Dark Tourism – education or exploitation?

How would you feel about spending your holiday exploring something dark, twisted and macabre?

If you have never heard of dark tourism, this is how the website explains it: *

dark tourism

‘Dark’ in this context is not meant literally but metaphorically, as in “a dark chapter of history”. Dark tourism is considered to be travel to sites that are in some way connected to death or disaster, or at least something in one way or another “macabre”.

This term covers a large variety of different classes of attractions, such as ‘the mausoleums of great communist leaders whose actual dead bodies are on public display (e.g. Lenin’s in Moscow). Or it can be quite indirect, like at sites of volcanic destruction (e.g. Iceland or Hawaii) which may not have involved any actual deaths at all – just the fact that it could have may be enough to give a site some ‘dark appeal’.

Sometimes the connection can be pretty vague too, as in the various exhibitions of socialist realism art and propaganda – here you have to know about the underlying realities of life under communism to be able to make the connection at all–.’ (source)

*I’ve edited this explanation a little to make it more concise.

Canals surrounding the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You have likely already contributed to dark tourism and not thought twice about it. After all, all that remains of many of these sites is a reconstruction or a memorial, and if you didn’t know better, you would never even know the full story.

Many of these grim sites receive hundreds of visitors on a daily basis. They are not fun, but they are something you need to see.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and the base for visiting the Killing Fields where a quarter of the country’s population was slaughtered under the Khmer rule.

When we approach places of such devastation, it is essential to acknowldge what we are seeing and learn from it. Many criticise dark tourism for exploiting the memory of those that had to live through whatever disaster happened there. Can you really say that the prisoners of Auschwitz can rest in peace when every day hundreds of people roam through the place of their demise? Tourists gain access to their lives in ways that many might deem unrespectful for the deceased. The stories of the dead – and the survivors – are exposed to perfect strangers, leaving little privacy even in death.

Many do, in fact, visit dark places out of morbid curiosity. I think that must be just the human nature. Somehow we are drawn to the macabre; it’s like seeing a car crashed on the side of the road and you just can’t look away even though, on the most conscious level of thinking, you really don’t want to see a dismemebered body on a Thursday night.

So there is nothing inherently wrong with being drawn to these places out of curiosity. However, if ogling at other people’s misery is your only motive of visiting, you might be better off just staying home.

Cu Chi tunnels: a guide demostrates how Vietnamese guerilla soldiers hid during the Vietnamese war.

The ethical problems with dark tourism arise when the sites of destruction are reduced to mere tourist attractions. A place where thousands lost their lives should not be a photo in your holiday album next to the Eiffel tower and Big Ben. It should be a learning opportunity, a place you visit out of respect, not out of obligation just because it’s “on the list”.

Maybe saying this goes against my conviction that everyone should visit these places. I really think they should. But at the same time, if you can’t visit with a respectful attitude, why are you even doing it?

Then again the line is sometimes difficult to draw. The Berlin wall, for example, is a symbol of hardship and isolation from the Western world, but because of the beautiful artwork painted on it, it is a popular place to snap a pretty profile picture. (I’m guilty of this, too.) And then you have the Holocaust memorial in Berlin – a forest of somber grey pillars in memory of every Jew that was killed on the concentration camps, and still there are children playing hide and seek among the pillars like it was the world’s most macabre playing ground. Perhaps the same rules can’t apply for all the sites generally. Maybe sometimes it is good to replace grief with joy in order to look forward into the future instead of dwelling in the sadness of the past.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany.

Visiting these sites is important, if not essential for understanding the world we live in. As Western millenials, we live relatively sheltered lives, and for most of us a large-scale tragedy seems impossible. However, not all of it is far behind in the past, and many people in the world are still affected by war, persecution and violence.

(In this post I have mostly covered tragedies caused by humans, but places of natural disaster are also sometimes included in the definiton of dark tourism.)

The key is to be respectful. Don’t be loud or disruptive. You might want to condsider leaving the young ones home – toddlers are too small to undertsand what they are seeing, and having to watch over them will diminish the impact that the site has on you, too. Don’t try to just zoom through; Visiting such a place is an emotional experience, and  the more you allow yourself to be immersed in the narratives of the victims, the more you will get out of it

And for Heaven’s sake, do not pose for selfies in front of symbols of genocide. I once saw someone on Facebook posted a picture of himself on the train tracks in Dachau and made it his profile picture. These sites of dark tourism are not a place to tell your story. So be quiet and listen. Really, really listen.

On a wall in Auschwitz hangs a plaque, reminding visitors of the words of the essayist George Santayana:

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

The barracks of Auschwitz near Krakow, Poland.

What do you think – is visiting these sites beneficial or is it just unrespectful peeping? Have you visited anywhere “dark”?

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