A weekend spent sitting on an island in the South Pacific or shopping in London may have seemed almost routine a year ago, but now money is short and the mood is grim. This doesn't mean the desire to travel and explore is dead, however. Rather, the need for cheap, local entertainment—or perhaps a new penchant for self-punishment after years of excess—appears to be boosting a new trend in tourism: the offbeat, and even morbid, attraction.
Disney is laying off employees as visitors to its theme parks disappear, but in San Francisco the wastewater-treatment-plant tour is overbooked. Beachside resorts in the Caribbean are offering rooms for a steal to entice reluctant travelers, while the Texas Prison Museum, which offers a close-up look at the state's first electric chair and toilet-paper roses crafted by inmates, is doing a booming business.
In Britain, tourists have been passing up landscaped gardens and manor houses in favor of the Workhouse Museum in Nottinghamshire, where exhibits track "poverty through the ages" and visitors can play a game called The Master's Punishment. The museum stages reenactments of paupers in 19th-century costumes and offers glimpses of the rooms used to house homeless families during the 1970s. It is also one of the only venues out of hundreds run by the British National Trust where attendance has increased in recent months, says Heather Whitworth, the museum's community-learning officer.
At the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Catania Galvan says she can't figure out why the number of visitors signing up for her sewage-plant tour is up in recent months. "Don't they have anything better to do on a Saturday morning?" she says. "It smells." Nevertheless, Gavlan says this year the Valentine's Day tour included a three-generation family who was "fascinated to learn what happens after water goes down the drain" and a blogger who later posted photos of the process online.
The Rig Museum, a floating oil rig in the Louisiana bayou run by the International Petroleum Museum and Exposition, is off the beaten path, and its highway billboard blew down during Hurricane Katrina, says Virgil Allen, the museum's president. But tourists have managed to find it. Many are members of recreational-vehicle caravans and fans of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the erstwhile vice-presidential candidate, but the museum has also welcomed a few Canadians and Swedes. They come despite what Allen says is a common misperception that working rigs are filthy places where fountains of black crude spew onto the decks. "It's like Williamsburg, Va., and seeing the people making the candles," he says. "While you're taking a tour you may see people working the crane and cooks making dinner in the galley."
The volunteer surgeons who staff the Hunterian Gallery in London are also pleased that the shelves of preserved human organs and exhibits about bloodletting and other 19th-century medical techniques still draw a flood of visitors each week. "There are very few permanent museums of human bits and pieces that are on display," says Tim Guerrier, a volunteer. "I think that's one of the attractions."
Brice Gosnell, a publisher at the guidebook series Lonely Planet, says his company has done marketing research that shows a growing attraction to odd destinations among travelers. "They're looking for unique ideas off the beaten track," he says. "People want to have a different type of experience because it lets them engage in the place more, and there's a little bit of bragging rights going on." To respond to the demand, the company is publishing itineraries that might otherwise seem like a list of places to avoid. They include a trip to polygamy country in southeastern Utah to visit extremist Mormon sects, a tour of California's earthquake country and the Southern Gothic Literary Tour, where, the company says, "you'll find obscene riches, crippling poverty and brutal racial oppression."
One day this spring, the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville came close to its record attendance level for the summer high season with 179 visitors, many of them families and senior citizens. Besides the electric chair, the museum—which offers free tours to juvenile delinquents on probation—has exhibits showing off the equipment used in the state's first lethal injection in 1982. Employees at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn., a monument to the canned-pork product invented during the Great Depression, say they have noticed a recent increase in visitors, including many grandparents bringing their grandchildren.
The Irish Famine Museum in Strokestown has also held up well as the Irish economy reels. John O'Driscoll, the museum's general manager, says a drop in international visitors has been largely replaced with local families. They come to see the crowbar used to destroy the homes of evicted tenants, lists of those sent away on famine ships and the gun used to assassinate the landlord of the manor where the museum is housed. If not exactly an upbeat family holiday, it's a reminder that things could be worse.