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Australia's Bushfire Towns Could See Wave Of Dark Tourism

Apocalyptic scenes of charred land, dead animals and skies blanketed in smoke are not the typical visuals tourists associate with a holiday in Australia -- but they could encourage a new type of traveller to look our way.

The country's billion-dollar tourism industry is likely to take a hit as the world follows our bushfire devastation, experts warn, predicting that travellers will become more cautious about making a trip to parts of the scorched nation.

In 2018-19, Australia saw record numbers of international visitors aged 15 and over with 8.6 million arrivals, up three per cent on the previous year. This helped trigger a five per cent growth in spending to a record $44.6 billion, according to government figures.

A burnt car is seen after bushfire in Batlow, in New South Wales on January 8. Image: Getty

But as bushfires continue to ravage the continent there are concerns tourists will be reluctant to experience 'Australian summer' and be more inclined to avoid 'fire season' instead.

But could the destruction and devastation attract a different wave of tourism -- dark tourists -- to the impacted areas?

Smouldering trees following bushfires in Nowra. Image: Getty.

'Dark tourism' involves travelling to places that have experienced grief or tragedy.

Some of the more well known sites for dark tourism include Chernobyl in Ukraine, Cambodia's 'Killing Fields' and Auschwitz in Poland. 

However, tourist behaviour and tourism crisis recovery expert Gabby Walters said it would be unfair to label all visitors who travel to bushfire affected areas 'dark tourists'.

A Volkswagen Combi sits in a paddock as bushfires burn around Stokes Bay on Kangaroo Island, southwest of Adelaide, on January 9. Image: AAP

Walters explained that the travel motives of dark tourists are purely to see the fall out of whatever has happened at a scene of tragedy or disaster.

"It would be wrong to classify these potential visitors as dark tourists because their motivations are totally different," she said.

They want to have a look because they want to help and support the community.
A sign showing the public where to unload donated goods at a Foodbank Distribution Centre. Image: Getty.

Instead, Walters believes visitors to bushfire affected areas will be driven by curiosity and respond to communities' cries for help.

However, there are concerns that international tourists may not see it that way.

"You might see the international tourists who aren’t emotionally connected taking selfies, that’s just going to happen. But our research shows we (Australians) go with the motive of going to help," Walters said.

No Australian wants to be seen as a rubberneck, as a ghoulish character turning up to these place to have sneaky look.

Walters said another term for dark tourists is 'sensation seekers', who "go out of their way to go to a place that is dangerous" -- drawing on Chernobyl as an example. She noted Port Arthur in Tasmania as a local example that receives similar treatment.

The date and place "Sunday, 28th April 1996 Port Arthur" engraved on a memorial in Port Arthur to honour the 35 people killed in the massacre. Image: AAP

Another Australian example is what's left of former asbestos mining town Wittenoom.

Based in rural Western Australia, Wittenoom is known as one of Australia's most deadly towns and considered the most contaminated site in the Southern Hemisphere.

Despite the danger, it has become a site for dark tourism, with social media influencers and thrill-seekers eager to have a look at the erased community.

Unsurprisingly not everyone's impressed with the attention, including the local council.

Abandoned remains of Doc Holidays delicatessen in Wittenoom, WA. Image: Getty

Ashburton shire president Kerry White said it was "strongly recommended" that members of the public do not enter the area.

“Visitors to the Pilbara region may be unaware of Wittenoom’s history and the dangers associated with asbestos," White said.

"While it is the state government’s responsibility to prevent or discourage access to Wittenoom, we also want to ensure that all visitors to our region are aware that there are significant dangers for themselves, their family and their friends and discourage them from going to Wittenoom.

“The Pilbara is a spectacular place to visit, with many magnificent landscapes to experience and plenty to see and do, without taking unnecessary safety risks.

The Sydney Opera House obscured by smoke haze from bushfires as a couple have a picnic on January 8. Image: AAP

Meanwhile more than 4,500kms away in Victoria's south-east region of Gippsland, bushfires have left a trail of heartbreak and destruction.

Any money or assistance that can be injected into the communities that reside there is welcomed by Destination Gippsland's CEO Terry Robertson, but he said there's a "balancing act" between visitation and impact when it comes to dark tourism.

"We need to be respectful. We won’t discourage or encourage (dark tourism) but if it’s handled appropriately visitation to those areas is welcome as long as it's done in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, and isn’t unsafe," he said.

"Bushfire (areas) could still be a little bit unsafe. We don’t want people getting in the way of emergency services."

NSW Rural Fire Service crews fight the Gospers Mountain Fire as it impacts property at Bilpin, December 21, 2019. Image: AAP

The world thinks 'all of Australia is on fire'

Walters has helped with research on a number of natural disasters from fires to earthquakes and floods. She says the time frame in which tourists typically return to affected areas varies.

Within six months of a cyclone, she predicted things to return to normal, but in the case of fires, people tend to avoid these areas for longer, and international media isn't encouraging travellers to book a trip.

"Overseas we have an image problem because 'all of Australia is on fire' according to them (foreign press). Even though there are significant areas that aren't burnt," Walters said.

She said it will be up to local businesses, councils and tourism boards to communicate with visitors to encourage people to return or risk a tourist hiatus.

"Local areas need to get on social media and say 'we’re okay, yes there were fires around us but we’re fine'," she said.

Walters expects the general tourism market to recover in about two years time.

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Robertson added that there's a misconception that the entire Gippsland area has been impacted by fires, when in fact there are various popular locations that have been spared.

"One we have the all-clear we will encourage people to come back and we expect areas to bounce back quickly," he said.

"But we want people to make their own decisions about when to return. We don’t overstate or oversell. We will tell it like it is."