“Okay… one, two, three, smile!” my dad said as he pointed the camera at me, my sister, and my mother.
The shutter clicked and Dad gave us his signature “thumbs up,” signaling he was satisfied with the image. My mom looked at me and then back up at the looming walls of the Tower of London. “It feels so wrong to smile,” she grimaced as we walked across the bridge to the entrance.
I shuddered. There was something that felt fundamentally wrong about posing and grinning in front of the building that had housed hundreds of years of England’s brutal history. Just thinking about the juxtaposition of what occurred on those grounds and the cheeriness of the tourists made my skin crawl. Despite this, I could not help but give in to my temptation to see where so much of England’s historical tragedies had occurred.
This innate urge to understand, and in some way experience, the chilling components of our history is a deep-rooted part of the human psyche that scholars and scientists have attempted to comprehend for centuries. The University of Central Lancashire defines dark tourism as “the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme… it’s somehow human nature to want to be an eye-witness to suffering.”
According to Professor J. Lennon from Glasgow Caledonian University, London, “our ancestors, after all, visited Roman gladiatorial games, [honored] death in pilgrimages to Canterbury, and enjoyed days out at public executions.” Professor Lennon believes that humans are “motivated by a desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death,” which is why the dark tourism industry has always boomed and why it may be a pivotal way for current and future generations to learn “lessons of the past.”
Dark tourism encompasses places from around the world in categories such as grief, disaster, genocide, poverty, cult-of-personality, suicide, doomsday, torture, and war (www.dark-tourism.com). Below are images of several famous spots that are visited for their associations with death and misfortune.
Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam: gives tourists an “authentic experience” as Viet Cong Freedom Fighters
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Phnom Penh, Cambodia: carried out by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979, genocidal killing took the lives of one and a half to three million people
Chernobyl, Ukraine: now that radiation levels have lowered, tourists are allowed on the site for short periods of time
Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland: one of the largest and most famous dark tourism locations in the world
Ground Zero, New York City
Since the rapid rise of dark tourism (the estimated worth for adventure tourism, which includes dark tourism, is $236 billion), the ethics of this industry have come into question. Many people, scholars and tourists alike, are in favor of this kind of travel because it provides an emotional, raw educational opportunity that can help people understand the problems of the past and hopefully prevent them in the future.
For some, dark tourism raises concerns about lack of respect for the suffering that took place at the sites. One of the best examples of this is the rise of war tourism. According to Debra Kamin, writing at theatlantic.com, the Syrian civil war in the Golan Heights attracted a significant number of spectators, eager to see a war. Kobi Marom, a retired Israeli colonel who leads the tourist groups, stated that “for people visiting the area, it’s interesting. They feel that they are a part of it. They can go home and tell their friends, ‘I was on the border and I saw battle.’”
Dark tourism has always been a part of human behavior. We have a deep-seated desire to interact with what we do not apprehend, and visiting these locations evokes in us emotional and psychological responses to the tragedies in our collective history. Like it or not, dark tourism is probably here to stay.
Posted by Meghan Dulsky