Some tourists focus on leisure and relaxation but most are after an “experience” that helps them create “memories to last a lifetime”. Among them are the thrill-seeking super-rich tourists who try out extremely risky adventures.

Most of these adrenaline shots are activities that would otherwise require years of training and practice but are undertaken with technology serving merely as an exorbitantly expensive shortcut.

Ominously called Titan, the submersible carrying five passengers to the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is now said to have imploded shortly after the expedition began on June 18.

Had everything gone well, the Titan would have returned from its underwater exploration of the shipwreck in about 10 hours. This trip is reported to have cost $250,000 per passenger.

The Titan had been built by OceanGate for the express purpose of tourism, although the company owns similar vessels and provides its ocean exploration services to researchers and other industries.

Adrenaline shots, aided by technology

Extreme tourism offers individuals the opportunity to push their boundaries and embrace adrenaline-pumping experiences, but with expensive and specialised gear stepping in for physical rigour. Tandem skydiving allows tourists to experience the exhilaration of skydiving without necessary training or certification that qualified instructors require.

Similarly, supercar driving or deep-sea diving experiences for the rich require little to no formal training and minimal physical requirements. The cost of these experiences is typically high, because it includes the rental of expensive tools and insurance coverage, but also because it is inflated to make for the exclusivity of the experience.

The service providers, for obvious reasons, fail to adequately explain the risks to their customers, who also wilfully ignore the warnings in the no-liability clauses, or references to death in the service contracts as part of their daredevil attitude.

Crew members on board the NS-22, a spaceflight launched into orbit for 10 minutes by Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin. The crew members included businessmen and a YouTuber.

The Titanic tourism industry

The story of Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912 from London to New York, has captured the public imagination for over a century with its fable-like narrative structure of stories within a story.

Framed by a morbid fascination with death, nostalgia about the wealth of those aboard and the technological hubris of those who built and ran the vessels – the Titan tragedy echoes the same themes that kept the Titanic nostalgia industry going. But just like a mythological epic, the plot includes some less explored dark themes.

The Titanic’s legacy has given rise to a thriving tourism industry focused on visiting Titanic-related sites, such as the Titanic Belfast Museum in Northern Ireland or the Titanic Quarter in Southampton, England. These sites offer visitors the opportunity to explore history and experience the Titanic’s story firsthand. The range of cultural representations of the Titanic is not limited to museums and documentaries but also includes works of fiction – books, films and even theatrical productions.

These cultural representations often romanticise the era, portraying the luxury and elegance of the ship, as well as the human stories and sacrifices associated with the tragedy. The Titanic’s allure has also fuelled a market for memorabilia and collectibles.

Items associated with the ship, such as artefacts recovered from the wreckage or replicas of its interiors, hold significant value for collectors and enthusiasts. The commercial aspect further contributes to the demands of innovations in the nostalgia industry surrounding the Titanic.

Operating Titanic shipwreck exploration expeditions since 2021, OceanGate has been a part of a lucrative culture industry around the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. The eponymous film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, which arguably was a huge boost for this industry, was possibly just the tip of the iceberg as far as the size of this industry is concerned.

The Titanic Museum in Missouri.
The Titanic Museum in Missouri. Credit: Brad A. Totman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Morbid tourism

Dark tourism, also known as thanatourism, is a form of tourism that involves visiting sites associated with death, tragedy, disaster, or other morbid aspects of human history. The motivations behind dark tourism are varied and complex.

One significant driver is the human fascination with the macabre and the desire to confront and understand the darker aspects of human history. Dark tourism gives individuals a platform to connect emotionally with historical events and engage with their impact on society.

By visiting sites associated with tragedy, individuals seek to gain a deeper understanding of the past and the consequences of human actions. Another motivation is learning and education. Dark tourism allows visitors to witness firsthand the consequences of war, genocide, natural disasters and other catastrophic events.

It serves as a powerful reminder of the fragility of human life and the importance of preventing such tragedies from recurring. These sites often serve as living memorials, keeping alive the memory of those who suffered and serving as a testament to the resilience of affected communities.

Sites such as those related to the Holocaust in Europe, or the American nuclear strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, or nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl or Fukushima usually evoke a sombre mood among visitors. Behaviour that is considered disrespectful or frivolous is condemned and commercialisation is successfully resisted.

Dark tourism can promote cultural understanding and empathy. By immersing themselves in the experiences of others, visitors gain a deeper appreciation for the struggles and hardships faced by different communities through history. This understanding can foster compassion and tolerance, bridging gaps between cultures and promoting a more interconnected world.

Visitors at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Credit: Marostegui, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The hubris of Titan and Titanic

The Titanic disaster represents a pivotal moment in history, illustrating not only the fragility of human life but also the technological hubris of the rich. The intrepid submersible tourism by OceanGate gone wrong, as part of the Titanic tourism industry, is an example of a market trading in experiences that allow the rich to think of themselves as pioneers.

The tragic end of the Titan’s affluent passengers highlights the dark side of the sophisticated reduction of a site of death and destruction to a spectacle, and the repackaging of personal amusement and overindulgence as a gift to humanity.

Perhaps, it is an occasion to ask why OceanGate and its clients felt little need to engage critically with the historical context of the technological hubris of the rich. The social media discussion about the unfortunate incident draws attention to the class character of the tragedies and the media and popular response to them.

The Titanic’s class divisions were stark, with first-class passengers enjoying opulent amenities while third-class passengers travelled in cramped conditions. The tragedy highlighted class disparities and became a symbol of inequality. The fascination with the Titanic often centres around its portrayal of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, while also shedding light on the plight of the poor passengers.

While there were no underprivileged passengers on-board Titan, the sinking of a vessel with around 700 refugee passengers off the coast of Greece just a few days before Titan’s final journey provided the contrast. The deaths of an estimated 300 Pakistanis on the refugee ship and the father and son of Pakistani-origin onboard the Titan (the origin of their wealth was also Pakistani) is an apt allegory of inequities that are not just normalised but also defended aggressively through state policy by virtually all governments across the globe.

The stories of those on board the Titan or those who returned safely from its earlier expeditions are like a mythological pantheon of super-rich who ensconce themselves with the other super-rich and the elites among the technological and scientific community.

However, OceanGate’s exploitative and sensationalist practices trivialise the history around the Titanic shipwreck, for commercial purposes. This kind of thanatourism is devoid of ethical reflections. Oceanic thanatourism of the rich for entertainment when contrasted with the historically stressful oceanic journeys of slaves and refugees adds a particular kind of offensive edge to the activity.

Buying thrills

The implications of the extreme tourism industry – imagined as a niche market for and by the super-rich – go beyond the well-recognised issues of ecological impacts, social inequalities and the need for more stringent regulation of technology.

It should, perhaps, be expected that as long as thrill and adventure can be bought with money in the tourism market then the super-rich will continue to buy more extreme adventures. They, like anyone else, may have a natural inclination towards novel experiences and seek adrenaline-pumping activities as a means to escape boredom and routine.

Driven by ambition and a desire to push their personal limits, the super-rich may perceive extreme tourism as a way to achieve personal goals and conquer new frontiers. The consumption of luxury branding in extreme tourism and exclusivity of experiences not readily accessible to others allows them to differentiate themselves from the ordinary.

As stated earlier, high-risk tourism can also be a manifestation of their desire to be a part of elite circles – creating opportunities for social ties and networking among the affluent.

Ethical tourism?

Respectful engagement with history is needed, as opposed to heedless recreation or demands of erasure. This is true not just in cases of heritage preservation in case of monuments or institutions with dark histories but also scientific and technological adventurism that have dubious ethics and exploitative aspects. The ethics of the resource-intensive tourism of the wealthy, and indeed their broader adventurism, has rightly come under sharper scrutiny.

Extreme tourism by the super-rich reflects their view of the exercise of power and control over their own lives and environments. Examining these allows for an investigation of the ways in which these individuals exert agency, shape their experiences and seek mastery over nature and their surroundings. The impact of privilege on negotiation of control by the super-rich, even in leisure and tourism, gives a peek into their engagement with practically anything.

Ghazala Jamil is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University.