Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
In recent years, ‘dark tourism’ has grown to become a popular buzzword. Where once its use was limited to academic journals and research papers, by now the phrase will be familiar to almost anyone working in the tourism industries of Western Europe and North America; with many attractions even beginning to market themselves specifically in terms of dark tourism.
However, while the phrase may be relatively new (its first noted use was in 1996, in a paper authored by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley), the practice it describes is arguably as old as anything in human culture. Dark tourism denotes tourism to places associated with death or suffering; and so early examples might include the gladiator games of Rome, the public executions of the Middle Ages or any number of pilgrimage routes to sites of burial or crucifixion.
In the contemporary tourist industry, some notable locations stand out as prominent destinations for dark tourism. The Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, for example, where millions of prisoners (most of them Jews) were tortured and killed by their Nazi captors from 1940 until 1945, might be regarded as one of the world’s best known dark tourism sites. Today it serves as a place of education featuring museum exhibits, memorials and guided tours. This overwhelmingly dark place – once filled with so much death and suffering – is today able to serve the world, by warning visitors about the horrors of war, the perils of fascism, and the unthinkable depths of human cruelty.
Other notorious dark tourism sites have been repurposed to serve as places of memory and reconciliation. In Japan, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial remembers the death of roughly 140,000 people, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city on 6th August 1945. In the US, meanwhile, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum offers a tribute to those whose lives were forever changed by the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001.
All three of these locations – at Auschwitz, Hiroshima and New York – are intimately linked with our memory of those who died and suffered at these places. Visitors to these sites are ‘dark tourists’ by definition, though their experiences need not necessarily be dark in nature; many people, on travelling to such sites of remembrance, describe feelings of closure, reconciliation, empathy, or social bonding through a sense of shared loss. In these cases, the practice of dark tourism might be viewed even as a process of healing for those remembering tragedy.
There are other dark tourism destinations, however, which have proven controversial. In London for example, a recently opened museum dedicated to the story of the 19th century serial killer ‘Jack the Ripper’ has been accused of revelling in the gory details, and sensationalising one of history’s most vivid representations of systematic violence against women.
Problems can also arise when dark tourists visit places of very recent tragedy; murder sites, disaster zones and battlefields, places where the sense of loss or pain is still too fresh. Examples include a ‘Madeleine McCann Tour’ in Portugal, which visits locations associated with the unsolved disappearance of a young British girl in 2007… or the company in Iraq who invite newlyweds to stay in suites at Saddam Hussein’s former palace.
Different cultures have different understandings of how one should approach places associated with death. Some dark tourists have even made newspaper headlines through acts of apparent poor taste, such as by taking selfies at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany (in fact, there’s a whole Tumblr blog dedicated to Selfies at Serious Places); or by playing Pokémon Go at the Memorial to the Holodomor Victims in Kiev, a place that remembers the millions of Ukrainians who died of starvation from 1932 to 1933.
Perhaps it is inevitable that dark tourism – a form of leisure derived from studying the darkest elements of human history – should sometimes court controversy; yet for all the outrage it provokes, there are redemption stories too. One such case is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.
On 26th April 1986, a steam explosion at Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant resulted in the worst nuclear accident in history; releasing clouds of deadly radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. This contamination has been linked to heightened rates of cancer and leukemia across Ukraine and other regions of Eastern Europe, and while an exact death toll is impossible to calculate there are some environmental groups who blame the Chernobyl accident for as many as hundreds of thousands of subsequent deaths.
Nevertheless, in spite of the complex and tragic history attached to the radioactive ‘Exclusion Zone’ which now surrounds the Chernobyl power plant, tourism at the site is booming. In 2015 alone Chernobyl welcomed more than 16,000 dark tourists, paying an average of $100-200 per person. What was once a catastrophe is now a multimillion dollar tourism industry, a process of constructive reconciliation made possible by an awareness of the site’s ‘dark’ appeal – and a willingness on the part of Ukraine to engage with potentially-controversial modes of tourism.
Going forwards, the concept of dark tourism might prove to be a useful framework for the social rehabilitation of other ‘dark places’ around the world. Dark tourism has the power to stimulate conversation in place of taboo, to share warnings, to offer a channel for finding closure… and of course, to generate lucrative new tourism incomes. There are countless destinations around the world where this potential is yet to be fully explored; sites of genocide in Africa, the gulags of Russian Siberia, and not least of all in China: where tourists already commune with the deceased at notably dark locations such as the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, or the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Perhaps then, introducing the concept of dark tourism to a discussion of such difficult sites might help in the process of managing, curating and – one hopes – providing a means for compassionate reconciliation at places of former death and suffering.