“The Current Flaws and Potential Benefits of Dark Tourism” by Nicholas Bowe


Tuol Sleng facility in Cambodia


Presently, dark tourism, or tourism that focuses primarily on death or tragedy, is seldom presented in a way that truly honors or celebrates the lives of victims. Millions of people from all over the world travel to Germany, Poland, Cambodia, and even the United States to see and attempt to connect with genocide and tragedy through museums, memorials, and other forms of evidence of disaster. These sites attempt to memorialize the victims, educate visitors, present the shocking realities of death, and serve as a warning about future catastrophes. However, they face significant criticism, based on the claim that dark tourism sites simply capitalize on tragedy and appeal to humans’ natural intrigue with death. Sites related to the Holocaust have had more time to develop than those relating to the Cambodian genocide, and as a result, they integrate multimedia and create a more interactive experience in an unsuccessful attempt to enrich the experience for visitors and increase their ability to contemplate and understand tragedy. Although many sites worldwide make efforts to commemorate the victims, they still fail to properly honor them since they almost exclusively focus on their suffering rather than their culture and lives.

Dark tourism is a term that seems to carry negative connotations, but in reality, it can be defined as any tourist site that focuses mainly on death, tragedy, or disaster. As a result, many sites that make an effort to educate visitors incorrectly escape the label of dark tourism. Sites like the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C. often escape this label because they are geographically detached from the concentration camps and death camps in Germany and Poland, yet these destinations exist solely because of previous catastrophes. Dark tourism is a term that should be used to categorize a site based on its content or focus, and its use should be free from connotations or evaluation of the quality of a site, or how respectful it is to the victims.

Both the Holocaust and Cambodian genocide were fueled by extreme political regimes, the fascist Nazis of Germany, and the Marxist and Maoist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Both of these genocides were founded on extreme political outlooks and the idealist ambition of achieving a homogeneous population.  The Khmer Rouge and Nazis were both fueled by the prospect of a new and improved way of life, and millions of people, in both catastrophes fell victim. During the Holocaust in the 1940s, the Nazis strove to eliminate ethnic, religious, and other minorities from its population to create the Aryan race in Germany. Similarly, from 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge sought to establish a completely agrarian and egalitarian society in Cambodia and create a very rigid and conforming national identity. Although the motives and ultimate objectives of the perpetrators of these genocides do not coincide, the results are very similar. Innocent people were slaughtered, sometimes by the hundreds of thousands; in both cases, these people were demographic minorities who were not deemed acceptable by the ruling majority. These two events still share one crucial similarity: the existence of physical evidence of the atrocities. Concentration and death camps in Eastern Europe, and prison and killing facilities in Cambodia have since been converted into dark tourism sites. In the past few decades, these sites have developed and grown in very different fashions, and the relatively nascent Cambodian dark tourism industry has the opportunity to build off of and improve upon the precedent set by the Holocaust’s examples of dark tourism.

The Holocaust has garnered more global attention than the Cambodian genocide because it happened decades before the Cambodian genocide, and because there was significant global involvement in World War II and the Holocaust. A crucial aspect in analyzing the success and efficacy of a dark tourism site is how long ago it happened. Generally, in the wake of genocides and other horrible events, there is an effort to destroy evidence and places associated with the incident because victims and societies wish to forget and move on from events like these. However, that despair gives way to more commemorative sentiment, and thus, people want to share and preserve what is left in order to honor those who fell victim and to serve as a preventative warning to others. Primo Levi, a survivor of the Holocaust, explained that “With the passing of years and decades, [barracks and death camps] do not lose any of their significance as a Warning Monument; rather, they gain in meaning” (qtd. Lennon and Foley 147). Levi explains that people who are linked to these genocides become more accepting and desire to use the remnants and evidence for beneficial purposes. This “chronological distance” helps explain why the Holocaust has gained more traction than the Cambodian genocide, which happened nearly forty years later. It is somewhat evident that Cambodia is becoming more open about its history as it gains more and more attention on the international stage.

Since the turn of the century, films, literature, and other media about the Cambodian genocide have been released and have received significant support and recognition. Many survivors of the genocide seem to be ready to share their nation’s previous plight, while also demonstrating the positive aspects of Cambodia and its culture. This supports the idea that Cambodia’s dark tourism industry is still developing and can still be improved. In addition to occurring much earlier, the Holocaust included significantly more Western involvement than the Cambodian genocide. In addition, World War II and the Holocaust occurred in very developed countries that have been crucial members of the global community for centuries. As a result, Western countries have a more intimate connection to the Holocaust, while Cambodia seems to many like a distant nation that has very little in common with Western nations.  Lastly, the victims of the Holocaust had very diverse identities, including their religion, sexual orientation, and other factors, which resulted in widespread advocacy, support, and emigration for numerous groups compared to the Cambodian genocide, which only targeted ethnic Cambodians. These factors all help explain why there are so many more Holocaust memorials and other methods of remembrance worldwide.

Holocaust memorials and commemoration sites around the globe have begun to include multimedia and other tactics to bring visitors closer to the tragedy; although these developments can sometimes result in a more powerful experience, they tend to dramatize the Holocaust in a manner that damages the educational and commemorative value of these sites. These sites, which are located in over twenty-five different countries, contain incredible variety: from the actual concentration and death camps in Poland and Germany like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau to museums and simple monuments all across the globe. J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who wrote the groundbreaking book Dark Tourism, analyzed these modified concentration and death camps that attract millions of tourists each year and increasingly feature different types of media to give visitors an opportunity to become closer to the time period and the experience of being in these camps (28). Those numbers and observations of the concentration camps show how popular and developed the sites are and how much effort has been put into development of these sites.

Attempting to recreate what the camps used to be through multimedia and other features sensationalizes the conditions and even makes visitors take them less seriously. Lennon and Foley reason, “…there is an inherent danger in constant re-creation of the past, particularly if there is any attempt at stylization which can marginalize and indeed trivialize the enormity of the issues being dealt with” (29). These recreations walk a fine line between factual history and dramatization, which can make visitors take these events less seriously. As a result, the authenticity of these sites can be called into question and their efficacy in terms of educative value and warning value can lose legitimacy. As much as sites like these try to exaggerate their positive contributions to society, they are inextricably associated with death and suffering. Other memorials and museums like the one in Washington, D.C. bear no relation to the Holocaust geographically, yet still attempt to recreate the event. Since Washington, D.C. has no connection to the Holocaust in terms of history or location, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum relies heavily on fantasizing the experience of prisoners. These recreations also produce a detrimental effect on the experience of the visitor since the museum is largely founded on loosely factual practices like assigning visitors the identity of a concentration camp prisoner.  Museums are made to satisfy and compete for the attention of viewers, and this objective is what spawns the flaws of these sites. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other similar sites overstate their educational value and fail to recognize the detrimental effect they have on how people perceive the Holocaust. The alternative to these sites is not to banish all establishments related to the Holocaust. Instead, by limiting the commemoration to a symbolic memorial remains respectful, and does not delve into the aspects of dark tourism exhibitions that damage the visitor’s perspective on the event.  Many of these sites make very clear efforts to have a positive influence on society and the perception of the Holocaust, but their efforts are intrinsically flawed.

Cambodia is another nation that uses physical evidence of genocide as a means of attracting tourism. As of now, its most popular dark tourism sites demonstrate minimal effort to respect the victims and celebrate their lives and culture. Sites like Tuol Sleng, a massive prison where hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were detained, and Choeung Ek, the fields where many of these prisoners were killed, blatantly exploit the intrigue of death. Although these sites are branded as “museums” and “memorials” they do very little to educate or respect the dead. Choeung Ek features a pyramid of thousands of skull of those who were killed in the fields. This is clearly a tactic to fascinate visitors and bring them closer to the tragedy, and it violates the religious views of most of the people whose remains are on display. Elizabeth Becker, a travel writer who heavily criticized Cambodia’s dark tourism industry, points out that Buddhists believe that cremation is necessary to pass into the afterlife and be reincarnated; therefore, this exhibit, which supposedly commemorates the victims, directly contradicts their religious beliefs (107). Becker’s brings up fundamental religious concepts to identify yet another way that Choeunk Ek lacks respects for the innocent people who died there. Nearby, in Tuol Sleng, portraits of the prisoners line the walls. The Khmer Rouge regime kept extensive records, including these photos of the victims, often times within days of their death. Despite these extensive records, those who designed the museum elected not to include any names, or other personal information. Another key feature of Tuol Sleng’s exhibits are the tools with which the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed these innocent people. This is clearly sensationalizing the tragedy and magnify death rather than creating a deferential environment to the victims.

Within the last decade, many factors have come together to give Cambodia the opportunity to improve these dark tourism sites, and make them more meaningful and substantive. Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek have recently been taken over by a Japanese company, which means that this transitional period is a great time to propose change. Puy Kea, a reporter for the Japan Times writes that this private company charges for tickets and makes a profit, yet it has made a clear effort to try and rejuvenate the local population by rewarding scholarships to young students (Kea). It is too early to give up on ameliorations to these locations because Cambodians have clearly demonstrated that they want change. Youk Chhang, an official in an NGO focused on Cambodian rejuvenation, asked, “How can we learn from history so that it cannot be repeated if we continue to fail to understand that the memory of those who have died cannot be commercialized?” (qtd. Becker 107).  Chhang contends that commercialization and the focus on money is what detracts from creating a meaningful experience for visitors. He and others have expressed their support for converting these sites into more than just places to face death and suffering. Dark tourism has the potential to have educational value and the capability to serve as a warning for future conflicts, and there is serious interest in integrating these aspects into the industry in Cambodia. In some ways, Cambodia’s reputation on the international level is reduced to the genocide since most people have rudimentary of Cambodia beyond it. However, it is possible to use the genocide, and the remaining sites related to the genocide to focus on Cambodian culture and make an effort to alter Cambodia’s international reputation. Although Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek exist solely because of the genocide, they can still be used to promote other aspects of Cambodia’s history and its people by completely redesigning the sites to integrate these features. In practice, Choeng Ek and Tuol Sleng could include much more about the traditions and practices of Buddhism, delve into Cambodian music, and explore dance other distinctive aspects of Cambodian culture. While these sites might be attractive to tourists because of their dark history, they should also be used to educate visitors and champion the inimitable qualities of Cambodia. Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng would become centerpieces of Cambodian tourism that would use entertainment to draw in tourists, but do much more than exploit tragedy. Presently, the Cambodian government does not even these two attractions on its official tourism website, most likely in an effort to derail the stereotypes of violence and death. However, if these sites were to be converted into real memorials and museums that do more than just feed off of entertainment, where people can learn about and celebrate authentic Cambodian culture, then there would be increased support from the government, and positive attention worldwide.

Due to these various, developing circumstances, Cambodia has the opportunity to become the model of dark tourism done right. They can use this tragic past as a tool to promote their culture and educate the international community about the progress that has been made and the true identity of their nation by adding individuality to their exhibits, including traditions, and other methods. They can move away from their explicitly exploitive past and completely rebrand their industry. Cambodia is opening up to the world through film, literature, and authentic cultural and artistic expressions worldwide, which makes it clear that this is a pivotal point in time for the country to make an impact internationally. Although the Cambodian dark tourism industry is currently not as developed than the Holocaust’s dark tourism, they have means and materials to create their own brand of dark tourism, and advances the goals and reputation of the country.

Works Cited


Becker, Elizabeth. Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. New York:

Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.


Kea, Puy. “‘Privatized’ Killing Fields Site Tries to Quiet Critics.” Japan Times. N.p., 13 Jan.

2006. Web. 4 May 2014.


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

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