Dark Tourism: A 21st Century Travel Phenomenon

A holiday snapshot? Visiting Auschwitz.

Imagine a Venn diagram of history and tourism. In the past, their overlap might have comprised ancient historical ruins and ‘World Wonders’ – Machu Picchu, the Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge… Travel has always been intrinsically interlinked with history (at both an amateur and academic level), but now in the twenty-first century we find an entirely new phenomenon lurking in amongst the mix – the concept of ‘Dark Tourism’. I want to talk about the way in which Dark Tourism manifests itself today.

I first came across this turn of phrase upon opening a 2007 edition of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks edition several months ago. An entire section was dedicated to ‘Dark Tourism’. I was instantly intrigued, but also faintly appalled – almost no less at the concept and content than the deliberately evocative (provocative?) dark red background and slogans complete with menacing fonts, cap-locks and GCSE alliteration: ‘DEATH, DISASTER + DEPRAVITY’. The ‘Darkometer’ (how dark are you?) was the pinnacle for me really, with options for tourist-self-classification ranging from ‘opaque’, to ‘die-hard dark’, and finally to ‘too dark’ (thank goodness guidebooks are acknowledging that people ‘travelling to watch death’ have crossed the line).

Perhaps I’m being overly critical. The section was also informative, in particular about the origins of ‘dark tourism’ – a term coined in 1996 to describe a rapidly increasing travel trend – and reflective about the potential dangers of voyeurism and self-gratification. And while I hold travel writing and guidebooks at least partially responsible for encouraging tourist patterns, this particular feature was only reporting on an already prevalent modern-day issue. The concept of dark tourism isn’t an issue in itself, but, worryingly, it is often subject to desensitisation by overexposure or consumerist sensationalism.

Museum of Torture with in-house shopping centre, Prague.

Since discovering Dark Tourism, I can’t stop seeing signs of this developing ‘vogue’ (dare I say it) everywhere. A recent Guardian article expressed horror at a new ‘Jack the Ripper Museum’ set to open in East London, complete with a distasteful 1888 crime scene recreation. Bombarded with protest, many condemning what they viewed as the glorification of men’s violence against women (the museum founder insisted upon his commemoration of ‘women’s social history’), I believe the plans failed to materialise. Other places of historical interest have not been so fortunate…

This summer I travelled around Central and Eastern Europe under the (not entirely false) excuse of undertaking the preliminary stages of my dissertation research. With an initial focus on the memory of socialism as it was in the Eastern Bloc, I contemplated each new place through the scrutinising eyes of both historian and zealous tourist. My explorations included a number of cities, sites and museums, broaching difficult historic issues and often tragic pasts.

In Prague, I walked past two Museums of Torture within minutes of each other, designed to lure people in off the street with the sheer promise of being shown real-life (!!!) torture instruments. Even the ‘House of Terror’ Museum in Budapest (otherwise fantastic in terms of information about and commemoration of the victims of Nazism and Communism in Hungary) had turned the former headquarters of the secret police into a ‘multi-sensory’ tourist attraction.

“Please don’t sit here”, Prague Museum of Torture.

I spoke to the curator at a Memorial for the Victims of Communism in Bucharest about the implications of this kind of historical tourism. He differentiated, in a way that I thought summarised the situation perfectly, between museums and memorials that aim to shockingly recreate, and ones that aim to objectively inform. It is this ‘recreation’ of historical inhumanities that I perhaps find the most problematic. For while we might preserve old prison cells and throw some sinister background music into the mix, we can never recreate the past – and we certainly shouldn’t want to. To imagine we can possibly understand the sufferings of victims of the Holocaust, of the Khmer Rouge Regime, of the Rwandan genocide, of Srebrenica, of communist oppression, of gulags – is both ignorant and offensive.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau presented, unsurprisingly, a very different experience to the aforementioned places. As the largest concentration and extermination camp in Poland, and one that claimed an unthinkable number lives during the Holocaust, Auschwitz has become a principal symbol in remembrance of its horrors. Experiencing the site was horrendously shocking for reasons I cannot do justice to in a few lines, but the behaviour of my fellow visitors at Auschwitz-Birkenau – now one of the world’s most unlikely tourist hotspots – was unnerving in an altogether different way.

The disturbing nature of tourism here came not from the commercialisation of the site (which was left in its entirely original and dilapidating state), but rather from the tourists themselves. On a very crowded minibus to the camp, I got chatting to a man who matter-of-factly stated that he had already ‘done’ Belzec and Treblinka (slightly lesser known camps further north in Poland), and thought he’d better visit Auschwitz. I silently scoffed to myself, as if concentration-camp-tours of Poland were items in a tourist to-do list. Then I realised that they were.

Tourists leisurely stroll into a former concentration camp.

And this was really just a precursor to what I saw upon arrival. Selfie-sticks everywhere. Grinning faces in front of the Arbeit macht frei (‘Work makes you free’) gate. Photos. Of. Everything. And not just photos – videos, too! One man on our tour literally filmed the entire thing (very badly) on his iPhone, to the extent that I think everything he saw was actually just through the screen.

What it comes down to is not numbers, however – although maybe at Auschwitz it was the great swarms of people on tourist coachloads and school trips and guided tours and queues and the general noise and laughter and chaos that surprised me (despite me being just as much part of it as anybody else). On the contrary, I think it is great that acknowledgement and commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust are so ingrained in the world’s collective memory – especially in an environment in which Holocaust deniers still exist.

Rather, it was the desensitisation of the place by the masses that unsettled me. The existence of ‘Dark Tourism’ for the sake of tourism. The man who, like many, was simply ticking Auschwitz off his bucket list. There are different levels on the spectrum of Dark Tourism (as the Lonely Planet’s Darkometer so helpfully indicates!), and an apparently fine line between what appears acceptable and what is simply too macabre. Are we to condemn tours of the London Dungeons, or the coachloads of tourists who travel Romania to see the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler? Bit weird, sure, but not patently immoral. Obviously the wounds of the twentieth century are considerably more raw than those concerning medieval torture methods.

Personally, I don’t particularly like the term Dark Tourism. I also don’t think it’s particularly helpful to give a name to a trend that needs to be rethought. Disappointingly I have no real suggestion or solution as to the way forward. A universal acknowledgement that selfies at Auschwitz are inappropriate might be a good starting point.

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