Residents’ Perceptions of Dark Tourism Development: The Case of L’Aquila, Italy

Wright, Daniel orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-9976-5799 (2014) Residents’ Perceptions of Dark Tourism Development: The Case of L’Aquila, Italy. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

[thumbnail of Thesis Document]
PDF (Thesis Document) - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike.



Over the last two decades, the concept of dark tourism has attracted ever-increasing attention in both academic and media circles. At the same time, not only has there been an apparent growth in the supply of ‘dark’ tourism sites and attractions, but also such demand for dark tourism experiences is also evidently on the increase. Hence, academic research has and continues to be concerned with both the consumption (demand) and development (supply) of dark tourism sites and experiences, reflected in a now extensive and diverse dark tourism literature. Nevertheless, significant issues with respect to dark tourism remain unresolved, not least the validity of the term itself. That is, dark tourism is considered by some to be a pejorative term, particularly in the context of the tourist experience. However, of greater concern is the lack of attention paid to the role of local communities in dark tourism destinations. In other words, there is limited understanding of how local communities respond to becoming the object of the dark tourist ‘gaze’, and the subsequent implications for the development and management of tourism in ‘dark’ destinations.

The purpose of thesis, therefore, is to address the gap in the literature. Based on a case study of L’Aquila, a city in Italy that in 2009 was struck by a powerful and deadly earthquake and that subsequently became (and continues to be) a new dark tourism destination, it sets out to explore how ‘dark’ tourism has evolved and, in particular, the local community’s understanding of and responses to their city becoming a dark tourism destination as a result of the disaster it suffered. More specifically, in order to address these issues, the thesis focuses initially on relevant background theory, including a critical review of both the emergence of the concept of dark tourism and its wider application within the field of tourism studies and contemporary theory of host-tourist perceptions. Subsequently, the formal literature review explores critically contemporary approaches to theorising disasters, the disaster recovery process and disaster tourism, as well as broader theoretical constructs relating to the social construction of reality. Collectively, these inform the construction of two conceptual frameworks which are subsequently applied to guide two stages of empirical enquiry.

The research in L’Aquila reveals that, overall there has been a lack of any significant guidance or leadership in tourism development within the city. As a consequence, the city has in effect become an unplanned open museum for tourists, whilst the residents themselves feel betrayed by the authorities for the lack of progress in the redevelopment of their city and feel exploited and or treated with a lack of understanding and respect by tourists who come to gaze on their misfortune. Thus, it is argued that a more recognised and established tourism presence on behalf of the local community might have ensured that the conduct of tourists was effectively controlled and managed, thereby reducing the negative impacts of tourism on the local community. That is, it is suggested that, had the local community been better placed to manage the influx of ‘dark’ tourists into their city, they would have been more accepting of tourism and tourists in the initial stages of tourism development following the disaster. Consequently, through a combination of stakeholder development theory and the empirical data generated by this research, the thesis proposes a ‘Post-disaster tourism development stakeholder model’. Of most significance, however, is the manner in which the city’s social and cultural environment has limited the individual and the collective attitude amongst the local community in L’Aquila towards tourism and tourists; that is, it is identified that L’Aquila’s collective social mentality has been a major barrier to the potential development of tourism since the disaster.

With respect to the concept of dark tourism in particular, the research reveals that for, the local community in L’Aquila, tourism since the earthquake is best defined or thought of not as ‘dark tourism’ but as disaster tourism. Indeed, it became evident through the research that the labelling of L’Aquila as ‘dark’ not only stigmatised the location and the victims of the earthquake but, importantly, also influenced the residents’ perceptions of tourists. That is, tourists are seen as ‘dark’ by the local residents, heightening negative feelings towards them and consequently, reinforcing the unwillingness of many members of the community to support or engage in promoting dark tourism.

Additionally, the research found that local residents experienced higher levels of negative emotions towards tourists in the initial stages following the disaster. Of significance, is that, over time, the local residents have become more willing to accept tourism and tourists who are engaging with ‘dark’ tourism practices relating to the earthquake that destroyed their city. This temporal element is recognised and proposed in a ‘Host-Reactions to Post-Disaster Tourists / Tourism Model’. This thesis also proposes a more rounded perspective of host-tourist attitudes to dark tourism, focusing on the individual attitude of a local, rather than that of a collective societal position.

Overall, then, this research reveals that there are significant and varied implications in the development of dark tourism from the perspective of the local community, not least with respect to the term 'dark tourism' itself. That is, dark tourism is shown to be an inappropriate label to attach to either the destination of tourists who visit, enhancing as it does the negative perceptions towards tourists whilst stigmatising the local community as victims. Thus, use of the term 'dark tourism' may be best restricted to academic contexts. Nevertheless, the attitude or perceptions of the local community to becoming the object of the 'dark' tourist gaze can only be fully comprehended within a wider analysis of the local socio-cultural environment and, in particular, the disaster recovery process. In this case study, the local community's perceptions of tourism are influenced by failures in the disaster recovery process and, hence, the proposed frameworks offer a valid basis for future research in alternative dark or disaster tourism contexts.

Repository Staff Only: item control page