Saturday 25 November 2017

The dark side of tourism

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

This recession has been generous with its travel buzzwords. Staycations, mini-moons, flash-packing and glamping have all been born of hard times. Now that a double-dip recession looms, could this also be the time for thanatourism to finally take off?

Thanatourism derives from the Greek 'Thanatos', which means 'death'. It sounds grim, but then 'dark tourism' (as it is better known) ain't exactly happy camping.

What's it all about? Well, chances are, if you've been to Ground Zero, felt shivers run down your spine in old secret police buildings in Berlin or Budapest, or gone several steps further and visited massacre-turned-memorial sites in Rwanda, you already know.

The term 'dark tourism' was born in the mid-1990s, and has since been defined as "the act of travel and visitation to sites of death, disaster and the seemingly macabre".

Dark tourism sites range from Dallas's Sixth Floor Museum to Srebrenica's genocide memorial. They can include devastating prospects such as Cambodia's killing fields or the frozen old gulags in Siberia (recently visited by 'The New Yorker'), or quirky tours of places in which famous tragedies occurred.

Closer to home, there's the Black Taxi tour of Belfast, viewing the murals along the Shankill and Falls roads and the Rex Bar attacked by Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair in 2000. It's dark, but it's hopeful too.

And there's the twist to thanatourism. I liked my Black Taxi tour because it was conducted by a taxi driver who lived through the Troubles, who offered a sensitive take and was now making a living out of educating visitors. But many dark tourist attractions are solely about entertainment.

Think of the torture chamber at London Dungeon, for instance. The unspeakable events portrayed here happened so long ago, it's almost impossible to forge a human connection. We are titillated rather than outraged and, as long as it's not too gruesome, happy enough to play along.

But what about tongue-in-cheek tours of more recent tragedies? What about a tour of New York's "greatest hits of gangland death and gore history"? Jack the Ripper is one thing, but Mob Tours of Manhattan include the spot where Paul Castellano was shot dead in 1985.

So what, you might say. But then, why not tour murder sites from 1995? Or 2005?

The deeper you look, the more of an ethical maze dark tourism becomes. Even allowing for time that has passed, is the 'attraction' sensitively presented? Does it meet remembrance or educational goals? Is it commercially exploitative? Does it respect victims and their relatives?

Of course, it's not a new phenomenon. The Battle of Waterloo was observed by nobility from a distance, and according to Professor John Lennon, co-author of 'Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster', one of the earliest battlefields of the American Civil War (Manassas) was sold the next day as a visitor attraction site.

For me, Auschwitz is the greatest test case. It seems wrong for a site of 1.5 million murders to be one of Poland's top tourist attractions. But it seems somehow right too. If a concentration camp can educate so many visitors a year about the holocaust, surely it's a good thing?

When I went, however, visitors continued to use camera flashes despite guides' requests for them to stop. Official warnings said the camp was unsuitable for children under 14, but many young families were lining up for tickets.

Auschwitz's survivors have all but vanished. It's a nauseous prospect, but centuries from now, could it be the equivalent of the London Dungeon today?

We will always be curious about base instincts. We will always want to memorialise. But 'sensitivity' should be the buzzword with dark tourism. There's no such thing as an eloquent theme park.

Irish Independent

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