In this Q&A interview, the Mayor of Salem, Dominick Pangallo, shares some of the insights their local government and community have gained as world-recognised leaders in the dark tourism industry. With long-lasting and successful firsthand experience of working in a (sometimes controversial) space like dark tourism comes highly valuable advice for other local authorities.
Salem is a coastal city in Boston, USA. It’s famous for its 1692 Witch Trials, where 19 locals were executed. Founded in 1626, today Salem is a thriving city of 8 square miles with 45,000 residents. Every year, they welcome over a million tourists, largely due to their historic dark tourism industry. The city government comprises 11 councillors and an Elected Mayor under a strong mayor model. Current, Mayor, Dominick Pangallo, was elected earlier this year during a special election in May, following a decade of working as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff. The Office for Mayor is responsible for ensuring high-quality services for visitors and residents alike and, therefore, has an important role in the local tourism sector.
Salem’s tourism history
According to Destination Salem, the tourism interest in Salem began almost immediately following the notorious Witch Trials. At the turn of the century, the 1890s visitor guides mentioned tourists visiting Salem. However, it was really after the 1970s, following the filming of the Bewitched ‘Salem Saga’ episode, that the modern tourism industry we see today flourished. If you want to find out more about the history of Salem’s tourism industry, watch this recent lecture from Haunting Happenings for more details.
Check out our Global Local: Dark Tourism with a range of additional resources.
What are your aspirations as a local authority for Salem’s future tourism industry?
The visitor economy is a critical part of our community’s vitality; contributing to jobs, taxes and commercial activity. It’s also an important way we help tell Salem’s story and relate the lessons and legacies of our history – both the good parts, and the more tragic ones. That doesn’t mean it also can’t bring some fun and whimsy into people’s lives, though. Salem has always been a place where we’re able to reflect on and respect our past, while still celebrating who we are today and where we hope to go. My aspirations are that we maintain and strengthen that balance, and continue to be a place that speaks to many different people in ways that they find compelling, meaningful, and memorable.
Do you think the interest in the past witch trials will eventually fade? And would that be a good or bad thing for Salem – or a bit of both?
I don’t think it will fade any time soon. From a historical perspective, the lessons of the Witch Trials are germane and important to this day. Organisations like the Voices Against Injustice, formerly the Salem Award Foundation, successfully connect those lessons to the work of social justice and human rights champions today. And, of course, the legacies of the trials are still felt deep in our nation’s system of jurisprudence. From a cultural perspective, Halloween is our nation’s second-largest consumer spending holiday, so the connection between our city and those drawn to our spookier side is not likely to diminish. We’ve also become a community where people who practice Wicca and similar beliefs have come to feel safe, included, and valued. Their draw to our city is also strong, and I don’t see that fading.
From your experience, what would you say are the core benefits for local government and their citizens when they embrace the dark past of their area?
I mentioned Voices Against Injustice, and I think that’s a powerful example of how a community can take a tragic history and transform it into a basis – not just for reflecting on what happened – but amplifying positive action. The lessons and legacies from our past directly inform our values today as a community that welcomes and embraces all, that strives to be more inclusive and equitable. While having a singular and notorious event in your history, like the Witch Trials, can influence things like tourism, its more powerful and lasting impact is in how it can shape your community’s value set and commitment to a shared vision for who you are.
In contrast, what would you say are the biggest challenges or risks to consider for local government and its community?
Salem is a city of 45,000 people, and in October alone, we’ll welcome around 1 million visitors, mostly drawn because of our Witch Trials history, but also largely because of our maritime history from the Golden Age of Sail, our literary history from Nathaniel Hawthorne and other famous writers, and our remarkable architecture and historic districts. It’s a big challenge to manage the impacts of those visitors, particularly for a smaller city that’s relatively resource-constrained (our biggest employers are almost entirely tax-exempt, and we’re only 8 square miles with limited room for major commercial growth). We must face and respond to major traffic and parking, public safety, and public works impacts from that heavy visitation.
Do you find your local events like Haunting Happenings and other local tourism attractions help widen visitors’ understanding of Salem’s full and rich heritage?
I hope so. We like to think that people come to Salem for the first time with perhaps an under-estimation of all of our history, and, while they’re here, they quickly discover that the Witch Trials are about a lot more than they thought – and, just as important – that Salem has a lot more to offer than witches.
How do you respond to those who criticise you for embracing both the good and bad of Salem’s history?
I think it would be short-sighted, even problematic, to avoid talking about or learning from “bad” parts of history. As a City, we’re intentional about using those darker parts of the past as tools to educate, connect, and recommit ourselves to those core values I mentioned before – being a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive place.
I imagine for many local authorities, the dark tourism industry can feel like an external force of its own. As an experienced local authority in this area, what measures do you take to ensure you hold and retain the responsibility of Salem’s past and present narrative?
The City, through our tourism agency Destination Salem and our own measures, are pretty thoughtful about how we present our community and our history. We strive to be sensitive and accurate but also recognise that many people come to Salem to celebrate the Halloween spirit. The greatest tool we have in working with private sector actors – businesses, tour companies, museums, and so forth – is regular and meaningful communication and partnership. We have recurring meetings, both internally and externally, to coordinate around aspects of tourism in the community, especially related to the October season, which is our busiest time of year.
Lastly, what key piece of advice would you give to other local authorities who hold dark legacies in their history?
I touched on it earlier, but I think it’s important to recognise that even tragic or dark histories in a community’s past can be a driver for positive action in the present. Listen to those lessons and transform them into ways to celebrate who you are, how far you’ve come, and what you’re striving for in the future. In Salem, where neighbours once turned on neighbours in 1692, we’re now a community where neighbours turn toward each other, lift each other up, and welcome one another for who we are.
Find out more about Salem and all the good work they’re doing in this new briefing:
Of witchcraft and wanderlust: 10 lessons in dark tourism for local government from Salem, Massachusetts