Dark Tourism: Concept and Limitations
Recently, there has been a surge in interest in the phenomenon of dark tourism. A large upcoming conference in Glasgow along with many recent publications on the subject provide ample evidence of this phenomenon. Those studying the subject would argue this is a response to the growth and development in recent years of so-called ‘sites of dark tourism’, such as bunker tours or concentration camp memorials, as well as the increase in the number of visitors to these places. A number of posts on HTTP have dealt with this. However, what does describing this as ‘dark tourism’ add to our understanding? How is this different to other forms of historical tourism? What other phenomena does it relate to? This piece reflects on how and why this concept is being used and its limitations.
Origins of the concept
The first forays into dark tourism originated in the field of business and not history. Tourism tends to be analysed from the perspective of social and economic sciences, geography, anthropology and economics. These were the fields of research of the two main scholars associated with the concept, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, whose work on the subject popularised the term starting in the mid-1990s. The definition of dark tourism they provided at the time read: ‘the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites’ .
From their perspective, the main questions relating to dark tourism have been about the infrastructure surrounding these sites: how they develop and who visits them; how they are integrated in the local economy. Indeed, tourism, as opposed to travel, involves a transaction, a claim to entertainment; it has to do with consumption. Lennon and Foley conceptualise this as ‘Tourist-demand’ and ‘Attraction-supply’.
For them, the three main directions of the research are the following:
- Different types of ‘darkness’ – from dungeons to bloody battlegrounds, celebrity cemeteries and monuments to morality
- Different stakeholders, dissonant heritage and moral complexities
- Different types of sites, emotions, reasons why they are popular; source of the interest but also how they are supplied
However, upon closer observation and an attempt at application, it becomes clear that dark tourism as a concept has some limitations. As Lennon and Foley have themselves pointed out, a key characteristic of dark tourism is its blurring of political and educational messages. But isn’t this the case of all historical museums? What is particular about these sites? What are the specific consequences of this conflation in this context, such as sites of genocide?
There is a need to explain how people relate to these sites, and why they are the object of such fascination. But as Ruth Ellen Gruber, who has worked on the growth of Jewish heritage in Central and Eastern Europe, has pointed out, it is difficult to locate the trigger. As she argues, deciding whether tourist-demand or attraction-supply led the trend is a ‘chicken-and-the-egg-game’ . Does dark tourism truly help to understand these dynamics? Isn’t there more at stake here than economics and more a need to think in terms of societal and political explanations?
Beyond this, many scholars have pointed out that sites of death and destruction, such as Pompeii or the catacombs, have always been a source of interest and attraction. Others have argued that categorising different types of tourism so clearly and the opposition of light/dark is not very useful . People may have multiple motives for visiting a site and it is difficult to know what the dominant intention was. This has triggered a discussion on an ethical and philosophical level. How is the morbid turn to be explained? Is it a morbid turn at all? Is this an unethical or an ethical turn?
There are a number of related or competing concepts and aspects worth considering when looking at sites and practices of dark tourism. Rather than ‘dark’, some practices could also be called ‘memory tourism’, ‘tourism of witness’, ‘heritage tourism’, ‘roots tourism’ and the sites themselves, ‘sites of conscience’ . Many of these sites may also be analysed from the perspective of ‘public history’. As the rise of nostalgia and retro trends indicate, there is a datable and notable increase in historical consciousness in our culture and societies in general. Here too, the question of how dark sites differ from others remains subject to debate.
In their more recent work, Lennon and Foley have insisted that dark tourism is an intrinsically modern phenomenon. They only take into account sites of recent death and disaster (within living memory) and, in line with this, they added to their definition the fact that for them, dark tourism is an ‘intimation of post-modernity’ . In other words, they argue that dark tourism is to be understood as a product of our era and a phenomenon affecting the character of our society as well.
The term is definitely attractive. In recent years, therefore, this field has become increasingly interdisciplinary and subject to expansion. Historians have seized on it from the angle of memory. How is the history represented in these sensitive sites? How do these narratives and displays relate to notions of historical truth or authenticity? What is the best way to help people engage with atrocity?
Some scholars have pointed out that these sites are in discussion with collective memory, both building on it and shaping it. As Roberts and Stone point out, ‘the tourist experience may have a powerful capacity to direct and influence the landmarks of cultural heritage and its narratives. ’ The issue of fascination with death and catastrophe feeds into political, anthropological and philosophical debates, including pedagogical precepts. As the longtime director of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial, Volkhard Knigge, has argued, these sites are not just museums, with priorities of a commercial nature, but ‘real and symbolic cemeteries’ too . Thinking about their preservation and presentation can help us reflect on what kind of society we want in the future.
So, how helpful is the label of dark tourism? From my perspective, it is one possible theoretical approach, a tool of analysis, to think about sensitive sites and their visitors. For one thing, dark tourism as a concept can help trigger a reflection or a discussion on what is appropriate and why we do things. It highlights even more acutely than other concepts the relationship between historical authenticity and truth, respect for past lives and victims, and issues of profit and sensationalization.
For another, beyond issues of ethics, dark tourism highlights the character of power relations at work in the modern world – something to which historians are often blissfully blind. The dark tourism approach thus helps raise the question why some sites are popular and others are not. It points to the fact that for dark tourism to exist, there is a need for an infrastructure, political will, knowledge and information. In other words, dark tourism is a concept that sheds light on the network of actors and relationships – the pragmatic conditions – that are necessary for a historical site to become visible. It is in this unique combination of morals and economics that dark tourism as an approach can offer something new.