I recently wrote a feature for New Internationalist magazine, asking whether dark tourism can ever be a good thing. It got me considering my own position. Was I in favour of type of travel or against it? I wasn’t immediately sure.
Disaster tourism, slum tourism, war tourism, memorial tourism – they’re all very different, and they’ve all got their devotees. Like many people, I’ve visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. At the time (it was 2007), I thought it was an important thing to do. I wanted to learn more about the atrocities that people had suffered there and I was interested to see it for myself.
In the event, it turned out to be one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever made. It was one of the hardest, and definitely the most upsetting, but I still remember it with absolute clarity. I already had some knowledge about what had happened there – I’d learnt about it in school, and read Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man - but seeing the piles of human hair and left-behind shoes somehow took my understanding to another level.
Still, there was also something very wrong with my experience. My problem was the other tourists. Not that I begrudged them being there. It was the way they were acting. There were quite a lot of them taking photos as if they were in a theme park – big smiles and silly faces in front of buildings where people had been put to death.
Then again, if it was just my sensibilities that were being hurt, did this sort of thing truly matter? Was I getting het up over something I didn’t need to be getting het up about? It wouldn’t be the first time.
In the course of writing the piece for the New Internationalist, I spoke to a number of experts, but it was when I was talking to Philip Stone of the Institute of Dark Tourism that I had an answer. Because while he was far from being opposed to dark tourism, he suggested that this sort of behaviour sometimes has the power to dilute the experience.
And once it’s lost its positive social impact, doesn’t it just become about making money? The way I see it, whether dark tourism is a positive or negative thing is largely about how you act when you’re there. And, if you’re going in a tour group, how it’s organised. The fact that slum tours such as Reality Tours & Travel have won responsible tourism awards suggests it is possible to do good, if things are managed well.
So I think it has its place. In fact, it can be really important.
But I’ve also realised that for me there’s some tourism that will never be OK. And that’s when the people affected by the disaster or tragedy are forgotten. In particular, it’s disaster tourism, where the wounds are still fresh and people are rebuilding their lives. If being there is more of a hindrance than a help – if your tour bus is stopping supplies reaching people in need, for example – then how can you ever justify it?
Unlike Stone, I haven’t conducted detailed research into people’s motives for visiting dark tourism sites. But, for what it’s worth, I think we need to tread very carefully. For most people, myself included, travel is about having incredible experiences. But sometimes that’s just not the most important thing.
What do you think?
Picture credit: u07ch This blog post was originally published on the Ethical Travel website
- www.goethicaltravel.com. Copyright Ruth Stokes @ Ethical Travel.