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Saturday, May 2, 2009

The history of dark tourism: from Roman gladiator spectacles to contemporary conflict zone tours

Dark tourism is not new, as my readers (whose insightful comments always inspire further reflection) point out: Travel Muse recalls touring German war sites as a teenager, while Sandy suggests that The Crusades, which revolved around a fascination with the macabre, might also have been an early version of dark tourism. Indeed, the thesis of 'Guided by the dark: from thanatopsis to thanatourism', published in 1996 by A V Seaton, is that death is the one heritage that everyone shares and therefore has been an element of tourism longer than any other form of heritage. (Thanatourism is generally described as the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.) The nobility watched the 1815 Battle of Waterloo from a safe distance, while one of the American Civil War sites (Manassas) was immediately marketed as a tourist attraction after the war ended, according to UK scholar John Lennon in Journeys into Understanding in The Observer (2005). Indeed, the Auschwitz-Birkenaz concentration camp museum and memorial (pictured) was established in 1947, less than two years after the Red Army troops arrived in 1945 and found 7,000 emaciated prisoners there; it now receives nearly a million visitors a year. Debbie Lisle in 'Defending Voyeurism: Dark Tourism and the Problem of Global Security' (in Peter M Burns and Marina Novelli's Tourism and politics: global frameworks and local realities, 2007) argues that historical spectacles such as Roman gladiator matches and public hangings were also forms of dark tourism, and that the phenomenon also takes in sites of celebrity deaths, such as the site of JFK's assassination in Dallas and the site of Diana's death in Paris, as well as tours to modern conflict zones, from Bosnia to Mogadishu. It was just recently that tourists visited Iraq for the first time since 2003, starting with an independent traveller (see Fallujah's Strange Visitor: a Western Tourist in the New York Times) in February 2009, followed by a group of package tourists (see I took a picture to show my dentist in The Guardian, 21 March 2009). It's interesting to note that the group didn't consider themselves to be 'war tourists', claiming they were there for the history and culture, despite visiting places that are still very dangerous, such as Mosul, while the Italian independent traveller simply seemed naive. Neither the Iraqis nor Italian officials nor American marines interviewed for the story thought Iraq was ready for tourists yet.

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