Dark tourism wasn’t something I had ever really given much thought to until I was trying to decide whether or not to visit Auschwitz whilst I was in Poland. It’s a phrase that I have some difficulties with, particularly given the negative coverage that dark tourism often receives in the media, which makes me reluctant to classify myself as a ‘dark tourist’. However when I think back over some of the places that I’ve visited, I have definitely been to some prominent dark tourist sights.
What is dark tourism?
Dark tourism is the term that has been coined to refer to visiting places with a difficult or challenging past, usually involving death or tragedy. The dark tourism industry is apparently worth over $200 billion and it appears that there has been a resurgence of interest in recent years. However, some would argue that rather than there being an increase in interest in this industry, there has simply been an increase in the commercialization of the sites.
Dark tourism sites are often listed among the top things to do in certain areas, and so it seems natural that someone travelling would want to visit these locations when marketed as such. Examples of some of the most popular dark tourist sights include Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland, the Killing Fields in Cambodia and Chernobyl in Ukraine. Most of these places have regular tours and transport links which make them readily accessible to visitors. I’ve been surprised by the number of people asking me if I’ll be going to the 9/11 memorial since I mentioned I was heading to New York this year, but it seems to be an expected place to visit now.
Why I don’t want to be a ‘dark tourist’
The phrase dark tourism, particularly in the way it is sometimes presented by the media, can suggest a morbid fascination with death or the unpleasant. I wouldn’t classify myself in this category. I don’t visit somewhere because I want to see where people suffered, I visit it because I want to learn about the impact and what can be done to prevent the same things happening again.
I think it’s really important that these places are visited but also believe there is a risk with these locations becoming too popular. The more people visit because it’s the must-do thing to do, the more the significance of the place is diluted. That can then lead to behaviour which is fine at a normal tourist attraction, but really not appropriate somewhere that has a certain history. I was really angry to see people taking selfies and posing again and again for the perfect happy family snap at Auschwitz of all places. Sure, take a photo to remember the experience. Even be in it if you have to, but don’t trivialise the experience or location. On the same trip I walked behind someone uploading footage to their Instagram story with a caption about how sobering the experience was. I couldn’t help but think they might have found it more so if they had turned off their phone and paid proper attention to their surroundings and the information that we were being given on the tour.
I don’t want to be classed as a dark tourist because I don’t want to be associated with this type of behaviour. I accept that everyone visits places for different reasons, but there are certain places where if you are only going to get the perfect photo you’d be better off not going at all. However, there must be some people who visit places without much understanding or appreciation of its past, who come away having gained so much from the experience.
Why I think dark tourism is important
Unfortunately a lot of the time and in a lot of places history has been unpleasant, and therefore that has made its mark on countries and communities around the world. A lot of the locations that are classified as dark tourism locations are places of important historical significance. Dark tourism enables people to unpack the traumatic pasts of different places and gain a greater understanding of their own, and other people’s, histories. Unfortunately a lot of the time and in a lot of places history has been unpleasant, and therefore that has made its mark on countries and communities around the world.
Personally I choose to visit some of these sights to develop a greater understanding of what has happened and to learn from that history. Sometimes it’s a difficult decision to make, and I don’t blame people who decide to give some of these places a miss on their travels as they’re not places that you necessarily want to visit. I struggled deciding whether or not to visit Auschwitz as part of me felt like I should go as I was so close and it was the first thing everyone asked me if I was doing when I mentioned I was going to Krakow. These didn’t really feel like the right reasons, and I knew it was going to be a difficult day out. However, when I considered it further it was more about bringing the history I had learned at school to life, and hopefully gaining a greater understanding in the process.
Dark tourism sites that have had a big impact on me
A few of the dark tourism sites that I visited, I actually went to at quite a young age and so I feel like I would have a very different experience and appreciation of them if I returned now. However, they still provided me with an insight into something I probably would have had very little knowledge and awareness of otherwise.
Robben Island, South Africa
The prison on Robben Island is best known as the holding place of Nelson Mandela, and it is now a World Heritage Site and museum, offering an insight into South Africa’s political history. I was ten when I visited, but I still remember that we were shown round by a former prisoner and being horrified by some of their tales.
Anne Frank’s House, the Netherlands
When I first started to study the holocaust at school, I read the Diary of Anne Frank so naturally wanted to visit the place where she had hidden when I visited Amsterdam on a family holiday. It really brought her tale to life for me and gave me a greater understanding of the suffering, she, her family, and millions of others experienced.
Unsurprisingly, given this was the location that inspired this post, visiting Auschwitz had a huge impact on me. It was very harrowing and I particularly struggled with seeing the piles of people’s belongings, an people’s hair, which are now visible as part of the museum. It’s a place that I’d learned a lot about, but it still didn’t really prepare me for seeing it all in person. It really brought home just how cruel humans can be.
When I blog I usually focus on specific places I’ve been and what I’ve done. Whilst I talk about the experience of being there, I don’t tend to write about any potential issues or try to develop an argument on certain points. Dark tourism was something I wanted to explore further, to allow my own thoughts on the matter to develop if nothing else. I’m certainly not an expert on the subject and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Here are few of the resources I found particularly interesting on dark tourism:
- www.dark-tourism.com – a website dedicated to the subject covering different locations but also the practical and ethical side of travelling to these places
- World Nomads post on Is Dark Tourism Ever OK?
- Guardian article on why dark tourism is popular
Have you ever been to a dark tourist site? What do you think about dark tourism?