People have always visited cemeteries, war memorials and other sites tinged with tragedy. Most times this is considered a legitimate part of our historical education. After all, how else will we learn about history and perhaps help it not repeat itself?
Recently though this type of tourism has been given a name: dark tourism. It has synonyms – grief tourism, holocaust tourism, prison tourism – but they all tend to share a relationship to violent death and involve visits to places that have seen tragedy.
There appears to be a subset of dark tourism, known as disaster tourism. While dark tourism tends to refer to tragedies that are man-made, disaster tourism is usually used to single out places hit by natural disasters.
Dark tourism draws crowds. Popular sites include:
Nazi concentration camps in Europe, where millions died during World War II
Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center twin buildings once sat
air crash sites, such as Lockerbie
Cambodia’s killing fields
sites where famous people died, like the Paris tunnel in which Princess Diana lost her life
cemeteries and memorials
Hiroshima, Nagasaki and other sites once ravaged by war.
Are these legitimate sights for tourists? Or is there something wrong with visiting them?
Is this an appropriate history lesson, or are we indulging in unforgivable voyeurism?
The answer seems to range widely depending on what we’re seeing, how we feel about it, and how long ago the tragedy took place. Showing up at the site of a major murder or air crash a day or two after it takes place can unequivocally be considered voyeurism. It adds nothing to the situation or to our own knowledge, and can harm the people whose tragedy it is – not to mention hamper rescue or investigative efforts.
Dark tourism is nothing new and people have been visiting these sites for centuries. Just think of the thousands of spectators who gathered to watch the Roman gladiators, or the crowded town squares on the eve of a public execution. The steady stream of visitors to former concentration camps or war memorials are just two more recent examples of what most tourists consider valid destinations.But now, people are asking if it’s the right thing to do.
Part of the decision on whether to go has to be based on time. How long has it been since the tragedy took place? Are survivors still there? Will your visit cause someone pain? Are you just rubbernecking, like people at the site of a car crash?
Even answering these questions won’t necessarily yield a solution with which everyone is comfortable.
Dark tourism isn’t always the result of dark motives, either. A historical perspective on past misdeeds is often illuminating. And there can be economic benefits: your visit and that of others may help contribute financially to a depressed area. Your visit may be used to pay respects to those who perished at the site. And if you’ve been affected by the tragedy, however distantly, a visit can help you grieve and heal.
Conversely, there are reasons why you should not indulge in dark tourism. Your presence may be forcing people to relive a tragedy they’d rather forget. You can be perceived – and with reason – as disrespectful and insensitive if you’ve only come to gawk. And, what you’re doing may just be morally wrong.
Where do you draw the line? Is visiting Dracula’s Castle dark tourism? Haunted houses? How about Pearl Harbor? Or Inca ruins once used for human sacrifice?
As with many questions of right and wrong, it’s about conscience. But it’s also a question of usage. If a site is widely considered to be an acceptable tourist site, chances are you’ll be fine. But if you show up and you’re the only one there, think again. You may be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Vale tourism.