Zakynthos’ Navagio beach: Staged tourism, lazy tourism or dark tourism?

In our second year Cultural Politics on Tour module, students are introduced to the fundamental academic skills necessary to succeed in university and post-university employment. As part of the course, students are asked to write an essay on the topic of hair from a social and biological anthropological perspective. This week we are featuring an essay by Millie Elliott.
Millie Elliott
Millie’s bio: I am a second-year anthropology student from Brighton.

Navagio beach is an open cove located on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Although beaches with white cliffs and blue seas are abundant in Zakynthos, Navagio beach is distinguished by the presence of a perfectly placed shipwreck strewn across its’ stones. Travel and tourism consist of much more than just geographic motion; tourism provides an aesthetic counterpoint to normal life, a sacred source of excitement and renewal (Graburn, 2020). Navagio beach is a prime example of a ‘fantasy’ tourist destination, combining extraordinary views with a tinge of darkness in the form of an ominous ship graveyard. This shipwreck has been named “the world’s most famous shipwreck” (Culture Trip, 2016), despite the lack of knowledge regarding its origins. Legend has it, the cove became home to the MV Panayiotis when it washed ashore in 1980, whilst smuggling contraband cigarettes, alcohol and women (Culture Trip, 2016). However, the destination itself contains no on-sight markers to supply an adequate explanation for its origins, so the authenticity of this story remains ambiguous. Despite Navagio beach earning a 4.5-star rating on Trip Advisor and being regarded as the number one tourist destination in Zakynthos (Trip Advisor, 2020), the location is run down, dangerous and poorly managed. Hundreds of unsupervised tourists arrive every hour, without shade from the sun or access to food or drink. The ship itself is covered in graffiti. Without the destination’s meticulous marketing, it would undoubtedly flop. This blog will explore the clever semiotics of tourism marketing, the authenticity of the shipwreck and the concept of staged tourism, and finally this tourist destination’s potential status as a dark tourism location.

Navagio Beach shipwreck (c) Millie Elliott 2018

The promotion and advertisement of this tourist destination no doubt accounts for its popularity. Images of the picturesque beach are plastered all over social media, brochures and travel websites. The branding compound, which in this case is the images seen online of the shipwreck, generates expectations of the experience the tourists will have (Barbosa and Matos, 2018). These expectations turn to dissatisfaction upon arrival, as demonstrated by reviews on Trip Advisor that label Navagio beach “unsafe” and a “tourist scam” (Trip Advisor, 2020). It could be argued that the success of this unimpressive tourist destination is due to the use of semiotics in advertisements. According to MacCannell (1999), markers are the first encounter a tourist has with a sight, which tend to be photographs. While off-sight markers in the form of advertising initially attract tourists to a location, on-sight markers can keep tourists intrigued even when there is nothing to see (MacCannell, 1999). A prime example of this is how Dean MacCannell (1999) observed a couple at a zoo systematically stopping to read and discuss the illustrative markers of each cage, despite them all being empty. The shipwreck lacks on-sight markers, such as a plaque or sign to explain its history, which generates a lack of engagement or interest with the ship itself. Navagio beach instead relies on its natural beauty to supply entertainment for the tourists. This reduces the cove to a location of ‘nature tourism’, whereby nature itself produces the sense of excitement or renewal that tourists crave (Graburn, 2020).

The problem with nature tourism is that many people find the unresponsive, dialogue-lacking state of nature boring (Graburn, 2020). However, one might argue that the beach ‘frames’ and ‘elevates’ the shipwreck; MacCannell (1999) defines framing and elevating as part of a ‘marking process’ designed to increase the potency of a tourist attraction. He describes framing as “the putting on display of an object – placement in a case, on a pedestal or opened up for visitation” (MacCannell, 1999: 44). In this context, it is unclear whether the beach or the shipwreck is the pedestal, as the shipwreck creates individuality for the beach, whilst the beach brings an aesthetic value to the shipwreck, resulting in a symbiotic relationship. Regardless, Navagio beach is popular for more than just its pretty scenery. In my opinion, the relationship between signifier and signified plays a significant role in attracting tourists to this spot. In semiotics, signifiers equate concepts and signified equate observations, which separates theory from reality (MacCannell, 1999). The shipwreck could act as a signifier of history, culture, pirates, devastation and even death, and this is what inspires tourists to visit, based on the association of the theory of a shipwreck. Regardless of the underwhelming nature of this destination, the theory of a shipwreck is exciting enough to encourage sightseers to hire a £50 boat and voyage over to this cove.

Numerous theories surrounding the history of the shipwreck claim it was placed there by the Greek government to accumulate tourism and act as a tourist hoax (Trip Advisor, 2020). Zakynthos is one of many beautiful islands in Greece, so it may have required some sense of mystery to make it stand out from the rest. MacCannell (1999) claimed that tourists increasingly seem content with clearly inauthentic experiences and are forgiving of the aura of superficiality surrounding tourist destinations. These tourist experiences are frequently referred to as ‘staged tourism’. Tourist destinations are very rarely fully authentic, as, according to Goffman’s theory, most destinations consist of structural divisions referred to as front and back regions (MacCannell, 1999). The back region, hidden from tourists, conceals props or activities that might expose the inauthenticity of the destination, whereas the front region is where the sightseeing takes place (MacCannell, 1999). Although Navagio beach does not have a literal front and back region, perhaps the truth of how the shipwreck came to be is hidden by locals, to encourage the enchantment of tourists. The unexplained history of the destination could make the tourist experience even worse. When there is a cognitive dissonance between ones’ expectations of a tourist destination and the authenticity of the experience, the destinations might fail (Skinner, 2012). It seems that those who profit from Navagio beach are not concerned with encouraging tourists to revisit, but rather focus on advertising to attract new customers.

Regardless of whether or not the shipwreck is real, one must question why so many people are keen to see a sight of destruction in the first place. Shipwrecks are locations of disaster and potential death, meaning they can fit into the category of ‘dark tourism’. Dark tourism is where the tourist and industry relate to “death, disaster, and atrocity” (Skinner, 2012: 3). It is a concept that has become widespread over the last half-century, with an increasing number of people keen to profit off of ‘dark’ events (Sharpley and Stone, 2009). However, the more that dark tourism is researched, the blurrier the definition seems to become. Some prefer the term ‘thanatourism’, which is “travel to a location… motivated by the desire for… symbolic encounters with death” (Seaton, 1996, cited in Skinner, 2012: 4). Although shipwrecks are typically associated with death and destruction, the lack of information regarding the ship’s origin makes its’ status as a dark tourist destination questionable. However, the shipwreck itself is not the only symbolism of death on Navagio beach; numerous deaths of tourists have occurred there, alongside many who have had life-threatening encounters with falling cliffs or the strong ocean currents. Sharpley invented a dark tourism scale, attributing different ‘shades of darkness’ to different destinations (Skinner, 2012), and the Navagio beach would most likely be on the lightest end of the scale due to the uncertainty surrounding the presence of death. On the darker end of the scale would be the Chernobyl or Auschwitz tours, which are undeniably more sinister. Perhaps the absence of an origin story for the shipwreck makes it an adequate compromise for experiencing dark tourism without the discomfort of historical guilt. Regardless, it is interesting that year after year new tourists are determined to see this sight of destruction for themselves, whether that be due to the beautiful scenery, or a fascination for this romantic symbolism of ruination.

In conclusion, the lack of management in place to enhance the tourist experience of Navagio beach is perplexing. It could be due to a lack of budgeting after advertisement fees, or an absence of interest in encouraging tourists to return after their first visit. Or perhaps the simplicity of the destination conceals a potentially uncomfortable truth of how the shipwreck came to be. Regardless, Navagio beach is a prime example of a successful but poorly managed beach with themes of dark and staged tourism lurking beneath the surface.


Bibliography

Culture Trip (2016) How Did The World’s Most Famous Shipwreck Come To Be? Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/greece/articles/how-did-navagio-beachs-famous-shipwreck-come-to-be/ (Accessed 19/11/2020).

Graburn, N. (1989) Tourism: The Sacred Journey, in Smith, V. (ed.) Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. 2nd edn. University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 21-36. Available at: https://public-ebookcentral-proquest-com.roe.idm.oclc.org/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=3441885 (Accessed: November 19, 2020).

MacCannell, D. (1976) The Tourist – A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken Books.

Matos, M.B.d.A and Barbosa M.d.L.d.A. (2018). Marketing and Authenticity in Tourism, Authenticity & Tourism. 24(1), pp. 53-68.

Sharpley, R. (2009) Shedding Light on Dark Tourism: An Introduction, in Sharpley, R. And Stone, P.R (eds.) The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practise of Dark Tourism. Channel View Publications, pp. 3-22. Available at: https://www-vlebooks-com.roe.idm.oclc.org/Vleweb/Product/Index/913751?page=0 (Accessed: 17/11/2020).

Skinner, J. (2012) Introduction: Writings on the Dark Side of Travel, in J. Skinner (ed.) Writing the Dark Side of Travel. Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp.1-28. Available at: https://www-vlebooks-com.roe.idm.oclc.org/Vleweb/Product/Index/335404?page=0 (Accessed: November 19, 2020).

Trip Advisor (no date) Navagio Beach (Shipwreck Beach). Available at: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g7777607-d671779-Reviews-Navagio_Beach_Shipwreck_Beach-Anafonitria_Zakynthos_Ionian_Islands.html(Accessed 16/11/2020).

 

 

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