I was listening to the radio yesterday, when, on a travel program, the subject of ‘Dark Tourism’ came up. A man who was being interviewed was talking about his recent experiences in visiting Chernobyl. I had never heard this term before, so when I got home, I looked it up via ‘Tour Guide Google’ to see what it was all about.
I found that ‘Dark Tourism’ is defined as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with some form of tragedy – death, suffering, murder, pain, disaster or the macabre.
Two obvious destinations include the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and the Cambodian killing fields, both of which I have visited.
Auschwitz Entrance Gate – Krakow
Killing Fields Museum – Phnom Penh
There appears to be quite some debate as to whether this type of tourism is ethical or appropriate. Some people believe that the commercialisation of death, at sites such as these is improper because much of the attraction is the association of death and suffering at the expense of the victims.
If I look back on my own travels, I am surprised to find that I have visited so many places that could be classified as Dark Tourism destinations. Some of them are:
- Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
- Cambodian Killing Fields
- Anne Franke’s House in Amsterdam
- Hanoi Hilton Hotel
- Port Arthur in Tasmania
- Somme Batlefileds
- Eyjafjallajokul – the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland
- Cu Chi Tunnels – Vietnam
- Vietnam War Memories Museum in Saigon
- and probably many more.
I think many tourists have visited these sites like me, and I wouldn’t think that we were all ‘Dark People’. I bet most are just people who are interested in learning about this life and this world.
People who visit sites such as these probably do so for a number of reasons: they have some form of connection with they place or an intrinsic desire to learn. Some may have a morbid curiosity, but others have an empathy with the victims, a desire for historical validation, they want to explore of their own mortality, or they have a sense of social responsibility.
For me, the emotional affect of visiting these places was quite profound.
I remember my emotions after visiting Anne Franke’s house in Amsterdam. All I could do for the next 30 minutes was to sit on a seat by the canal, process my thoughts, and reflect on the pain that Mr Franke must have felt when he returned home after years in a concentration camp, only to find that he was the sole survivor of his entire his family. All the others had perished.
Or at Auschwitz, seeing piles of suitcases, spectacles and other personal belongings that had been taken from victims before they were murdered. They made the stories so much more personal.
Or in Cambodia, seeing the skulls of hundreds of victims who were brutally murdered because their lifestyle was simply inconsistent with the values of the ruling autocracy.
All these sites were very sad, but none of them were distasteful. To me, they served a number of purposes:
- The first was an eduction in the terrible things people can do to other human beings. They showed suffering that cannot be ignored and which should never be repeated. I would challenge the most hardened bigots to visit these places and remain unmoved.
- Secondly, they keep alive parts of our world history that should never be forgotten.
- Thirdly, they help people to understand more about current affairs through a greater understanding of the past.
Maybe these places do fall under a definition of ‘Darkness’, with all the politically correct ramifications of the critics. To me they are important for keeping memories alive and reminding us of morals and values that we should strive to uphold.
Let us learn and not forget!