My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Motives for dark tourism: enrichment, education and empathy? Or just plain voyeurism and morbid curiosity?

Last weekend I posted about Anzac Day, sacred moments, and the revival of nationalism and Anzac Day imagery and 'young Australia': national identity and the need for heroes. The extensive media coverage here in Australia showing young flag-wearing and flag-waving Australians on Anzac Day was what had motivated my series of posts reflecting on the growth in grief tourism and dark tourism. I felt that for these young Aussie 'dark tourists', travelling to Gallipoli or other battle sites or war memorials for Anzac Day was partly motivated by a desire to commemorate wars their ancestors fought in, but was also for the entertainment value and the desire to participate in something that's now considered to be a cool thing to do. For me, it's almost as if Gallipoli is the new Bali - a rite of passage for young Aussie travellers. But I also think their presence is to do with a need to reinforce their identity and their national identity in particular, and a desire to strengthen their sense of belonging to an idealised notion of their nation. And it's this that I'm uncomfortable with, partly because I think it takes away from the true purpose of the day (rememberance), but mostly because it excludes all others who don't identify.

Much of the media coverage and analysis related to dark tourism dwells on the dilemma of the dark tourist. On the one hand, their visit to a site, whether it's a war memorial or concentration camp or battlefield, and their participation in a 'dark tour' is motivated by a desire for self-education and self-awareness, for developing empathy and for personal enrichment.
Alexander Schwabe writes about a visit to Auschwitz (pictured) from this perspective in his comprehensive account in Der Speigel, Visiting Auschwitz, the Factory of Death (Jan, 2005). On the other hand, rightly or wrongly, the same kind of participation can be perceived as morbid curiosity or overt voyeurism. Simon Reeve touches on this in When it's right to roam (The Observer, Oct 2005) as he considers his impact and value of a trip to Uzbekistan, while James Marrison reflects upon similar issues in Wise to the streets, when he joins tours to see transvestites and shanty towns in Buenos Aires. In Humour and Hospitality go with the Territories (Oct 2005) Andrew Mueller believes the positives outweigh the negatives, convinced that the rewards for tourists and locals alike are immense. Likewise, the motives of a "genocide tourist" addict in Steve Silva's Genocide Tourism: Tragedy Becomes a Destination (Chicago Tribune, Aug 2007) make for a compelling case for this form of tourism.

But rarely do writers touch upon issues of identity that might be at play, and yet those have very much been a part of my experience of dark tourism. I did the tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau that Scwabe describes and our experience was similar. For me, it was transformational. I developed an understanding and an empathy that I never truly had before. We went in winter and it was snowing and I'll never forget the bitter cold I experienced although cocooned in my layers of thermals, stockings, sweaters, scarf, boots, and coat. How on earth did these people survive the cold, let alone everything else, I constantly wondered? However, what had been a sobering and poignant experience was almost marred by the behaviour of a large group of Israeli students who came (like the Aussies at Gallipoli) wearing and waving enormous Israeli flags. They appeared to pay little attention to their guide, they spent little time at exhibits, they rushed through as if visiting a dull natural history museum, and they seemed to be more consumed with each other than their surroundings. Instead, they giggled and joked and waved their flags with an attitude that I perceived as arrogance, as if celebrating their team's victory at a football match. What was going on there do you think? My sense is that they shared someone with those young Australian travellers at Gallipoli on Anzac Day...


Rachel Cotterill said...

I'd never heard of 'dark tourism' as a concept before you started this series of posts - but I suppose you could say I've done it. Personally, I'm interested in history, and so if I find myself in easy reach of an important historical site I'll probably visit - and most of history has its dark aspects. Would I make a trip specifically to visit this kind of place? Probably not, but presumably some people do. I can't imagine why you would go if you're not interested in learning more about it.

marina villatoro said...

Great post!!! At this point, I'm trying to refrain from making specific out of the way travel plans to these places, simply because my son is too young to grasp the concept, plus, Costa Rica is really fantastic. They haven't had any mass genocides and other horrific, that's why they are such passive people.

Although, if I was visiting places like Europe with concentration camps and Israel, I would definitely go there to show my son what has happened, it's part of our history!

I personally have enjoyed this series, I've been saying the same thing for ages! It's great to see I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Sara Brainard said...

That's a really interesting question about the purposes for visiting these places - growing up near Boston, I visited at least 4 or 5 graveyards on school field trips to see where figures in American history are buried, but I don't feel I ever learned much from just seeing a name on a gravestone - visiting other sights or museums was much more educational for me.
I also live near the city of Salem, where 20 people killed for witchcraft, and I cannot understand why tens of thousands of people visit every year for that - the town has virtually become a Halloween-themed town with meager attractions that are barely related to the historical events.

Of course, visiting other places like concentration camps is a different thing that I think would be much more meaningful - the Holocaust museum in Washington DC really affected me, although I saw others who didn't give it much thought. It seems that reasons behind "dark tourism" vary a lot based on the individual.

Lara Dunston said...


It certainly fascinates me as to why people visit these places if they're not really interested in remembering, commemorating, learning, etc, but I'm seeing it happen... but this is why I think there are other factors at play... I certainly think identity and national identity play a role here, more now than they once did, and I find that a little scary to be honest.

Hi Marina

Of course your son needs to see these things - but I think there's a time and place, and I think you agree, he is too young. Which is why I think the visit to Auschwitz was wasted on the young group that almost spoilt our experience because of their arrogance and flag-waving and carrying-on. They would have been better off going with their parents or grand-parents or someone who was closer to the experience of the holocaust, and perhaps waited a few years until they were old enough to understand the complexities.

I'm glad you've enjoyed the series. I think it's been a bit depressing for some, hence the lack of comments, but I like to explore a topic fully, and I'd rather have a few meaningful and insightful comments than 20 that simply say "nice post!", so thank you for sticking with me during this dark week. :) I promise something much more brighter and lighter next!

Hi Sarah

I totally agree with you. I'd much rather visit a good museum that contextualises and interprets and allows me to explore a topic - the more interactive the better.

I don't get the Salem thing either, although I've never been, but I've read about it, but I simply think it's one of those cases that it's become 'the thing that you do'. And people are so conscious of the fact that when they travel somewhere there are certain things they *have* to do and if they don't do them, they'll feel like they missed out on something. Ah, the pressure of being a traveller! ;)

And you're so right that it's all about the individual - one person will hate what another loves, one will find something engaging that another finds dull - I guess that's what makes us all so interesting as human beings, right?

Thank you for your comments! said...

It's more the memorial and/or educational tour in my concept. Usually the students are grouped to visit memorial museum, harsh historic site etc. They may take it less hearted as it's a forced visit than willingly access. But if the tour guide is capable to engage the visitors, that would be more productive.

OurExplorer - Travel through the eyes of a local