Can dark tourism ever be a good thing?

Ruth Stokes considers whether holidaying in war and disaster zones is ever justified.

Cambodia's Killing Fields

Dave(ie) under a CC Licence

A man spotted holidaying in the Syrian war zone was recently dubbed the world’s most extreme tourist. It’s a risky business, but Toshifumi Fujimoto says he enjoys it. His online photo collection includes pictures of rebel fighters, injured civilians and corpses.

Fujimoto isn’t the first to be attracted to a war zone, and won’t be the last. But, personal risks aside, this type of story raises questions about the ethics involved in so-called ‘dark’ tourism. Many of us are drawn to places of poverty, death and destruction, but the impact we’re having on the communities involved and the site itself can often be forgotten. Can dark tourism ever really be a good thing?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the victims of disasters don’t always take kindly to tourists witnessing their grief

Dark tourism – also known as thanatourism – comes in many forms, from visits to memorial sites such as the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland to trips to the wreck of the Costa Concordia, or tours of slums. War tourism, the type that Fujimoto practices, and disaster tourism are probably the most controversial because they involve getting up close and personal with very recent or ongoing suffering.

Profiting from loss

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the victims of disasters don’t always take kindly to tourists witnessing their grief, or travel companies profiting from their loss. A case in point is the reaction in October 2012 from the residents of a New Orleans neighbourhood badly affected by Hurricane Katrina to tourists in the area – having put up with tours since the disaster in 2005, they took a stand.

Around 30 tours were operating at the time, taking camera-wielding tourists through the area every day, despite a ban put in place in 2006 to ensure they didn’t hamper clean-up efforts. Even after the residents complained, many of the tour operators continued to push for the rules to be relaxed, suggesting a considerable lack of respect for the suffering of the local people.

Rachel Noble, from ethical tourism charity Tourism Concern, believes that disaster tourism is often best avoided all together. ‘If you’re going to countries that have recently emerged from civil conflict or where there’s been natural disasters with mass deaths and devastation, people should really consider whether it’s appropriate at all – you might actually get in the way of aid efforts if they’re still underway,’ she explains.

Parallels can be drawn with slum tourism, she adds, although the impact of these tours greatly depends on how the trips are managed. ‘If it’s done well – if local people are involved in the way a tour is developed, have control over the tourism product and the benefits are channelled principally into rejuvenating those communities and supporting their long-term sustainable development – then it can be as positive thing,’ she explains. ‘But it can be done in a very negative, exclusive, voyeuristic way that doesn’t benefit people in the long or short term.’

‘We live in a very fast, globalized society. If a disaster is on Twitter and other social media sites, people want to see what’s actually happened’

Reality Tours & Travel is a slum tour based in Mumbai, India, that appears to be receiving a largely positive response for its work. The organization runs tours with a maximum of six people at any one time, operates a no camera policy, and invests 80 per cent of its profit into the community. Its focus on raising awareness and giving something back to the community in which it works attracted a responsible tourism award last year.

Co-founder Chris Way is honest enough to admit that not all the locals are completely happy with the presence of the tours – but says he believes that the overall impact is a positive one. ‘We didn’t speak to the community in great length before we set up the tours – talk is cheap in this city and we were met with sceptical laughs,’ he explains. ‘But when we did start the tour we communicated what we were trying to do: dispel the negative image that many have about the slums as well as putting money back into the community.

‘This communication has continued. We speak if there are any problems and to decide what activities will run, and on the whole we have very good relations with the people in the area. That said, there are undoubtedly some that are not happy that we pass through, and this is in part because they don’t know what we do. We can improve on our communication. I would argue that the net benefit is positive.’

Pilgrimage or voyeurism?

Tourism that seeks to be a sort of memorial – such as Auschwitz in Poland and the Killing Fields Museum in Cambodia – is a different kettle of fish again, often succeeding in providing an education in a tasteful manner. Usually, they are respectfully managed. But not always. The Sri Lankan army recently attracted criticism for plans to open holiday homes on a site where tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the civil war, because of concerns that the army was glorifying the deaths that took place. ‘There are such deep divisions in Sri Lanka; the peace-building process is incredibly fragile and it’s a very oppressive authoritarian government,’ says Noble. ‘Some would say that’s the very darkest form of dark tourism.’

Undoubtedly, there’s a fine line between respectful pilgrimage and voyeurism. But Philip Stone, co-founder of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, thinks it can be all too easy to criticize people visiting such sites. For him, even the most controversial types of dark tourism, such as disaster tourism, are not necessarily a bad thing. Stone argues that rather than criticizing, it’s much more important to speak to people and understand dark tourism within the context of society we live in today. This is something the institute, which opened last year, seeks to address.

‘People want to know what’s going on,’ he explains. ‘We live in a very fast, globalized society. If a disaster is on Twitter and other social media sites, people want to see what’s actually happened.’ Still, he doesn’t deny that how people act is important, and even says that in the case of memorial attractions such as Auschwitz, disrespectful or unsympathetic tourists can begin to erode the very purpose of the memorial. ‘If tourists are acting like tourists and dressing like tourists, it almost sanitizes and dilutes the experience for the primary purpose of memorial,’ he explains. ‘So there’s a balance. You’ve got to get people through the gate at somewhere like Auschwitz, but then they’ve got to act a certain way according to the ideals of the people who want to keep it alive to tell a particular political narrative.’

It’s a complex issue. Dark tourism is not always damaging, but neither is it always helpful. Still, whether or not you approve of the practice, the essence of the ethical debate surely revolves around one key question: who’s really benefiting? Crucially, says Noble, ‘always do your homework, understand what context you’re entering into and how your presence might be perceived by the survivors of the tragedy.’

Ruth Stokes is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment, social issues and travel. She runs the Ethical Travel website and is author of a book about activism, due to be published in Spring 2013.