Seaport city’s haunted reputation has led to a boost in dark tourism
In the historic seaport city of Galveston, there’s a story at every turn. And chances are, there’s a ghost to go with that story.
Such ghost stories and the thrill of fear — without the danger — attract thousands of visitors and paranormal enthusiasts yearly to Galveston, playing an important part of the resort island’s tourism economy.
Galveston’s haunted reputation is linked to its often tragic past, said John Kowalski, owner of Historic Galveston Ghost Tours.
The company operates walking tours on The Strand downtown and East End historic areas of the island.
Whether it be about pirates, Civil War battles, the 1900 Storm during which more than 6,000 people perished on the island, or crime families of the 1900s, Galveston’s history attracts all kinds of people seeking the supernatural.
“There’s the curious, the serious, the hunters that make it their passion, their hobby,” Kowalski said. “It’s a fun way to see the city.”
Galveston is considered one of the most haunted cities in America, and people certainly visit the island specifically to look for ghosts, said Gin’a Keel, co-owner of Lantern Light Tours of Galveston.
People are drawn to the unknown and ghost tours satisfy that curiosity, Keel said.
“What’s more unknown than what happens after death?” Keel said.
There’s plenty of scary stories in Galveston to keep people’s interest, said Jim O’Neill, owner of the Galveston Experience Company, which operates the Galveston Ghost Bus Tour.
Unlike many other island walking or Segway tours, the bus tour drives people to haunted sites. A TV screen on the bus shows video of locals who tell stories of their own personal encounters with the paranormal at different places around the island.
O’Neill has been operating the tour for about a year, he said.
“It definitely brings people in,” O’Neill said. “Our experience is that they come from all over.”
One man had a spooky experience at the historic Hotel Galvez, he said.
“The water was coming on by itself,” O’Neill said.
And there was a woman who lived at the old house of a sea captain on Sealy Street, he said.
“When she was a kid, she’d always see this naval captain,” O’Neill said.
The tour takes people to see The Tremont House, 1880 Garten Verein in Kempner Park and the ruins of pirate Jean Laffite’s Maison Rouge house on Harborside Drive. The stories tell of strange noises or lights, moving doors or other ghostly goings on.
Ghosts and haunted stories have become a major tourist draw, Kowalski said.
“This is the stuff that people are coming to see,” Kowalski said. “It is definitely adjunct to the cruises. We have the day trippers from Houston.”
Dark tourism, or tourism related to the supernatural, is becoming more popular around the world, Keel said.
“In Scotland, they’re creating a Dracula tour,” Keel said. “There’s definitely a market for it.”
Ghost tourism also is another way for visitors to learn about the island’s history and heritage, said Michael Woody, chief tourism officer for the Galveston Park Board of Trustees, which promotes tourism. Galveston’s reputation for being haunted adds another layer of complexity to the city’s culture and coastal resort setting that attract millions of visitors to the island yearly, Woody said.
“I think what is so wonderful about the haunted tourism element is it speaks to many things,” Woody said. “It’s a great way for people to learn about the history and what happened and why said person potentially has not left.”
Even businesses that might not directly be connected to paranormal activity can advertise their connection to Galveston’s past by promoting the resident ghost upstairs, Woody said.
“What the ghost tours in my mind are really doing are telling the stories of Galveston,” Woody said. “That’s something that anybody can embrace.”
Promoting ghost tourism is a delicate balance, Keel said. Many of the people who are depicted in ghost stories still have living relatives on the island, Keel said.
“We have to really walk a fine line to make sure you’re telling your story correctly by doing your research and make sure you’re not glorifying any of these things that make it romanticized,” Keel said.
Keel often will reach out to the descendants of story subjects if they’re still in Galveston to make sure they’re comfortable with having their family’s story told.
Many descendants are fine with it, she said.
“We can definitely promise that when you walk away, you’re going to walk away with a story that resonates,” Keel said.