Dark Tourism (n): the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as the main theme.
Dark tourism has become a popular topic in both media and academic circles. While the term is relatively new, the practice of visiting sites associated with death, atrocities and disasters is not. With hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting ‘dark tourist’ sites every year, should we start to think about what effect this type of tourism is having? And should we treat these sites as a place for sombre remembrance, or a place where we can learn about the atrocities of the past?
One American photographer recently managed to tour 24 of the Nazi death camps, travelling through Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany. Taking pictures as he went along, his website describes his experiences. One particular thought stands out: should we treat the death camps as museums or cemeteries? His answer: probably both. You could argue that by the time you have seen 24 death camps, while you will have learnt much about the atrocity at large, you may have also become desensitized to the death chambers and the ovens, just as you might to relics in a museum. However, at the same time, you could argue that given the vast number of people who died at the hands of the Nazis, these trips are necessary in order to pay our respects, as at a cemetery, and to constantly remind ourselves of what we must ensure never happens again. As the photographer claimed was his motivation, there is the need to see things for oneself in order to come to terms with them. Having said this, with over half a million people visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau each year, and with most only experiencing a tour which lasts less than three hours, how much will they really understand? With many fitting it into a packed itinerary, is it really a trip in which people can come to terms with the horrors that happened there?
More serious than the sometimes voyeuristic nature of dark tourism is the effect on the countries that have streams of tourists visiting these sites every year. In Cambodia this has led to the Cheung Ek Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly murdered thousands of people, being leased to a Japanese company. Visiting the Killing Fields is a sobering experience; looking at a first glance like any normal field, it is only when you walk around that small signposts mark the spots where thousands of people were executed. Now it has been handed over to a company that has claimed it will ‘clean up’ the fields in a bid to make them more tourist-friendly. With even the locals maintaining that the ghosts of the victims have long departed, this site has now become, like many others, more of a tourist destination than a place of remembrance.
But as with everything, there are two sides to this story. In some cases the tourism industry can help re-build communities that have suffered. In New Orleans, the dark tourism generated after Hurricane Katrina was of great benefit. The surge of tourism helped to rebuild the city, bringing in vital income that was necessary to reconstruct all that had been destroyed.
There is more to dark tourism than just visiting sites of previous horrific events; dark tourism encompasses travelling to sites of disaster and poverty. In Brazil, India and South Africa, tours of the slums are incredibly common, and as the draw of money becomes greater and greater, it seems that soon, busloads of tourists will be only briefly stepping out of their air-conditioned buses to get a few snaps of some poor people, before rushing off to the next stop on their itinerary. Having said this, many tours make an immense effort to keep away from this kind of tourism. It is up to the traveller in this case to make sure that they take part in good programs, many of which are run by charities. When tours are undertaken carefully and managed by interested individuals who care about building a better future for the community, there is an obvious benefit for both the tourist and those living in the slums.
Tragedy holds a sort of fascination for everyone. Dark Tourism is a prime example of that, and no matter what the wider effects of visits to these sites may be, it does not look as if it they will become anything but more popular. So it is the responsibility of the tourist to research how they will affect the community or country they are travelling to. Do not just cite enlightenment as your reason for going, and visit responsibly regardless of the cost.
Ruth Edwards & Marlene Hermann