Titan sub tragedy: ethics of extreme tourism in the spotlight

Booming demand needs to be balanced by greater awareness, oversight and regulation

Base camp on Mount Qomolangma in Shigatse, Tibet
The Himalayas attracts a large number of amateur mountaineers
(Image credit: Ran Wenjuan/China News Service via Getty Images)

The Titan sub tragedy, which claimed the lives of five people last week, has prompted an outpouring of grief but also renewed questions about the risks of so-called “extreme tourism”.

It has shone a spotlight on the safety procedures of private companies offering such experiences and on the people and organisations who should ultimately be responsible for search and rescue if the unthinkable happens.

While extreme exploration – from Everest to the Antarctic – has long been the preserve of professionals, “in recent decades, travelers with deep pockets and little expertise have joined these explorers or even ventured further, paying to visit the bottom of the ocean or the edge of space, touching the literal bounds of Earth”, The New York Times reported. But as the Titan submersible tragedy made evident, “there are no clear safeguards in place when something goes wrong”.

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Technology ‘pushing limits of safety’

There is a trend towards authentic experiences, said Scott Smith, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at the University of South Carolina, on The Conversation. “More and more, people want to experience something unique and not in a preprogrammed or controlled setting.”

Improvements in tech have enabled companies and tourists to “push the limits of safety”, but “the consequences of failure can be high”.

With little-to-no oversight of the sector it is hard to gauge the number of extreme tourism deaths per year, said Smith, “but when these sad events do occur, they typically receive a lot of attention from the press”.

Despite this, “one of the odd things about extreme tourism is that risk seems to attract rather than deter customers”, said the Financial Times. The paper listed a series of tourism-related fatalities over the past decade – a period that saw an uptick in the number of people wishing to sign up.

Uncharted territory

As modern adventure tourism “ventures into uncharted territory ethically as well as geographically” it “raises many questions”, said The Seattle Times. “Should there be more regulation? If so, who should set and enforce the rules? Are rescue operations even possible in some places extreme tourists are going?”

In the case of both deep-sea exploration and space tourism there is little oversight or guidance on training requirements and even less regulation. In international waters or the upper edge of the Earth’s atmosphere there is the added question of jurisdiction, while extreme trips also pose a significant challenge from an insurance perspective.

With the total cost of the Titan search and rescue operation expected to reach as high as $100 million, “it is unclear whether taxpayers in the countries involved, ultimately, will be required to pay it”, said The New York Times.

There is also a growing debate around whether domestic – often volunteer – search and rescue teams should be expected to risk their own lives to come to the aid of private companies charging huge amounts per person.

Meanwhile, the Titan disaster has “sparked conversations among explorers and wealthy travelers alike about who exactly should be embarking on this type of danger-filled travel”, said The New York Times.

One suggestion is that extreme tourism experiences should come with “buyer beware” warnings, said Smith.

Another, reported by Axios, is that new technology such as the metaverse, where a virtual reality headset would allow you to tour any place on Earth, “might offer an alternative to the real risks of adventure for some customers”.

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