The Lure of ‘Dark Tourism’

This week’s #TTOT (The Travel Talk on Twitter) chat topic is one that is very close to my heart: ‘Dark Tourism’. Regular readers will know that, not only does my blog name relate to all things deadly, but much of my content does too – in fact, I’ve only just enjoyed a Death and Debauchery tour of London, which opened my eyes to some of the tragic and traumatic stories that the city has to tell. Less recent exploits have included exploring Boston’s Granary Burial Ground, the wreck of the Mary Rose in Portsmouth and the Memorial to the German Resistance in Berlin.

With #TTOT taking place tomorrow at 10:30am and 10:30pm on Twitter, I figured it was high time I looked at why this strand of travel has become so popular, not just with me, but with many tourists.

Disintegrating paper poppy on wooden cross
Dark tourism is all about remembrance and showing respect.

An emerging trend

What I find surprising, and very promising, is how things have changed over the last few years, most likely due to the internet boom and the sudden surge of readily available information on everything from Titanic to the Holocaust. Whereas my fascination with Jack the Ripper wasn’t something I readily discussed with my friends as a child, despite it fascinating me, it’s now easier to bring up such murky topics than ever before. People have seen dark tourism sites through website photo galleries, on social media feeds and on travel blogs. Heck, they’ve been discussing them on TripAdvisor for ages.

Nowadays it’s much more acceptable to want to add something a bit morbid into your holiday agenda, albeit most likely sandwiched in between a list of happier attractions, unless you’re as obsessed with these places as I am. It’s okay to want a reality check in between all of your holiday diversions, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Blue flowers laid behind rusting iron railings with coins
The one hurried photo I took on a visit to Ground Zero in 2007. I didn’t want to photograph the site in context as it felt wrong to do so.

Media responsibility

So where has this shift in thinking come from? Aside from the internet, the media itself is more graphic and delivers information in piercingly clear visuals. We all struggled to absorb the horror of seeing people on the TV jumping in desperation from the burning Twin Towers back in 2001; only months ago here in the UK, pictures and footage quickly circulated of soldier Lee Rigby’s death in broad daylight and the gloating machete-wielding perpetrators of the crime. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail is happy to publish images of corpses in Mexico as part of its online edition (examples here and here), to keep its click through rate buoyant, with bland warnings of ‘graphic content’ being the only indicator of what will be revealed after the click. Readers are welcome to gawp as much as they want as the bodies twist in the wind or litter the pavement. We’re evidently more aware of death imagery, thanks to living in the information age, and we can look up those unforgettable moments of horror any time we want, using the latest technology.

Black metal gates reading 'Arbeit macht frei' at Sachsenhausen
I couldn’t understand why the other visitors were chatting and looking at their phones when we were being confronted by the reality of the Holocaust at Sachsenhausen.

Paying tribute

So, with this overload of rarely censored data, the idea of dark tourism might seem like yet another way for us to demand more shocks and scandals. However, I’d argue that it can equally be used to teach us about some of the worst aspects of humanity, and what we should do to prevent these tragedies happening again. That means going to pay our respects at Ground Zero, or at Auschwitz, or at the site of the Amritsar Massacre. That means learning about  genocide, or witchcraft trials, or nuclear incidents, and realising we as humans don’t just have the power to invent and create things, but we also have the power to destroy each other at will. By ignoring the tragic side of life, and going on pilgrimages to theme parks instead of deadly sites, it’s like we’re trying to gloss over and pretend they don’t exist. I, for one, am not prepared to do this.

Memorial to all of the victims of all of the wars, in Germany
My most poignant photo from Sachsenhausen. This is a memorial to Henri D’Ivernois, who died in 1945, but also to all victims of wars -‘aux victimes de toutes les guerres’.

How else can I explain why I skipped an afternoon of fun in Berlin to get the train to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and walk past those sickening ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates? Why I choked back tears as I saw the hole where the Twin Towers once stood, staring at a solitary bunch of flowers left as a tribute behind the railings? I want to understand the history of these places and their legacy. I guess really it’s about acknowledging what has passed and figuring out what can be done to ensure it’s never repeated. That’s got to be worth a visit.

What do you think about dark tourism – do you think my reasons for pilgrimage are legitimate, or is the whole concept a bit insensitive? Let me know via Twitter or leave a comment below. If you want to do some further reading, I’d recommend the Dark Tourism Institute.

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