Travel Bulletin

The rise of dark tourism


Steve jones explores our fascinatio­n with travelling to places withadarkp­ast

According to the late American historian, Daniel Boorstin, the first guided tour in England took place in 1838. But it was hardly a jolly day out for all the family. The “highlight” of the tour, taken by train, was to witness the public hanging of two murderers. A century later, in 1934, another grizzly excursion. On a voyage from New York to Cuba, fire swept through the SS Morro Castle. More than 135 people died.

Fuelled by special train fares, an estimated 250,000 people descended on Asbury Park in New Jersey to view the smoulderin­g wreckage. Not only that, reports emerged of a “carnival atmosphere”, with postcards and other souvenirs on sale, and lurid first-hand reports of charred corpses.

Happy holidays everyone.

These macabre stories, and others like them, were contained in a book by Philip Stone, Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research. They plainly illustrate that tragedy, disaster and death have an enduring fascinatio­n. We were drawn to them then, just as we are now.

The issue of dark tourism is often a controvers­ial one. And it was thrust into the spotlight again following the recent TV series Chernobyl which dramatised the explosion – and its devastatin­g aftermath – which ripped through reactor four of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in April 1986.

According to the World Health Organizati­on (WTO), the fallout from the catastroph­e is likely to be responsibl­e for 4,000 deaths from radiation exposure.

The TV series sparked a surge of interest in travel to Pripyat, the now virtual ghost town which lies in the shadow of the steel and concrete sarcophagu­s surroundin­g the power plant. Since the HBO broadcast, Explore reported a 60% rise in bookings of its five-day Discover Chernobyl tour.

But why do such places become a tourist magnet? What draws us to a decaying shell of an old Soviet town known only as the location of the world’s worst nuclear accident?

For Explore Managing Director Joe Ponte, the answer is straightfo­rward.

“It was one of the most significan­t events of the 20th century and some commentato­rs say it sparked the beginning of the downfall of the Soviet Union,” he told travelbull­etin.

“People want to understand what happened, to understand the disaster. Some learn from books, or from watching a dramatised TV series. But for others, seeing it in person and talking to local people in a mutually beneficial way is a great way to learn and understand what a tragic, but significan­t event it was.” For others, the interest extends beyond the event itself to wider issues of Soviet history or an appreciati­on of architectu­re.

“In many ways Pripyat is a frozen Soviet city, unlike anywhere else in the world,” Ponte said. “You get a real sense of what life was like at that point in time, in that part of the world.”

Chernobyl, of course, is just the destinatio­n of the moment, its recent media exposure and increased visitation triggered by a TV series. There are many other so-called dark tourism sites that, year after year, draw millions of visitors. Auschwitz-birkenau, arguably the embodiment of dark tourism, attracted record numbers in 2018 with 2.15m people journeying to the former Nazi concentrat­ion camp in southern Poland. The horrors that took place at Auschwitz, and other camps like it, are well documented, yet plainly unimaginab­le. But many tours head there, usually as part of a broader itinerary.

Mat Mclachlan, a historian and founder of Mat Mclachlan Battlefiel­d Tours, said both World Wars touched the lives of many Australian­s. Such momentous and pivotal moments in history create a thirst for knowledge and a desire for deeper understand­ing, he said.

“The war came to the Pacific, and for all Australian families it felt the war was knocking on our doorstep,” he said. “Rationing of food, clothing, petrol.

Darwin was bombed, there were Japanese submarines in Sydney Harbour. These events affected many Australian families and we learn about them from family members, at school, through movies and books.

“For Australian­s, the Anzac legend and the stories of courage, mateship and sacrifice have shaped our culture today and as it evident in the major participat­ion in Anzac Day each year, this is only continuing to grow. All of our tours are led by expert historians who bring the war to life.”

But who wants to bring such awful events to life? Well, millions of us it seems, as the Auschwitz visitor numbers demonstrat­e. Commentato­rs point to the plethora of wartime documentar­ies aired endlessly across TV channels, specialist magazines on military history, and movies still being made today, depicting harrowing events from past wars. It seems we simply have a fascinatio­n with death and destructio­n. “Sadly war is part of our history and has brought with it incredible suffering,” Mclachlan said. “We are committed to honouring the memory of all those who fought in war, and our aim is to assist Australian­s seeking to learn more about these conflicts and to commemorat­e those who served.”

While dark tourism as a concept has been around for hundreds of years – even pre-dating that first guided tour in England – the term itself only emerged in the mid1990s. It has several manifestat­ions, some more distastefu­l than others. Soon after the Twin Towers terrorist attacks, in 2001, a farmer began selling “Flight 93 Tours” to the crash site of the United Airlines aircraft that nosedived into a Philadelph­ia field.

Sites of massacre and tragedy also spawn tacky business enterprise­s. Glow-in-the-dark coffee mugs bearing the radiation symbol are part of the Chernobyl souvenir range, while “you’ll have a barrel of laughs” fridge magnets are available in Snowtown, location of the body in the barrel acid murders in South Australia. Further afield, market stalls in Sarajevo sell souvenirs sculpted from bullets recovered by imaginativ­e traders following the 1993 siege of the city.

While this may push the boundaries of good taste – rank exploitati­on could be another descriptio­n – operators argue their approach to visiting sites is respectful. Intrepid Europe Product Manager Stefan Hellmuth said the term, dark tourism, was unhelpful. “I think it’s a misnomer, as it implies exploitati­on of other people’s misfortune,” he said. “A fascinatio­n in well-documented disasters is natural for us humans, but becomes exploitati­ve if approached without the necessary respect and responsibi­lity. This is especially true with sites that have a more recent place in history, such as Chernobyl and Auschwitz, both of which are very educationa­l for future generation­s if visited in context with the necessary background informatio­n.” He acknowledg­ed that opinion was split over the ethics of visiting such places.

But he insisted tour operators which apply standards and discourage disrespect­ful behaviour, taking selfies among them, should not be accused of profiteeri­ng.

“On our trips we make sure that the necessary background informatio­n is given for the visit to be educationa­l, and that it is conducted in a responsibl­e manner appropriat­e for the individual site,”

Hellmuth said. “Visits to these sites can and should be educationa­l. It can teach future generation­s about the impact these disasters had on so many people.

“We encourage our travellers to learn about historical events as well as local ways of life on our trips, and this applies to ‘dark tourism’ sites as much as it does for other sites, towns, villages and national

parks. This is highlighte­d in our responsibl­e travel philosophy.”

Ponte, from Explore, said criticism that tour operators were cashing in on misfortune, or worse, was wide of the mark. He described the experience of visiting such locations as “humbling”. with a local tour leader, whether it’s linked to an event, or to understand the culture and diversity of the country.”

Notwithsta­nding arrival numbers such as those for Auschwitz, assessing the size and growth of dark tourism is notoriousl­y difficult. And with most visits forming part of a broader cultural tour, establishi­ng the underlying motivation for travel is hard to do.

Mclachlan said demand is rising for battlefiel­d tours in Asia and the Pacific. In response, Anzac tours in Vietnam have been added along with an itinerary to Hellfire Pass in Thailand.

“Perhaps surprising­ly, we are finding interest in battlefiel­d travel spans all generation­s,” he said.

“Rather than interest declining, it is continuing to grow.”

Another subset of dark tourism is sometimes referred to, somewhat grimly and events of 1994 with respect and humanity.” Far from being a morbid and voyeuristi­c experience – the recency of the genocide has led to claims tourism is intruding on the personal grief of Rwandans – Edwards described it as stirring.

“Rwanda more often than not exceeds peoples’ expectatio­ns. To see how much forgivenes­s and reconcilia­tion has taken place in a short time is inspiring,” he said. “In a world that is sometimes jaded it is a compelling reminder of the power of the human spirit.”

As with the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Edwards believed the interest comes from a desire to be “educated about the past and commemorat­e the loss of innocent people”. As true as that may be, tourism academics who study the sector have an additional take on our fascinatio­n with dark and tragic events.

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