"It's just like Titanic!" cried a survivor from the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia.
Yes and no. Shortly after the Titanic sunk in 1912, killing 1,517 people, the tragedy was forgotten by the public. It wasn't until the 1950's, when "Titanic" starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck and "A Night to Remember," based on the Walter Lord book, hit the big screen that the disaster penetrated the public consciousness. Somewhat differently, the Costa Concordia wreck is already becoming a tourist draw even as rescue efforts continue and the death toll rises. Reports of tourists making excursions to see the stricken vessel suggest the spot of the disaster is likely to become a "dark tourism" destination.
The commodification of the disaster has already seen the retailing of t-shirts lampooning Francesco Schettino, the Italian captain of the ship, and his apparent refusal to get back on board.
The Giglio Bay area, it should be said, is no stranger to shipwrecks. In 1961, an Etruscan ship from 600 B.C.E. -- the oldest deep-water wreck in ever found-- was discovered off the Tuscan Archipelago. No one is talking about Etruscan shipwrecks though. What seems to be making the sinking of the Costa Concordia such a compelling narrative and the ship such an attraction is parallels with the Titanic disaster 100 years ago.
Numerous exhibitions and memorial sites on both sides of the Atlantic tell tales of the Titanic tragedy. Through a mixture of media alchemy and Hollywood simulacra, the disaster has begun its journey into folklore. Most notably, James Cameron's 1997-blockbuster movie 'Titanic' provided a romanticized popular culture narrative of how people die when cruise ships sink. It is the appropriation of the Titanic by Costa Concordia survivors and the media alike that indelibly imprints into tourists' perceptions a vision of panic, fear, and mediation of "mortality moments."
Life and death is viewed through a touristic lens.The hedonistic tourist gaze become, briefly, morbid.
With Titanic memorial cruises set to sail to the location of the accident on the centennial of the disaster -- passengers will have the opportunity to dress in period costume and eat from the original Titanic menu -- the "dark touristification" of the Titanic has been completed. What is less clear is whether the Costa Concordia will receive the same attention and, consequently, have longevity as a dark tourism attraction.
Despite comparisons between the two tragedies, there are many differences between the Titanic and Costa Concordia, not least that of the greater loss of life on the Titanic and its strict social hierarchy of the age.
Nevertheless, once the rescue efforts are over, and the ship salvaged or recycled and the media spectacle of Captain Francesco Schettino's impending court case has ran its course, Costa Concordia for many will pass into memory. Undoubtedly, the tragedy of those who perished will be commemorated. Yet, it will be future popular cultural depictions of Costa Concordia, and the ability of dark tourism to engender and sustain empathy that will determine whether this disaster is truly "like Titanic."
Dr. Philip Stone is Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) at the University of Central Lancashire, UK. On 24 April, the iDTR will host 'The Dark Tourism Symposium 2012', an event that will critically examine current dark tourism themes, issues and consequences.