The growing quandary of dark tourism

It has never been easier to fly to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda, contemplate the precariousness of life, and then return home to the daily grind

Auschqitz, Poland
(Image credit: (Bert Spiertz/Demotix/Corbis))

Visits to the furnaces of Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the area surrounding Chernobyl — all are examples of dark tourism, trips to sites of episodes of human violence. Think of them as morbid holidays, or something a bit less traditional than spending a week at an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas. Back in 2011, Michael T. Luongo described the then-upcoming National September 11 Memorial & Museum as yet another example of dark tourism. "To visit New York's ground zero is clearly a different experience from Times Square or Central Park," he wrote.

Just about every article on dark tourism, including Luongo's, is quick to mention that there's nothing new about our interest in going to places associated with death. Public hangings, for instance, were once the norm. During July 1861, several sightseers packed picnic baskets before heading out to witness one of the earlier battles of the American Civil War. People have flocked to the Colosseum for years. What sets Dark Tourism apart as something new, however, is the tourism industry's packaging and marketing of such places.

In the mid '90s, British scholars John Lennon and Malcolm Foley first coined the term "Dark Tourism." The duo went on to write a book titled Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster, which was published in 2000. A dozen years later, the University of Central Lancashire, located in Northern England, launched the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, a first-of-its-kind academic center headed by Philip Stone, who has a doctorate in Thanatology (the study of death) and previously worked in the tourism industry. Last year on Halloween, The Guardian published an article exploring the growing trend of people visiting murder sites and places of past horror. The piece mentions a new tour in the home of 1980s California serial killer Dorothea Puente, who buried her victims in her yard, both front and back. "It's the commercialization of death," Stone is quoted as saying regarding the budding phenomenon. "Take the Flight 93 crash site," he continues. "Soon after it happened farmers were selling tours of the field. But now there's an established memorial. There's been a process of commercialization from that initial demand to becoming a formal destination."

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The moral quandary with dark tourism is rather obvious: Is this an industry that seeks to profit from the suffering of others or educate those still living among us?

For Stone, whose Dark Tourism Institute certainly has financial ties to the industry's longevity (another objective of the center is to "enhance, influence, and inform industry practitioners to help ensure the ethical implementation and management of dark tourism heritage sites, attractions, and exhibitions"), the whole practice is a kind of non-religious pilgrimage for non-religious people. "It's a way for a secular society to reconnect with death," he once told a BBC reporter.

If you have the money, it's never been easier to book a few days off, fly to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda, contemplate the precariousness of life, and then return home to settle back into the daily grind. And, in a sense, this is exactly what the government of Rwanda wants — foreigners coming to their country to commemorate the slaughter of somewhere between 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over the course of three months while simultaneously spending money on hotels, restaurants, souvenirs, and perhaps a guided tour of the nearby mountain gorillas. If each visit benefits the people who still suffer from the events that led to the creation of a new museum or landmark, that's probably good. But if the proceeds go into the coffers of a corrupt government or uncaring company simply there to make a buck, that's probably not so good.

According to a recent article at The Atlantic, dark tourism is on the rise. There are now established locations near the Syrian-Israeli border where visitors gather to glimpse a piece of the action, not unlike the aforementioned sightseers during the American Civil War.

"Sometimes we have battles in front of us and tourists will hear the noises and see the fighting, but that happens only once every few months," Kobi Marom, a 54-year-old retired Israel Defense Forces colonel who presently works in the tourism industry, explains in the piece. "I'll have tourists sitting at a wonderful lunch one mile from the border, and I tell them that al Qaeda is looking at them, and they go crazy with it. They say, 'Are you sure?' To them, it's like something from the moon, and they want to see."

History is a messy affair. It's better to remember the horrible ways in which humans have treated each other in the spirit of preventing future atrocities than forgetting them completely. If dark tourism can play some role in that, fair enough. But if more and more dark tourism sites keep popping up year after year due to an increasing supply of carnage and blood, perhaps it's time to reconsider the industry's purpose.

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