The coronavirus pandemic is only a few months old, and the breadth of its impact on the world is yet to be determined; we do not know what anything looks like on the other side of this crisis. What we are certain of — whether seeing Times Square in New York City deserted or the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, devoid even of peanut-seeking pigeons — is that tourism, which represents an estimated 10 percent of gross domestic product and 1 in 10 jobs globally, has been horrifically damaged.
Yet given the scale of COVID-19's devastation already — over 5 million confirmed cases and over 330,000 deaths worldwide at time of publishing — it seems clear that memorials will almost assuredly be erected to commemorate our dead. And, even more clearly, those memorials will become tourist destinations in and of themselves.
Visiting sites associated with mass death is so common that academics have a name for it: thanatourism, from Thanatos, the Greek god of death. Though, industry people generally refer to it as either "dark" or, more commonly, "death" tourism. It encompasses everything from locations where war and mass killings reshaped the physical environment — including the various Nazi death camps (including Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany), Cambodia’s Killing Fields or New York’s Ground Zero — to cemeteries, crypts and catacombs, as well memorials and museums built for the purpose of remembrance.
Memorials, museums or sites dedicated to victims of diseases that killed thousands or millions are perhaps the most rare, but they do exist. There are examples from the Black Death in Europe, whether hospitals where people were treated for the plague or the endless catacombs where victims were buried en masse. In New York City, there is already a little-known monument to pestilence: the haunting Smallpox Hospital ruins on Roosevelt Island.
There is also the better-known New York City AIDS Memorial, of which triangles are the overriding theme, deliberately evoking the upside-down pink triangles used by the Nazis to denote gay people imprisoned in concentration camps and later reclaimed by the LGBTQ rights movement. Situated on a triangular intersection in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the memorial opened in 2016 to honor all who died from AIDS-related illnesses in the city — men, women and children. But in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, gay men made up the most visible of the people who had the disease, and few places in the world were as radically transformed by it as Greenwich Village.
The thousands of deaths emptied out apartments in the area where the memorial now sits, making them ready to be occupied by new residents — a process that helped jumpstart the eventual luxury transformation of a once-bohemian district. Few better examples of that transformation exist than the memorial itself, originally designed to be in view of St. Vincent’s Hospital, where many gay men (and other people) died after contracting a disease other hospitals refused to treat. The hospital closed in 2010, before the memorial ever opened; luxury condos replaced it.
Hong Kong, where SARS — another coronavirus that, like COVID-19, originated in China — was intensely dangerous, has a space dedicated to understanding the importance of information during pandemics. In 2003, SARS essentially shut down Hong Kong and the surrounding Guangdong province; anyone who caught it had a roughly 15 percent chance of dying, which rose to 50 percent for older adults. Though Hong Kong had a fraction of the population of China and about one-third of the cases, it had nearly the same number of deaths — a horror permanently seared into the region’s memory and detailed in Hong Kong’s historical museums.
In the new Hong Kong News-Expo, a museum dedicated to journalism that opened in 2018, there is a permanent exhibition dedicated to "Information vs. Epidemics," examining mainland China’s suppression of information on the emerging disease and how a free press in Hong Kong had a greater ability to write on its spread.
Perhaps few cities in the world were so transformed by disease as Buenos Aires, Argentina, when epidemics caused by yellow fever, cholera and other illnesses in the late 1800s created a north-south economic divide that still exists, as the wealthy fled the crowded old colonial districts along the Río de la Plata, building new mansions on the city’s once-rural northern edges. An exquisite remnant of this period is the water palace, a former water pumping station designed to mimic these new abodes while supplying clean water to the city. It’s now home to a historical exhibit — sometimes called the "toilet museum" by locals — which serves as a paean to the importance of water sanitation and urban planning in public health and disease prevention.
Given all of this — and what may be a pent-up desire for people to see the world again when and if the pandemic is brought under control — it's interesting to consider how the physical sites associated with COVID-19 will be preserved, catalogued and memorialized. In Wuhan, will the wet market that is thought to be the origin of this disease be preserved with explanatory plaques as cautionary tales? Will the sites of the temporary hospitals around the world for the thousands who became sick or died become memorial parks where we can walk and remember them?
Many tourism experts will likely make the usual recommendations for recovery in the aftermath of the coronavirus, wishing for a return to normal — as if the virus and its disruption had never happened. Instead, we must incorporate the story of the coronavirus into our tourism narratives, remembering those who died from the illness and its impact on our lives.
Tourism is not just beaches and pools and happy stories of sun-tanned travelers; it is also about the exploration of our history, including the ways in which it was shaped by death, disease and other disasters. The coronavirus disrupted tourism during its inexorable march across the globe. A memorialization of its broader effects will eventually, inevitably become a part of the way in which we again travel to the places it most affected.