Some people chase fire trucks, others follow typhoons to get the best photos, while war journalists or photographers, because of their job, are often in the most dangerous parts of the world, but what about tourists?
As soon as trouble breaks out (dengue fever, earthquake, tsunami, or civil unrest) it’s tourists, often with group travel arrangements, who cancel their bookings, while solo travellers, looking for the differences, the culture and the food of another place, who usually continue with their travel plans. Is it ethical to go to places who have had an earthquake or other disaster? What about places with chronic poverty?
Do you indulge in dark tourism? Defined as travelling to places historically associated with death, has been around for ages. Concentration camps in Europe; the killing fields in Cambodia; the site of the twin towers in New York; and Pompeii in Italy, just to name a few. I’ve been to many places that could be considered ‘dark’. The Anne Frank house in Amsterdam; the Colosseum in Rome; John Lennon’s garden in New York, the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. I’ve also been to the 1692 site of my ancestors’ notoriety, Glen Coe in Scotland.
Of course, more recently I’ve been a constant visitor to my home city, Christchurch New Zealand, where 80% of the inner-city was lost due to quake damage. (See more that I’ve about Christchurch – as it was two years ago 2016)
Black or dark tourism is nothing new but when it’s recent many people think it is insensitive to go – or for novelists to write about it, comedians to joke about it, or films to be made. I believe it depends on the traveller’s attitude – are they chasing fire trucks or cyclones?
Think of slum tours in India, do they help the locals or not? It’s all about ethical travel – are you taking from a place, or are you adding something? Are in locals involved? Did they set up the tours with community involvement, or is it someone making money out of another person’s misery or are they interested and supportive?
As a travel writer I am often conflicted about taking photos – sadly, poverty and misery often produce fantastic photos.
In Christchurch tourism dried up just as if tap was turned off and the water stopped flowing. I heard and read many articles and blogs and sadly, advice given by uniformed travel writers, tourist companies or information centres, advising people not to go, there is ‘nothing there’ or ‘you will only be in the way’. In the beginning I know locals thought some other locals did ‘get in the way’ of clean-up work and considered them ‘rubber-neckers’ by other locals who felt their privacy, and misery, were being invaded.
However, ethical travel may just another word for green travel which is about leaving money behind in a community so can dark tourism be ethical too?
Perhaps travel agents and guide books sell us too narrow a view of places to visit. Along with our tickets they, (and guide books, blogs or articles) often give us a list of sites we ‘must see’, activities ‘we must do’, or places we ‘must’ stay. It’s not for nothing the popular Lonely Planet books have been nicknamed the ‘travellers’ bible’ as many won’t eat, visit, stay or see anything or anywhere until the guide book is consulted. Sadly examples of unintended consequences can be the six accommodation places are mentioned are full – while three, not in the book, and maybe better, are empty.
This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made by travellers and owners – some places over booked others empty. Tell friends you are going to Bali or Timbuktu, Christchurch or Botswana and immediately you will be told that you should have gone there two, five, ten, fifty years ago, ‘before it was discovered’, or in Christchurch, New Zealand’s case, ‘before the earthquakes’.
So, what can we travellers do? Well, I don’t know what you will do, but what I do is travel slowly, travel cheaply, support local businesses and use their home-grown products whenever I can – and this is even more needed after a disaster whether it’s man-made or a so-called act of God.
I asked on Facebook for people’s opinion about disaster, or dark tourism. One person sent me a link to a blog she’d recently listened to and believe its well worth giving you the link too – BBC World Service: The Why Factor. In it the reporter visited Auschwitz and the site of the Grenfell Towers disastrous fire in London. I’ve not been to either – and chose while I was in Poland not to visit Auschwitz. If I was in London I would also not visit the Grenfell Towers – I don’t need to be at either site to know how appalling the events were. Others of course will disagree with me.
My father was a fireman in Christchurch New Zealand when they had the worst fire disaster in our history – Ballantynes, 1947. He was so distressed about attending the fire and having to recover bodies, that our family were forbidden to give the store any patronage – I have broken this rule two or maybe three times.
The Christchurch earthquakes 20101/11 have produced things that also could be considered dark tourism. The Memorial Gardens at the site of the highest number of deaths, a memorial wall on the banks of the River Avon, and a museum exhibition – which for me triggered the smells of dust that hung in the air – and up my nose – for ages.
The owner of Beadz Unlimited (one of the many shops damaged inside the Christchurch Art Centre – and now in the historic New Regent Street) posted on my Facebook page where I was asking about dark tourism said ‘actually we desperately needed people to come and put money into the community because we were all hunkered down just trying to survive. It was a necessary evil.’ She did not clarify what was ‘evil ‘.
In the UK there is an Institute for dark tourism research and they have studied many facets of this topic if you want to delve into it! Wikipedia says “Scholars in this interdisciplinary field have examined many aspects. Lennon and Foley expanded their original idea  in their first book, deploring that “tact and taste do not prevail over economic considerations” and that the “blame for transgressions cannot lie solely on the shoulders of the proprietors, but also upon those of the tourists, for without their demand there would be no need to supply”.
New Zealand heritage has website and touring map for some war sites in the Waikato region and its hoping to eventually have one for all NZ land wars and other fighting – perhaps some will consider this ‘black tourism’ too
What are your thoughts. Do you believe you are an ethical traveller – and why? And, do you indulge in dark tourism? What black tourism spots have you been to – after all it seems we all do that at some level.
I’d really love to start a conversation about all this in the topics – so before you board your next flight, or bus or train, will you please join in and add your opinion ?