On ‘Dark Tourism’ and Reconciling Morals and Travel
Why do we choose to visit places where tragedy and destruction took place? Why are we so fascinated? More importantly, why do we feel compelled to go to these places ourselves?
As part of a work assignment, I recently encountered the term “Dark Tourism,” which is used by journalists, travelers, and academics to describe the practice of tourists intentionally visiting sites with grim historical significance—that which involves death and suffering. Because I immediately understood exactly what the phrase encompasses, I appreciate having new (to me) vocabulary with which to talk about it. Travelers flock to Pompeii, Ground Zero, the D-Day beaches of Normandy, the Củ Chi Tunnels of the Vietnam War, the Anne Frank House, and the concentration camps of the Holocaust. These places have become part of vacation photo albums for travelers from all over the world. I’ve personally visited five of the aforementioned sites, and I can attest to the stark juxtaposition between memorials of real death and snack stands selling ice cream to modern visitors. In my experience, participating in dark tourism doesn’t feel clearly wrong or clearly right. It can just feel confusing. Should I be here? Is my presence adding to collective awareness and remembrance, or am I here for some sort of self-serving satisfaction? Do I even want to be here, or am I fulfilling some societal expectation to visit “because it’s a must-see?”
Upon visiting dark tourism sites, I’ve felt unsurprisingly uncomfortable, but the source of my discomfort does surprise me. Sometimes it’s not the actual graves I remember most vividly. It’s my feeling of disgustingly obvious privilege as I traipse around with my shiny, expensive camera and then leave when I’ve had my fill. If only for this discomfort, I see how participating in dark tourism benefits the individual visitor. It forces us to recognize our own place in the world in a broader context of global history.
Does dark tourism have a more altruistic function? Is it possible that having millions of visitors walk through locations of genocide can serve a higher purpose, or are we simply participating in a form of commodified exploitation?
As blurry as this ethical reasoning sounds, perhaps it depends on the intentions of the visitor. In other words, maybe it is possible to ethically visit sites of past suffering if we do so in neither haste nor superficial understanding. How exactly to go about doing this is not a question I’m qualified to answer, but my instincts tell me it requires reconciliation between our “everyday” lives and what we learn as a tourist.
I absolutely identify with BBC journalist Mary-Ann Ochota’s confusion when, upon completing her first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp, she crumbles in muddled emotions. She says, “I feel guilty not about coming to Auschwitz. I think I feel guilty about all the other stuff I choose to ignore. That’s my overwhelming feeling. Guilt for all the episodes of horrific history that I don’t bother to think about. I don’t know if that was the aim of the day.”
Often, we don’t know what the aim of these visits is right away, but I hope that they can serve some higher purpose, because when it comes down to it, I’m not theoretically opposed to dark tourism. My gut says choosing to visit sites of large-scale humanitarian significance is still more productive than sitting on a beach chair sipping a margarita, but I do speak from a lived experience free from the sort of large-scale suffering we’re talking about. For this, I classify my opinions as humble and open to persuasion.
What do you think? Is dark tourism wrong? Right? Necessary? Ignorant? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
To learn more about fascinating research on dark tourism, visit the Institute for Dark Tourism Research website.
To read more about the ethical debate surrounding dark tourism, check out this short National Geographic piece.