Visiting a battlefield while travelling through France or Belgium is not something new, but more and more travellers are seeking out places whose past history includes horrors and tragedies. Our fascination with death and destruction is now influencing where we travel on holidays. Steve Jones investigates the rise of ‘dark tourism’.
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 mid-1990s. 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”.
“Dark tourism conjures up negative images, but it’s important to learn what happened at Chernobyl, at Auschwitz or Ground Zero. It’s about paying respects, and paying tribute to the people who suffered.”
Nor, Ponte claimed, has Explore encountered any backlash from locals over their presence at sensitive sites. On the contrary, Ukrainians, he said, were delighted to see the operator return after the Russian conflict forced a suspension of tours.
“Everything we do is with local partners and local suppliers, and they were happy to see us back because of the contribution to the local economy,” he said. “It irks me [that there is criticism] because the key focus of the business I am running is to be the exact opposite of that. We want to provide an opportunity for mutual exchange between locals and our customers.”
In Pripyat, Explore sits groups down with a translator and an 86-year-old “self-settler”, one of the near-200 residents who lived through the disaster and have since moved back to the town.
“We bring supplies to him, he asks us questions and we ask questions of him about what it was like,” said Ponte. “There is a real sense of learning.”
Chernobyl aside, Ponte said other dark tourism locations were growing no faster than its broader adventure program.
“The adventure sector, which you could argue includes some of these [dark tourism] places, is fuelled by a desire to get under the skin of a destination in a small group 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 provocatively, as “genocide tourism”. Rwanda is one such example. In the capital, Kigali, the Genocide Memorial commemorates the 1994 atrocities in which 800,000 people were slaughtered in just 100 days.
While Bench Africa reported a 20% rise in booking to Rwanda, the key driver remains the mountain gorillas, despite a sharp rise in the cost of permits. Nevertheless, General Manager Martin Edwards described the memorial as a “must see”.
“Guests easily spend three to four hours at the memorial, learning the history, reading all of the stories and paying their respects at the graveside where over 250,000 people are buried.
“It’s a must see for anyone visiting Rwanda and does a truly excellent job of educating and commemorating the tragic 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.
Dr Elspeth Frew, Associate Professor of Tourism, Hospitality and Event Management at Melbourne’s La Trobe University’s Business School, referred to a term known as “thanatourism”, taken from the Ancient Greek word thanatopsis meaning ‘contemplation of death’.
“People go to these places to pay their respects and to learn about what happened, but there is also the aspect of learning about death,” she said. “Popular culture is fascinated by death, often reflected in the popularity of murder mystery books and TV shows. Dark tourism could be described as an extension of that fascination.”
It could, of course, be much simpler than that. Maybe we just have an inherent interest in major events, historic and contemporary, and how they shaped the world.