Over the weekend my daughters and I spend a bit of time explored the haunted places in our city. There are, evidently, far more than I had supposed. And as it turned out, there were far more people interested in the topic than I had thought. Ghost Tourism has boomed over the past decade, propelled by the public’s interest in the mysterious and supernatural. There are hundreds of ghost tours offered across the US, from Hollywood to New England to Savannah. Ghost tourism attracts tourists year-round, but during October it’s remarkable how many dollars are pumped into the economy. Increased tourism around the macabre delivers a multimillion-dollar bonanza that benefits hotels, restaurants and retail businesses. Last year alone, Halloween events brought in $31 million more in tourism dollars than a decade ago. Spending by locals and out-of-towners drawn to events like the Haunting on the Hill in Patterson, N.Y., delivers a welcome boost to surrounding businesses. More than half of the 80,000-plus visitors last year either dined out locally, shopped in a nearby store, stayed overnight in a hotel or visited another museum or attraction as part of their Blaze visit, a visitor survey by Historic Hudson Valley shows. Ghost Tourism has been a success and will no doubt continue to be so. But what of its more macabre cousin, Dark Tourism.
Dark Tourismhas become the logical next step in terror-based travel. If you’ve been paying attention to Netflix, you may have found David Farrier’s show Dark Tourist. It has clearly reached mainstream appeal. For those unfamiliar with the concept, dark tourism is the practice of traveling to places associated with death and tragedy. Dark tourism allows you to travel to some of the most somber and grim historical points of interest on Earth. These include things like The Tower of London, Robben Island off the Cape Town coast and the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields” of Cambodia. Of course, places like the Caribbean islands or Paris certainly have had their fair share of death and tragedy, but the darker, more tragic side of their history isn’t generally the reason why tourists visit those kinds of places. The draw for these tourists is generally to more sinister, more morbid, more difficult to get to places.
Our motivations are complex and generally difficult to unravel. There is a mix of reverence, a degree of voyeurism to be sure, and even the thrill of coming into close proximity with death. They attract us precisely because they are repellent. They are testaments to the failure of our species to temper our worst excesses and prejudices. However, when curated and managed with care, they can help us to learn from the darkest elements of our past. Although dark tourism is already an extreme travel experience, there are some versions that seem to push the envelope. What defines dark tourism is a bit murky, but some tourists and promoters alike distinguish between “real” dark tourism and other types of tourism with increasingly grim adjectives, like war, danger, or natural disaster tourism. Regardless of the particulars of the definitions used, the underlying draw is to engage with the uglier parts of human history.
Dark tourism isn’t new, by any means. Romans visited Pompeii and people flocked to the aftermath of Gettysburg just days after the battle was over. But while dark tourism isn’t new, what is new is how some of these sites and experiences are being marketed. Which leads to a simple question: Are we traveling to a place to heighten our understanding, or simply to indulge morbid curiosity? And similarly, what are the ethical implications?
Dark tourism can lead to profoundly moving experiences. They have the capacity to bring war, slavery, oppression, violence, exploitation, and injustice to life and deepen our capacity for compassion and empathy. They can make us more aware of the world around us and move us to action. But they can also become something of a sideshow, commoditizing suffering. And the critics who bemoan the commodification of such sites have a solid point. But they can also be catalysts for healing and change. Sites of mass killing such as those associated with the Jewish holocaust, present major challenges for interpretation and invariably lead to questions concerning the nature of motivation for visitors. They immediately have a profound impact of our psyche and open the doors to conversation.
We are not disturbed generally by people visiting the Paris catacombs, for instance, because there is no one alive now that is still affected by those events. However, when we are dealing with visiting the Rwandan Genocide memorials or the Khmer Rouge memorials, we need to be far more aware of our reasons for visiting. People in Rwanda and Cambodia are still living and affected by the tragedies in their countries. Finding a respectful way to engage with sites and listen to the people who are still living with the consequences is central to giving meaning to these places. That applies to the tourists and the people providing access alike. Ultimately, turning the location of a tragedy into a profit-making tourist attraction is not something that can be done without deep consideration. There is a clear profit motive at a number of such sites and that’s something that cannot be overlooked. Even if admission is free there are secondary revenue streams from retail, catering and so forth. There is also the question of who is getting the money from dark tourism? Visits should, ideally, be directly benefiting the communities you are visiting, not big companies or overseas investors.
The importance of the consideration of the ethicalities of dark tourism cannot be understated, and both consumers and providers may want to work together, if in the future, we still would like to know about our history through the form of tourism instead through textbooks and education. Dark tourism, like our dark history, occupies an important part of our understanding of what it is to be human.