Developing Dark Tourism by Will Blommer


Developing Dark Tourism: Evolution and Significance

Coined by J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, in 1996, dark tourism is a relatively new field of study that examines tourism involving places associated with death and violence. Though it is hard to pinpoint exactly when death tourism began, it is clear that humans have always been fascinated with death. Death related tourism has occurred ever since the beginning of travel yet the term “dark tourism” has only recently entered conversation (Philip R. Stone 1567). This death related travel has evolved throughout time due to changing cultural, religious, and political factors and has grown in popularity with the rest of the travel industry. Dark tourism, also called thanatourism, seems inherently negative and makes the industry seem like it only functions to capitalize on suffering. While that is a major criticism of the industry, it is by no means the sole function of dark tourism. Today, dark tourism has become a profitable industry and as Tony Walter describes it, “a contemporary mediating institution between the living and the dead” (qtd. in Stone 1566). By providing a safe outlet to contemplate and commemorate death, dark tourism has evolved to fill the function of religious mortality mediators and has assumed a role of education and peace promotion.

In pre-modern times, death permeated all aspects of society. With primitive medical care, life expectancy was much shorter and as a result, the general population was much more comfortable with death. As well, society as a whole was more religious during this era and had formalized and public systems in place to cope with death. One of which was pilgrimage. Pilgrimage as described by Lennon and Foley, “is often (but not only) associated with the death of individuals or groups, mainly in circumstances which are associated with the violent and the untimely” (Lennon and Foley 3). Essentially, many forms of religious pilgrimage exist to commemorate significant death and to drive home religious principles. Because these deaths are of religious significance, permanent sites were erected near the location of the death for followers of the religion to visit. The concept of traveling or pilgrimaging to these memorial sites, then can be considered one of the earliest forms of dark tourism (Stone 1567). Pilgrimages can be “mandatory as a requirement of religious adherence” and are very ritualized , sometimes occurring at certain times of year (Lennon and Foley 4). This journey is not only a spiritual one, but also a public one that brings together members of the religious community. As society evolved, however, and modern medicine was able to prolong life expectancy, these pilgrimages and religious practice in general began to decline.

With modern medicine, life could be prolonged and death could be postponed, resulting in a different attitude towards death and spirituality. In fact, Father Bob Pagliari argues that the collective Self has become “death-denying” and due to advancement in medicine society has entered a “death-defying” era (1).  In other words, “death” became a taboo subject that the collective Self began to ignore and actively avoid. As a result, death and the personal grief associated with it became privatized and society as a whole (but particularly the medical field) has turned its focus towards achieving immortality. As Philip R. Stone sees it, “religious institutions which once formed sacred canopies of mortality guidance, have largely been negated for the secular Self” (1566). By moving away from religious institutions, society lacked a formalized system to contemplate mortality. During this process of modernization and dynamic societal change, travel became more prevalent and instances of “significant death” had a profound impact on society. To cope with the tragedy of this “significant death,” memorial sites were created at the location of battles, genocide, or other forms of violence. In bereavement, tourists flocked to these sites and dark tourism began to take off.

Due to the nature of the events that occurred at dark tourism sites, it is impossible to ignore death when visiting these locations. This immediate confrontation with death, forces the collective Self to push aside its “death-denying” attitude and think about its own mortality. While morbid in nature, dark tourism sites fill the role of pre modern religious institutions as a place to contemplate death and the value of life. In many dark tourism sites, through exhibits, photographs, and marketing materials, a narrative is told that highlights certain individuals in the context of a violent event (Stone 1576). For instance, the U.S. Holocaust Museum assigns each visitor an ID card with the name of a real Holocaust prisoner which reveals the fate of his or her assumed identity, many of which are grim. The narrative that this and many dark tourism sites tell help to place the visitor at the scene of the macabre event and show them that “behind the massive statistics are real people” (USHMM). In doing so, visitors are faced with the gravity of this historical event on an individual level and can better consider their own mortality. While the social filter that dark tourism provides explains the role this type of travel has taken on, it does not fully explain why dark tourism has grown. The answer to that question has to do with commercialization and dark tourism’s ability to satisfy curiosity.

As early as the aforementioned pilgrimages, people sought to capitalize on dark tourism or as Professor Graham M. S. Dann considers it, “milking the macabre” (Stone 1569). As soon as merchants and business owners caught word of the routes pilgrims journeyed on, they jumped on the opportunity to take advantage it. Merchants, inns, and food stands opened up along the pilgrimage routes in order to capture the business being provided by dark tourism sites (Lennon and Foley 5). Eventually, the business evolved from capitalizing on pilgrimage routes to physically creating and maintaining dark tourism sites. Conservationists and entrepreneurs alike realized that people have a deep interest and intrigue regarding death. As mentioned before, as society became more secular, death became more private. The intrigue with death, however, persisted yet was seen as taboo. To effectively portray this significant death, Stone argues, “requires inoculation and thus rendering into something else that is comfortable and safe to deal with and to contemplate” (Stone 1569). As a result, dark tourism grew not only to memorialize the victims of violence but also to provide “a safe socially sanctioned space to consume and otherwise taboo topic” (Stone 1578). Dark tourism as an industry provides “edu-tainment” that captures the visitors interest but also educates them about significant historic events (Stone 1578). There are however, varying shades of the “edu-tainment” value of dark tourism ranging from purely entertainment at the expense of the dead to purely educational that fails to pique visitors’ interest.

Presently, a dichotomy exists with dark tourism. It can either exploit tragic events for profit or offer a memorial that educates visitors and helps them cope with death. Due to the commercialization of the industry, both forms of dark tourism have been packaged and marketed as mainstream tourist attractions, part of the larger traveler economy (Stone 1580). For instance, in Paris, for a small fee, a visitor can ride in a black S-class Mercedes Benz along that same route that Princess Diana did on the day of her death. As well, adventurous tourists can take a cruise to the site of the wreck of the Titanic while enjoying the same music and food that the passengers of the real ship did as they sailed to their demise (Lennon and Foley 164-5). This tasteless exploitation of a tragic event is the type of activity that mars the image of dark tourism. On the other hand, locations like the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps do not charge an admission fee but use shock to evoke emotion within its visitors in an attempt to educate them. This macabre and depressing experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, operators of the site believe, make visitors alert to how things were during that time and provides “an anticipation that such genocide can never occur again” (Stone 1581). Sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau function as a tool of education and peace, seeking to prevent future violence while sites like the Princess Diana drive only consider their bottom line. Both tourist sites share the same goal of attracting tourists, yet differ in their motives for doing so.

Ultimately the motive for Auschwitz-Birkenau is to memorialize the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. These events however take on different meaning as a time progresses compared to experiencing them first-hand. As a result, Alex King makes the distinction that “remembrance is not memory” (qtd. in Stone 1579). Because most visitors today did not experience the Holocaust, they do not have memory of it and have to “remember” it via memorial sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Remembrance then, according to Walter, “entails commemoration and memorialization of those whose suffering and death one may not have personally witnessed” (qtd. in Stone 1579). In other words, the best way to remember events that one did not personally experience is through proper commemoration. With that in mind, in order to memorialize and commemorate such tragic events, dark tourism sites are crucial. For instance, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are recent enough to be considered memory. The creation of the Ground Zero memorial functions as a way to mourn the loss of life during that day but also to educate future generations of the horrible events that transpired. In fact, at Ground Zero, Stone observes that “moral narratives are provided to ideas of hope, tolerance, and peace” (Stone 1581). Sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ground Zero essentially “gives the dead the authority to afford guidance and moral instruction to the living” (Stone 1580). By preserving these locations and erecting memorials that tell a narrative to its visitors, dark tourism sites essentially empower the dead to pass on their story and exert an influence on the visitors. As well, Paul Williams argues that memorial museums are able to do so because “educational work is stimulated by moral considerations and draws ties to issues in contemporary society in a way that is uncommon in standard museum presentations of history” (21). The moral aspect of dark tourism works to educate its visitors much more effectively than traditional history museums. To effectively achieve this goal however, these sites need to partake in the commercialized travel industry. This means understanding their target demographic and subsequently advertising the entertainment value of their sites. Though commercialization typically has a negative connotation in respect to tragic death, in this modern era it is necessary for dark tourism sites to do so in order to fulfill their mission.

In the modern, politically charged society, some dark tourism sites have to be considerate of biases in their presentation of tragedy. These biases are not necessarily intentional but can sometimes go overlooked in the creation of memorial sites. In this day in age, Lennon and Foley elucidate that “those with responsibilities for tourism promotion and development may have a previously unrecognized ethical dilemma- that of adjudicating in debates over ‘whose history’ prevails in interpretation.” (Lennon and Foley 162). Before the internet and mass media, alternate perspectives of historical events were not widely known and dark tourism sites could get away with only presenting one side of the story. While these inaccuracies still exist in less developed countries and at sites of lesser known significant death, the internet and mass media has put pressure on more developed dark tourism sites to tell the whole story. Lennon and Foley claim, “shifts from national embarrassment over past conduct to public admission and acknowledgement of reprehensible policies may be presented as evidence of emerging tolerance, rationality, and progress” in dark tourism sites as a result of the information now available via the internet and mass media. This trend shows that as information is more readily available, there will be more pressure on dark tourism sites to maintain integrity and be morally considerate, leading to more effective and educational dark tourism locations.

Dark tourism is not free from some of the negative implications of the commercialized travel industry, but ultimately serves a higher and nobler function. Dark tourism sites will always spark debate as to the ethicality of their existence, but it is clear that they have grown to serve a valuable role and will continue to in the future. Death, particularly violent and significant death,  is not an easy subject to address. It is sad, confusing, and very personal. Death however, is inevitable and having an institution in place to cope with and contemplate death can be immensely helpful. As tragic events occur, dark tourism sites are crucial to the remembrance of such events for future generations and serve as a warning so that history does not repeat itself.

Works Cited

“Identification Cards and Personal Stories.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust                         Memorial Council, n.d. Web. 05 May 2014.

Lennon, J. John., and Malcolm Foley. Dark Tourism. London: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Pagliari, Bob. “From a Death-Denying to a Death-Defying to a Death-Deriding Society.” Catholic New York. Catholic New           York, 1 Apr. 2004. Web.

Stone, Philip R. “Dark Tourism and Significant Other Death.” Annals of Tourism Research 39.3 (2012): 1565-587. Web.

Williams, Paul Harvey. Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities. Oxford: Berg, 2007. Print.

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