If you’ve been flicking through Netflix lately you may have found David Farrier’s new show Dark Tourist. Dark tourism destinations are all the rage nowadays, but they are by no means free from controversy. But what exactly is Dark Tourism, and is it an ethical tourism practice that we can get on board with or not?
What is Dark Tourism?
Dark Tourism simply refers to any travel to sites that are associated with death, suffering, or anything a bit macabre. If at first you were wondering what weirdos would spend time on holiday gawking at people’s suffering, then you need to look more carefully at what these sites may be.
Rome is pretty high up on many bucket lists, when visiting the Colosseum is most definitely a Dark Tourist site. Likewise, if you have visited war memorials such as the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, or more recently, paid a visit to Ground Zero in New York, these are Dark Tourism destinations. Even the Titanic museum in Belfast is a Dark Tourist spot, as it memorialises a tragedy for the consumption of tourists and other visitors. Our recent trip to Trunyan Village Cemetary in Bali was definitely a Dark Tourism destination as well.
Just because something is considered a Dark Tourism destination, doesn’t mean that you are a ‘dark tourist’, as people visit these sites for a multitude of reasons, from being interested in history, to tracing ancestors back through major historic events, to just taking in the popular tourist sites in a particular town. Dark Tourism itself is something that has been around for centuries, so why the focus now?
Dark Tourism Destinations in the Media
Recently, Dark Tourism has gotten a lot of negative attention in the media. in 2017 the tragedy of the Grenfell Towers fire in London was made more tragic by people taking selfies while the fire that killed 79 people was still burning. The story of Otto Warmbier, the 22 year old US citizen who was arrested while taking a tour of North Korea, had a tragic end when he died shortly after being returned to his parents in a coma.
People have been understandably shocked by the behaviour of what some call disaster tourists, who flock to Dark Tourism destinations before the tragedy is even over to take selfies, and generally act in a disrespectful and abhorrent manner. This behaviour is obviously not okay, but does it mean that Dark Tourism as an industry is unethical? This question is important, but unfortunately not easy to answer.
When is Dark Tourism not okay?
There is no one size fits all answer to when Dark Tourism is okay and when it is uncceptable. The same Dark Tourism destination can be completely acceptable for one person, and unethical for the next. So here are some questions to think about when you choose a Dark Tourism destination for your next holiday.
When did the event happen?
There is a lot to be said for giving some time before visiting a site of tragedy. We are not enraged by people visiting the Paris catacombs, or Pompeii, because there is no one alive now that is still affected by those events. However, when we are dealing with visiting the Rwandan Genocide memorials or the Khmer Rouge memorials, we need to be a lot more aware of our reasons for visiting. People in Rwanda and Cambodia are still living and affected by the tragedies in their countries, and we cannot blindly walk into these sites and behave disrespectfully. Understand that you need to find a respectful way to engage with sites such as these, and to really listen to the people who are still living with the consequences. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, it just means you can’t go without doing your research.
I also want to speak a little about Poverty Porn here. There are so many places in the world that allow you to do a township or slum or favela tour, and I really want to discourage you from taking part in tours like this. If you are going to an area where people are just trying to live their lives, and are struggling to make ends meet, you need to reevaluate why you need to be there in the first place. This is a human zoo, where you pay to take photos of the poor and struggling, often ‘third world’ people, and then you can go back to your hotel and feel better about how great your life is. It is incredibly disrespectful, and it is a part of the white supremacist world we live in. Don’t be a part of it, please! For more on what poverty porn is and why it does more harm than good, check out this article from The Guardian.
Who benefits from your tourism?
This is a great question for any holiday you may be planning, but especially when it comes to Dark Tourism. Who is getting the money from your tourism? Your holidays should ideally be directly benefiting the communities you are visiting, not big companies or overseas investors.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. North Korea is a hot Dark Tourism destination right now, especially as the two Koreas are seriously talking about ending the Korean War officially. I refuse to take part in any tour of North Korea under the current conditions. Why? Well simply put, because my money will be lining the pockets of the regime, not the starving people of the country. The entire tour is a carefully orchestrated performance for the express purpose of 1. receiving positive media attention from the West, and 2. to make money to further the regime. When tours are allowed to be run by locals, and I can choose who to speak to and when to take a picture, I’ll give the tour more thought. But at the moment there is no positive benefit of my visit for the people suffering under the oppressive regime, and sating my curiosity is not more important than people’s lives.
Whose story is being told?
We also need to be aware of what side of the story we’re getting. History is not as black and white as the books would like us to believe, and we need to be even more aware of this as we step into places of conflict and tragedy. If, for example, you were at a WWII memorial, and the guide was doing their best to convince you that ‘there were very good people on both sides’ and that the Holocaust wasn’t all that bad, you’d probably want to get the hell out of there and report them to the police. We know the story of the Holocaust, and we are very clear on who the perpetrators and victims were.
But this is unfortunately not always the case. We need to do our best as responsible travellers to make sure we are supporting the voices of the victims, and not state, or big business sponsored propaganda that paints things as less terrible, or less unethical than they were. My North Korea story above is a good example of this. Another example comes from the Dark Tourist series on Netflix, which I hate, and is a tour of Pablo Escobar’s old home in Medellín.
The tour is not the problem, it’s who is running and benefiting from it: Pablo Escobar’s old hitman, Popeye. This tour is basically an excuse for Popeye to relive his glory days, which involved the killing of countless innocent people. I, personally, feel that this is incredibly unethical, and yet it rakes in the money, and even attracts Netflix. Now, if there was (and maybe there is) a tour run by families of survivors, who gave an in depth look at what life at the time was like and how things are now, it would be a very different story.
Why are you going?
This is really the crux of the whole thing. Why do you want to go to this Dark Tourism destination in particular? I do believe that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ reasons, though I hate to admit it. This article from The Atlantic really encapsulates my feelings about Dark Tourist, and gives a good intro to what we need to ask ourselves. Are we, like David Farrier, just “trying other people’s tribulations on for size”?
There are certain experiences that I just cannot feel comfortable with supporting. For example, there is a converted prison in Latvia that allows you to become a prisoner for the night, complete with shouting guards and lock downs. There is a Bunker museum in Germany that lets you become a soldier for the night. And then there is the awful tour that Dark Tourist shows, where you can go to Mexico and pretend to me an illegal immigrant trying to jump the border into the US.
I wasn’t sure why these experiences got me so angry, until I read the Atlantic article. These experiences are letting you play act at something that caused or even still causes people suffering daily. It allows us to put on the skin of suffering for just a moment, and then shrug it off and catch cocktail hour. It is disrespectful, I think, in much the same way that cultural appropriation is disrespectful. There are people from cultures and communities that suffer everyday and cannot take their identities off or remove themselves from their circumstances, and here we are play acting at being them so we can feel better about our privileges and our lives. If this is Dark Tourism, then I cannot be a part of it.
When is Dark Tourism okay?
So after all of this, is there any reason to partake in Dark Tourism at all? I really think that there is. When I was doing a theatre fellowship in Hamburg, I ventured alone one day to the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial, and it was the most profound experience I had in Germany. I walked the memorial nearly alone, and I felt so many feelings. It was simultaneously soul destroying and intensely beautiful, as nature reclaims the area. I felt very connected to a piece of humanity and challenged to do better, and be better, and to continue being watchful for human rights abuses around me. I feel like it was the start of my ethical travel journey.
I feel like Dark Tourism becomes not only okay, but necessary in a 2018 that sees the world moving further and further towards the Right Wing conservatism that has destroyed the lives of millions in the past. When we engage with these Dark Tourism destinations in a meaningful and solemn way, we are sobered up as travellers, shaken from our holidaying, and forced to confront the dark parts of ourselves that we see mirrored in the stories and sites we visit.
And this is why I think people feel the need to take selfies at these sites. Because when we are really faced with all of our shadows we have no real coping mechanisms. We fall back on what we know, while wanting to mark the occasion, to say, ‘I was here! This was important!’
So I encourage you, to keep visiting the Dark Tourism destinations that are so popular, and to find a new way of memorialising your experience, so that, hopefully in the future, we have no new Dark Tourism destinations at all.
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