Frontier Forum Focuses On Small Town Planning When Tragedy Creates A Tourist Destination


DARK TOURISM: Tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy.


Clear Lake, Iowa, a rural town of 7500, has spent more than the past 60 years linked to an event that has been musically coined “The Day The Music Died.”

On Tuesday, March 29, that legacy of Dark Tourism will be examined at the upcoming Frontier Forum. The live and virtual event, “Not Fade Away: Dark Tourism and City Government,” will be from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in the Centennial Student Union’s Ostrander Auditorium.

On Feb. 3, 1959, after a Winter Dance Party performance at Clear Lake’s renowned Surf Ballroom, rising rock ‘n roll superstar Buddy Holly, 17-year-old “La Bamba” rockster Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, best known for his song Chantilly Lace died when their single-engine plane crashed in a cornfield just outside Clear Lake. More than 60 years later, crowds still flock to see the ballroom and site that inspired the line, “The Day The Music Died,” in Don McLean’s iconic song, American Pie.

To accommodate the interested crowds, city planners in Clear Lake, Iowa, paid special attention in creating an enduring legacy rather than a ghoulish tourist trap.  This year’s Frontier Forum led by Beth Wielde Heidelberg, Ph.D, Urban and Regional Studies professor at Minnesota State Mankato, shows how Clear Lake used policy and urban planning to turn the tragedy into an enduring legacy of music education and celebration of musicians who have shaped modern music.

According to Heidelberg, there are various degrees of dark tourism.

There is the ‘fun’ dark tourism, such as haunted houses and places like Sleepy Hollow, where dark tourism is based on mythology and legend.  But when the dark tourism is based on real events where people died, especially if there are still living friends and family, it must be managed differently.  People will still visit sites where real tragedy and disaster happened, but there is a fine line between accommodating this tourism and being ghoulish/ exploitative.

Heidelberg said dark tourism contributes to local revenue, which can be used for community improvements and services.  But some people find it distasteful, since the money comes from other people’s tragedies.  It cannot be marketed the same as “regular” tourism.  But again, tourists will come, whether the community is comfortable with that or not.

Clear Lake, Iowa has managed to accommodate tourism related to the Buddy Holly/ Big Bopper/ Ritchie Valens plane crash in 1959 in a respectful manner, focusing on what the musicians have contributed to music history and turning their local notoriety into an educational experience.

Clear Lake incorporates the Day The Music Died into an overview of the renowned Surf Ballroom that continues to attract music legends and tourists to this small Iowa town.

The City of Clear Lake has partnered with local nonprofit organizations to help accommodate international tourism related to the crash, and successfully manages to accommodate tourist interest in the crash while avoiding exploitation.  Other communities who are planning for dark tourism can learn quite a bit from Clear Lake, and these lessons are the focus of the Frontier Forum.

To register to attend virtually click here

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