Holidays in hell

Auschwitz entrance. Photo Oleg Yunakov, from Wikimedia Commons
While the idea of tourists visiting sites associated with death, disaster and atrocities is as old as tourism itself, the "dark tourism" phenomenon has grown significantly in recent years. Aimee Cunningham reports.

When it comes to tourism hotspots, nuclear disaster sites, places of mass genocide or homes of serial killers aren’t usually the first that come to mind. While the idea of tourists visiting sites associated with death, disaster and atrocities is as old as tourism itself, the “dark tourism” phenomenon has grown significantly in recent years. Dark destinations have received more media attention and growing numbers of visitors, which has opened up discussion about the moral implications of visiting such places.

In addition to popular sites including Auschwitz concentration camp, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and 9/11 Ground Zero, dark tourists are seeking other out-of-the-ordinary experiences, particularly in lower socio-economic parts of the world. As crowds gather in culturally diverse communities to catch a glimpse of morbid and macabre pasts, traditions, and ways of life, it raises the question of whether growing tourism will ultimately exploit the culture and identity of the local people.

Visiting death-related sites has always attracted human inquisitiveness, however the increase in popularity has changed how these experiences are marketed to tourists, and it’s often difficult to discern if it’s being carried out with the right intention.

On one hand, the responsible management of sites shapes the interpretation and degree of respect from tourists, and on the other, the motive and active involvement of visitors determines the substance of the destination. In any case, there is a degree of responsibility for hosts and guests to remain conscious of cultural and social sensitivity in areas that may not be prepared for an influx of tourists, much less backpackers en masse posting selfies to social media.

There’s often an overlap with broader political agendas in places of dark tourism. While it’s not exclusive to such tourism, the dimension that this adds to sites on the darker end of the spectrum can be powerful and symbolically important. It can project messages of historical awareness, social justice, human rights and reconciliation. We recognise and support senses of nationhood in areas that explain how and why tragedies occurred and convey to tourists the importance of avoiding a reoccurrence of horrible events.

Particularly in sites associated with a heritage of suffering, political projects can reinforce ideologies of reconciliation and healing. For example, South Africa has used the reconciliation of apartheid to communicate a new identity for the state to locals and tourists. Also, Rwanda’s genocide memorials are incorporated into their country’s tourist product to educate visitors and support a move forward for a better future. So far, it’s put them on the tourism map.

 This kind of political tourism model can support the voices and perspectives of Indigenous communities, offering a platform to share information about marginalised and suppressed pasts. In doing this, historical issues of representation and power can reach a wider audience and develop a greater understanding of difficult heritage. It’s likely to change the attitudes and values of tourists.

Andrew Peters, a senior lecturer in Indigenous Studies at Swinburne University in Melbourne, maintains that dark tourism has the potential to be beneficial to Indigenous hosts and international visitors in Australia.

“Tourism helps to promote accurate understanding and awareness of cultures, histories and peoples, and helps to foster a sense of pride among Indigenous peoples themselves,” Dr Peters said. “If it’s not done correctly, however, it can have negative effects.”

Dr Peters conducts varied research, but mainly revolves around Indigenous identity, Indigenous knowledge, and contemporary studies. He believes that Indigenous control and ownership are gradually increasing in Australia, but the culture at the core of their tourism product is the main factor.

“The busiest and more popular [sites] may not necessarily translate to accurate depictions of culture, as economic expediency often subsumes the cultural obligations. But at present, more tourists tend to visit the bigger type attractions and areas – large cultural centres in major cities, and places like Uluru that receive international attention.”

Indigenous tourism can still be too heavily skewed towards remote and outback culture in Australia and this can affect the perceptions of international tourists. At many sites, hosts avoid speaking about colonisation and its negative impacts, and focus on pre-contact history and culture. However, this is starting to change.

“Showing accurate depictions of settlement history could have positive impacts,” Dr Peters said. “Dark tourism certainly has the potential to be beneficial to hosts and visitors in all cases, as long as information is presented accurately, and sensitively.”

If carried out correctly, with the input and control of Indigenous people and groups, tourism can have a very positive effect on Indigenous culture and identity. However, if the local knowledge and people are not at the centre, it can cause a great deal of damage. The predominant ethical concern for Australia’s Indigenous tourism is around authenticity.

“Ensuring not to appropriate cultural knowledge (i.e. pretending to represent certain people and/or groups); taking care not to create inaccurate and misleading information; and ensuring that financial profit doesn’t become the priority – the culture should always come first,” Dr Peters said.

Other concepts that intertwine with dark tourism complicate the ethical debate, like integrating poverty or slum tourism. These types of specialised tourism are different at the core, but the anxiety about developing certain sites as tourist attractions can be justified. It’s important to acknowledge this association, but also to recognise the difference between them.

An audience could be forgiven for lumping all places of varied suffering into one category, as dark tourism’s rise in popularity has been aided in recent years by pop culture media. Various VICE documentaries, Ross Kemp: Extreme World, The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan and recent addition, Netflix’s Dark Tourist, all of which combine the bizarre with dangerous but don’t always fit into the dark tourism niche.

That is not to say that some prevalent dark tourism sites aren’t explored and explained, but some of the world’s trouble spots can be satirised in an ongoing trend with this kind of series. When vulnerable communities open up to international tourism, a comedic voyeuristic host can just come across awkward and unwelcome. Particularly in Dark Tourist, host David Farrier gives little political analysis or possible solutions, rather disregarding the fact that by being welcomed into these sites is an invitation to promote tolerance, break down cultural boundaries and encourage dialogue. Especially in lower socio-economic communities that are working to accept difficult heritage, learning from dark pasts and sharing what is considered by outsiders as dark ways of life.

An important lesson from Dark Tourist as an example is how inappropriate it can be to intrude on reconciliation processes or social reconstruction as a tourist. Not only are people visiting a physical place, but they are spiritual and emotional tourists in areas that require understanding and tolerance to move forward with the rest of the world as a global community.

Once you get past the sense of entitlement and posturing of some hosts, there is important content that exposes brutal truths and stories from dark tourism spots. In places of historical civil and political unrest, mass genocide and war, the crux of dark tourism and its appeal to travellers is addressed. The fascination that humans have with real-life horror and evil at the hands of other humans connects us to these stories, it’s in our nature.

So, what is the motivation for so-called dark tourists? From the mid-2000s, more specific studies started to focus on why people decide to travel to places related to death and suffering. Rather than draw anything conclusive, it’s become clear that many people travel to these sites for reasons other than a particular interest in, or desire to encounter, death. Of course, there’s curiosity about the unusual, desire for empathy and identification with victims, and attraction to horror. The more commonly reported motives align with heritage tourism, an interest in history and a sense of moral duty or obligation.

There’s an undeniable shift happening in tourism as a whole, as travellers opt to move away from conventional or mass tourism to niche alternatives. In the social media age, there’s an inherent desire to post travel photos to Facebook and Instagram in a relentless quest for validation. We have to ask ourselves: Are we travelling to dark tourism sites as an opportunity for a greater experience and heighten our understanding, or is it another self-indulgent display of our morbid curiosity? The internet is filled with unfortunate selfie faux pas, it’s common for tourists to post selfies smiling and giving the thumbs up from sites of death and destruction.

Renatta Colarte, fashion design student and self-identified dark tourist, finds that visiting dark sites brings powerful feelings of empathy and connection with the stories of victims.

“I am always attracted to the morbid, I think that being in those places I feel the victims in my skin, it gives me chills. I like to know about history, what happened and why,” Colarte said. “I like to know what people can do out of fear, power and despair.”

With an attraction to the morbid and macabre, Colarte spends a lot of time watching television series and documentaries about serial killers, war and genocide. She has travelled to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the S-21 in Cambodia, and has plenty of dark tourism sites on her travel bucket list. She explained that Chernobyl would be at the top of the list, as a vast abandoned site would be amazing yet terrifying, thinking back on the events of the nuclear meltdown in 1986, near Pripyat in the Ukraine.

“I find dark tourism fascinating. Our world has been built on destruction and murder. It’s important to maintain the memory of those who suffered through the years, and what better than visiting these places to feel that pain, to prevent future destruction and senseless wars. Nobody likes to know it, but people have to know the truth.”

Again, it comes down to intention and interpretation of the places we visit. That’s each individual traveller’s responsibility, but also rests in the management of sites to portray authenticity and communicate tragedy so as not to allow derision in its interpretation.

If we shift the focus to experiences, rather than motivations, it becomes easier to understand why people engage with dark tourism. People’s cognitive and emotional responses to dark sites or attractions really depend on their active collective or personal participation. It’s these experiences that make visitors reflect on their own morality, behaviour and their mortality, giving them an opportunity to distance themselves from their first-world problems. It disrupts the everyday life and thought processes of a generation exposed to endless mind-numbing content online. It’s also a reminder that places and people can be transformative, and sometimes understanding the positive learning experience that can come from a morbid and negative past.

 This interpretation is an extremely important part of the presentation of dark tourism sites, a tough job for management as visitors range from victims, perpetrators and bystanders (which includes tourists). Hosts need to emphasise certain messages or particular perspectives to a general audience, which is not always going to be accepted and can raise more ethical questions. It’s not uncommon for sites to allow interpretation through shock or challenging normal ways of thinking, in order to engage an audience emotionally and psychologically. This can be a really effective experience, however not always favourable to a sensitive audience.

Managers of dark sites have the responsibility of presenting sites appropriately, balancing education with commemoration, respecting hosts and communities, while representing those whose stories are told there. It can be a very delicate balance and often tricky to achieve, it’s practically impossible to please every group.

As contemporary tourists seek a more interactive experience, there’s an expectation for tourism providers to offer a knowledgeable and imaginative product to give them a competitive edge. In places of death or suffering, it can be challenging to cater for audiences with varying expectations. Obviously, there is a need for sensitivity and respect, which is a common cause of concern in commodifying death, disaster and atrocities at dark tourism sites.

On the spectrum of lighter to darker dark tourism experiences, entertainment-focused attractions have more flexibility and are able to design tourism products to suit trends and capitalise on the marketing aspect through social media. Users that research or are targeted by marketing prior to attending a dark site are becoming active participants, even co-creators, in interpreting meaning at these attractions.

In the end, almost every destination in the world has a dark history in some way or another. Whether it stems from violence and war, natural or nuclear disaster, or otherwise, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking out darker destinations, especially if it challenges the nature of our behaviour as humans. In fact, it could be the most valuable form of travel of all. Our responsibility as tourists is to venture to destinations with the appropriate intention behind our choices.