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Many classic tourist destinations(opens in a new tab) are places that bring joy — beautiful beaches and waterfalls, fascinating city centers, and breathtaking mountain ranges (among others, of course). There are, however, numerous sites worth visiting that have a much darker past, like the concentration camp at Dachau or Ground Zero in New York. Though they may evoke feelings of sorrow and loss, we are still drawn to them for one reason or another. This sector of tourism is known as “dark tourism”.

Dark tourism (opens in a new tab)involves traveling to places associated with death and suffering. It’s used as a catch-all term for various types of “alternative” tourism, including (but not limited to) grief tourism, disaster tourism, and poverty tourism, as David Ekesong mentions in his essay(opens in a new tab). He gives a few examples: traveling to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina would be considered disaster tourism, and walking through the slums of Mumbai in India is an example of poverty tourism (though poor tourism seems to be a controversial topic(opens in a new tab)).

Why are we drawn to places like this, that sadden or enrage us? In their book Dark Tourism(opens in a new tab), John Lennon and Malcolm Foley write, “‘Dark tourism’ sites are important testaments to the consistent failure of humanity to temper our worst excesses and, managed well, they can help us to learn from the darkest elements of our past.” Travel to such sites can elicit some sense of reverence and resolution. It is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes as a global society and change our ways.

Though dark tourism may serve as a potential learning experience for those of us lucky enough to travel to these bleak sites, it’s more sensitive than the “traditional” travel. As Matt Davis writes for Big Think(opens in a new tab), “[T]he very practice of dark tourism itself can be seen as an inherently sordid and cruel transformation of human suffering into amusement for rich Westerners.” Such a statement then begs the question: is dark tourism ever appropriate?

On the one hand, dark tourism serves the noble purpose of educating visitors as well as providing a space for remembering those who lost their lives and/or recognizing the suffering that people have endured or continue to endure to this day. They also allow for reflection on the atrocities that human beings have committed over the years.

Memorials representing tragic events in history are built so that tourists visit them, but anything less than somber respect seems out of place and uncalled for. Unfortunately, this is not something that every tourist can understand — after all, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa released a film not long ago “showing tourists gleefully snapping selfies at Auschwitz(opens in a new tab)”, and Israeli-German writer Shahak Shapira created YOLOCAUST(opens in a new tab), a project that mashed photos of tourists making silly faces or jumping around the Holocaust memoral in Berlin with footage from Nazi internment camps. These two artists have demonstrated their despair at the insolence seen across social media with respect to these emotionally charged locales, so this is clearly not a prime example of appropriate behavior at such sites.

In Katie Duthie’s article for World Nomads(opens in a new tab), she asserts that it’s fundamental that a tourist asks themselves what their intention is before they visit one of these grim attractions. She writes, “are you traveling to a place to heighten your understanding, or simply to show-off or indulge some morbid curiosity? Do you want to gawp, or remember and build your understanding of what took place and why?” If your intention is the latter options of these statements, then it may be best to stay away.

One of our most recent clients, Julio Casadiego of Colombia Travel Operator(opens in a new tab), offers a historic tour titled “Do Not Say That Name(opens in a new tab)” which focuses on the period of time when Medellín, and more broadly, Colombia, were in the grasp of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The title of this tour refuses to mention Escobar’s name, demonstrating the Colombian people’s wariness at the very mention of him, let alone the pain and suffering he introduced into the country. On these tours, Julio and his tour guides treat the subject with the utmost respect, aiming to educate foreigners on the tragedies that arose from that point in time rather than to glorify Escobar’s rule. He mentioned that they “speak about things how they really were… We also refer to Escobar by his true name: murderer.” Pictures at the tour sites are allowed, but the guides encourage guests to show their respect not only by saying it outright but also by leading by example. Julio’s main advice to those in the dark tourism industry (as well as those looking to begin offering “dark” tours) is to hire local guides. “These locals were directly affected by the events that occurred in these locations,” he states, making them the ideal choice to lead the tours.

As the wardens of these sacred places, it is the tour operator’s responsibility to address the guests directly (or ask that the guides address them) and encourage respect and appropriate behavior when visiting.

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