Dystopia, Death, and the Growing Popularity of Dark Tourism

Auschwitz. (Photo: Ambroise Tezenas)

This article originally appeared on Motherboard.

In 2012, as New Orleans was still recovering from the tumult of Hurricane Katrina, residents and politicians did something surprising in a city that was eager to draw visitors again: they began fighting tour bus operators with protests and parking tickets.

On an hourly basis, tour buses were bringing gawking out-of-towners into the Lower Ninth Ward, where the hurricane had inflicted its worst destruction. Locals were tired of their suffering being the subject of tour-goers’ leisure activities, but the tourists were curious about the hurricane’s effects and enticed by a fully guided experience.

Today, ten years after the hurricane destroyed large swaths of the city and displaced millions of residents, local leaders have sought to commemorate the disaster with official events and memorials. And despite local resistance, hurricane bus tours still exist: the “Hurricane Katrina Tour – America’s Greatest Catastrophe” bus tour has 110 reviews on TripAdvisor. Nearly half of the reviews have “Excellent” ratings.

These kinds of tours of places linked to death, disaster, atrocity, or ongoing socio-political conflict have not only rankled locals: they have begun to earn the attention of academics, who have grouped them underneath the label of “dark tourism.” While the scope of the dark tourism industry is difficult to quantify—many of these sites don’t formally offer commercial tours, gift shops, or other goods and services—researchers agree that the number of dark tourists is rising globally, alongside tourism generally: Last year, according to the World Tourism Organization, slightly over 1.1 billion tourists traveled internationally, 51 million more than a year earlier.

New Orleans. (Photo: Ambroise Tezenas)

It’s not just a New Orleans phenomenon. Tourists regularly visit places that have experienced suffering and loss. Instagram documents visitors’ tours of Auschwitz, selfie sticks in hand. Israeli tourists gather at a viewpoint in Golan Heights to watch Syrian rebels and loyalists fight through a pair of binoculars. Last month, a travel journalist in Tokyo launched Dark Tourism, a quarterly magazine whose first issue includes a story about a leprosy sanatorium on a remote section of Japan’s Honshu island, as well as thought pieces on whether the Fukushima nuclear plant should become a tourist center and how to truly define dark tourism.

The question of why people tour these locales has brought together sociologists, geographers and others, who often begin their research with a central focus: where is the line that separates commemoration, celebration, and voyeurism?

“This is where critical approaches and critical social theories can give more insight into why people travel to these places and why locals want to entice people to these places,” says Dorina Buda, an assistant professor of cultural geography at the University of Groningen, and author of the book Affective Tourism: Dark Routes in Conflict. “What’s probably even more important than the motivation part are the emotions that people feel in these places.”

Conventional wisdom says wherever there is political or social unrest, tourism doesn’t exist. But the thoughtful study of these regions reveals that tourism is happening there. In the case of the West Bank, a focal point of Buda’s current research, dark tourism helps local tourists recognize and reflect upon their plight, she says. Foreigners are drawn to the area for its religious significance. Yet two tourism researchers, Gregory Ashworth and Rudi Hartmann, argue that any visit to a site that has experienced tragedy and atrocity is motivated by curiosity, empathy, and horror.

In a 2011 paper titled “The Role of Horror and Dread in the Sacred Experience,” two Australian researchers use the sociologist Robert Hertz’s theories on death to explain the motivation and polarizing emotions tourists feel when traveling to dark places. Under Hertz’s sociological framework, a person begins to reconcile a paradox when he or she confronts death; death signals both an enduring loss and a finite transition. Dark tourism not only becomes a vehicle for paying respect but also a means for overcoming negative feelings about the dark place. The dark voyage is akin to an emotional negotiation process.

Xuankou, Sichuan, China. (Photo: Ambroise Tezenas)

The term “dark tourism” emerged in 1996 when the Journal of Heritage Studies published work by two hospitality management professors, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley. In their book Dark Tourism (2000), Lennon and Foley trace the practice back to tourism related to the sinking of the Titanic: The 1958 and 1997 Titanic movies inspired lay interest in retrieving artifacts from the ship and attending related exhibitions.

Another 1996 paper by the tourism researcher Anthony Seaton sparked academic interest in what he called thanatourism, the practice of traveling to any place where death has occurred, regardless of whether the deaths occurred in living memory. Still other terms are used to describe the nuances of dark tourism: horror, terror, ghost, cemetery, grief, prison, holocaust, ruin battlefield and genocide tourism.

Hurricane Katrina is just one of a number of tragedies being commemorated this year. In September, the $26 million Flight 93 National Memorial museum opened in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where thousands of visitors have come to visit the crash site since 2001. And this year marks 70 years since the end of World War II. London walking tour companies are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the German Blitzkrieg, also in September, while local bars will throw their annual Blitz Party.

“Commemorations are something that we’re supposed to do as a society,” says Buda. “Cemeteries, monuments, museums, places of battles, places where a disaster happened, are always imbued with an aura of patriotic or historic significance. And these national narratives are reinterpreted through a certain lens of perpetual movement, invading history, travel and tourism.” Tourism, she says, is a way of recreating memories and “re-managing” history.

Not everyone experiences dark tourism the same way. Tourists may feel patriotism or fascination with a disaster site, while friends and families of victims who are still processing their trauma come to these sites to mourn and to confront other difficult emotions.

“I didn’t find peace when I first came, back in 2001,” said Gordon W. Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93 in a New York Times interview. “Now, when I come back to the memorial, I’m much more at peace. Not to say that the emotions aren’t raw. Not to say that I still don’t harbor anger.”

The study of tourism in general is relatively young: its academic roots can be traced to 1980s, when a pair of University of Calgary tourism researchers, Jafar Jafari and Brent Ritchie, laid down a framework for tourism education. In the United States, there are schools of tourism and hospitality that train students in tourism marketing and management (The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that the global industry contributes $7.6 trillion in revenues to global GDP every year, and is growing at over 3 percent, faster than the world economy.) But tourism is still not a serious academic endeavor at top research institutions, leaving its darker sides largely unexplored.

“Because what is tourism? You’re going from point A to point B, and you’re sipping margaritas on the beach,” Buda said.

Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo: Ambroise Tezenas)

She and other researchers aim to upturn this thinking. A project at the University of Central Lancashire called the Dark Tourism Institute, of which Buda is not a member, encourages dark scholars to design new research approaches that could ultimately enhance traditional academic disciplines, rather than reuse the critical thinking tools of established social science areas. Two professors of tourism, Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley, started it in 2012 as a place for gathering research partners and producing original research.

This year, a group of American and Canadian researchers proposed a novel dark tourism model: Dystopian Dark Tourism, or DDT for short. The DDT theoretical model analyzes dark tourism in relation to the concept of dystopia, the portrayal of death in the culture, and the visitor’s insecurity and other emotions. A visitor’s sadistic impulses may influence her decision to travel to a dark place, for instance, and traveling in groups makes her feel more secure in the face of terror or death. “This insecurity stems from the prospect of a dystopian world-utopianism gone awry,” the researchers write.

Some of the literature on dark tourism argues that the rise of film, television, and printed media’s influence within the last century is the major driver of individuals’ preoccupation with death and violence. Consequently, the researchers suggest that as people become more insecure about death and society’s relationship to violence, they become more interested in utopian and dystopian phenomena on a global scale. Seeing the physical artifacts of destruction and suffering allows tourists “to confront insecurity about death and society.”

Researchers agree that making dark sites entertaining crosses an ethical line and can be insensitive to those who have suffered there, as evidenced by the reaction of residents in the Lower Ninth Ward. But if the tourism stays within educational limits, and any resulting financial transaction directly benefits the site, then dark tourism can be a positive force in the lucrative tourism industry. Some tour bus operators have claimed to donate a portion of their revenues to redeveloping New Orleans. Even Katrina’s official commemoration events included “Resilience Tours” by land, air, or water, a sure sign that city officials value tourism of its most vulnerable areas as a bread-and-butter industry. But evidence proving the economic impact of dark tourism is not readily available—a problem that researchers like Stone and Sharpley aim to address.

The appeal of dark tourism however has led at least one researcher to begin capitalizing on it: Philip Stone of the Dark Tourism Institute charges the media a GBP 65 ($100) fee for personal interviews. Tourism, no matter how well embraced by academics—and no matter how dark—will always be a commercial institution.

All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along at Motherboard.