Fascination with Titanic Underscores Dangers of Extreme Tourism
BU’s School of Hospitality Administration dean on the tragedy of the submersible Titan, what’s driving this industry, and what customers should look for when booking a risk-filled adventure
What was supposed to be an eight-hour trip to view the wreckage of the Titanic is now looking like a largely avoidable tragedy. The harrowing search for the Titan ended Thursday, as the US Coast Guard announced they found evidence that the submersible vessel had probably imploded and all five passengers were believed to be dead. The Coast Guard found pieces of the Titan on the ocean floor about 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic.
The world was gripped by the search for the lost vessel, which took passengers 13,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to view the famed ocean liner that sank in 1912, approximately 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
OceanGate Expeditions, the company that owns the Titan, appeals to the very wealthy. The company reportedly charges $250,000 per ticket and requires participants to sign a lengthy release form acknowledging the possible dangers involved. David Pogue, a CBS correspondent who took a trip on the vessel last year for a story, described the Titan as “improvised,” and the New York Times reported that in 2018, dozens of submersible experts, oceanographers, and deep-sea explorers wrote a letter to OceanGate’s CEO expressing concern about the vessel’s safety. According to CNN, “OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush has also repeatedly claimed that existing submersible regulations needlessly prioritize passenger safety over commercial innovation.”
Now, many experts are wondering whether increased scrutiny will be placed on the largely unregulated extreme tourism industry and the companies that offer expensive, status symbol trips. In addition to deep sea travel, those trips include race car driving on ice in Finland, exploring pyramids in war-torn Sudan, and flights to the International Space Station.
BU Today spoke with Arun Upneja, dean of Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, about the extreme tourism industry and what might change in the aftermath of the Titan disaster.
With Arun Upneja
BU Today: Can you talk about the phenomenon of extreme tourism?
Upneja: Extreme tourism is anything that is high-risk, and it happens in often dangerous, remote locations. It provides a unique and thrilling experience for participants. It challenges your physical and mental limits.
Some examples might be mountain climbing, skydiving, bungee jumping, and white water rafting. There are so many different kinds of extreme tourism that people crave for various reasons.
BU Today: But extreme tourism seems to be getting more elaborate—it’s the ultra-wealthy taking trips to outer space with Virgin Galactic or trekking to see silverback gorillas in Rwanda. What’s behind the appeal?
Upneja: With the rise of social media and people hearing about all of these extremes, people just want more and more thrill. And the wealthy are obviously able to pay. They want to be in the news and have bragging rights. There are so many reasons why people seek adventure. Once you’ve done something multiple times, you don’t get that thrill, that rush anymore. And so you seek more and more dangerous activities.
BU Today: Has extreme travel become more accessible? Have outfitters tailored these trips and come up with bigger and better ideas, as they’ve seen the demand for it?
Upneja: In a way, yes. Let’s take skydiving, for example. Years ago, you didn’t have as much equipment, and it wasn’t something most people could afford. But now more people can afford it. And don’t forget that if you look at the statistics, you’ll find it’s much safer than going out in a car. The risk of an equipment malfunction is actually very minuscule.
BU Today: Do outfitters do a good enough job of making their clients aware of the risks when they go on these trips?
Upneja: The better organizers and outfits will give you a complete rundown of the risks. I read a report somewhere that they mentioned the word “death” three times on the first page with this Titanic trip. Good outfits will make you conscious of all the risks and will take steps to avoid those risks.
There are so many regulations. Many countries have regulations that cover licensing, safety equipment, operator qualifications, and so forth. There are also government bodies, tourism bodies, and industry associations. If you are going to a local place that does bungee jumping, most likely they are doing hundreds of bungee jumps a day. Most likely they are licensed by the local authorities, the equipment is inspected, and they have trained operators.
But this [OceanGate trip] was just very unique. There aren’t too many trips like this. And [it seems like] the operators were warned and were not very conscious of all the risks and taking steps to avoid them.
BU Today: Do you think travel outfitters will face more scrutiny after this disaster?
Upneja: After every major news story like this, there is a lot of initial interest, but that interest very soon dies down. I really doubt there will be a new scrutiny on these adventure-based trips from this one event alone. I think for people who are spending money on these one-off trips, this event will hopefully prompt some of them to reevaluate.
Every time somebody comes up with a new, risky way to potentially almost kill yourself, and an event happens, the local governments suddenly wake up and say, ‘Okay, how did you do this here? And is there anything in the regulations that could have prevented you?’ But this was also happening in the open ocean, where no governing body exists.
[It’s up to the country] where these people belong, or where the boats that carried the submarine are based. Hopefully, these countries now say, “Okay, if you’re engaging in anything risky, then you need to be fully licensed to do that.”