefed before they go, then maybe we’d avoid the commercial tinge and ensure that we had people there who genuinely wanted to learn, rather than just treating it like a spectator sport or a travel tick list.

    December 14, 2011 at 9:13 am
  6. This is such an interesting debate and one that crossed my mind during the recent 20 year observance of the fall of Vukovar. History needs to be kept alive and I wholeheartedly believe that we need people to study wars, massacres, the Holocaust and genocide and to impart their knowledge to other people. I personally have a great interest in these things and share my knowledge whenever possible, if I were to one day earn a living from that, great.

    I read somewhere that the only thing you can possibly ever hope for as a historian or social activist is to change the mind of one person. On the weekend that the fall of Vukovar was commemorated, B92 reported that a group of Serbian students visited the various important sites within the city and that they were greatly moved. I doubt this trip was for free. So insofar as this experience fostered understanding and reconciliation, I believe it was vital.

    Perhaps the question is not whether people should make money as tour guides but whether we should be more responsible travellers? Should we not pay more attention to the history and culture of the places that we visit? Your posts on Sarajevo were especially moving to me but they were in the minority – most travellers do not dwell on the bloody histories.

    December 14, 2011 at 9:41 am
  7. I totally agree with Polly Allen’s last paragraph, and yet how on earth could you enforce that? It’s down to educating people, and the majority don’t want to be educated, they just want their wee soundbites so that they “feel” educated. Yet, for the sake of “we must never forget” then these places must be accessible to all for the benefit of those who really “get” them. I went to NY in early 2003, but couldn’t even bring myself to go near Ground Zero, but, yes, time will make a difference, and the next time I will.

    December 14, 2011 at 9:46 am
  8. Thanks to all for sharing your experiences and thoughts. And thanks too for the link Ben – well worth others checking out your post.

    The concept of dark tourism is a curious one, yet I don’t see it as wrong to pay a respectful visit to a place of tragedy. It’s the overt commercialism on the back of a past disaster that maybe throws up some questions – movies, PR launches, T-shirts, etc. Can that ever be tasteful? Or is everything fair game after a certain period of time…

    December 14, 2011 at 10:47 pm
  9. Ben,

    Being a tour guide to Pakistan I can tell you that you were not the only person that had the same idea about taking a trip to Abbottabad.
    If Pakistani hoteliers were getting excited about an increase in tourism then they will have to wait a while as the Pakistan government was not so keen to turn chez Laden into a tourist hot spot. Any foreigners in town are quickly moved on these days. This included a Danish diplomat and his wife who wanted a quick photo in the hill station and got a couple of days in a police cell instead.

    I think any visit to a place of tragedy must be done with respect to the people who were affected. For example I have guided people to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and I found that the residents of Moynaq found it heartening that people were interested in their ongoing tragedy. They are more than happy for people to come and see the rusting ships on the bed of what was once the sea in the hope that something good will come of the fact more people know about their plight.
    Contrast this with New York, the world knows about 9/11, in more detail probably then any tragedy known to man. Any kind of “9/11 experience” can only be crass exploitation for cash.

    As far as Budapest is concerned Andy, when I was last there, there were plenty of bars pushing the socialist realist theme and i think that is healthy and shows a country moving on from it’s past.
    Anyway, most of the best tourists attractions in the world are monuments built by despotic, totalitarian regimes (Pyramids, Ankhor Wat, Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal, etc….)

    December 17, 2011 at 1:48 pm