Dark Tourism: Yay Or Nay

Dark Tourism: Yay Or Nay
Abandoned cell blocks at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. This was once the most expensive public structure in the USA , Photo Credit: Shutterstock

There's a rising phenomenon in the world of travel. We bring you both sides of the argument

Shoba Mohan, Anuradha Sengupta
October 14 , 2019
07 Min Read
How does it feel to be at Ground Zero a week after the disastrous attacks in Manhattan? I was there at the time, but did not think of it as ‘tourism’, let alone dark tourism. A friend was a volunteer, and had asked us to lend a hand to his church’s aid activities on site. A fearful smell—skin, hair, wood, paper, and whatever must have burnt out there, still hung thick, but the sense of sadness and bewilderment is what hit me in the gut. I just wanted to head back to India. The human energies, whether it is joy or suffering, linger in places long beyond human lifetimes.
One feels these energies almost like a physical presence when walking through the prison cells of Robben Island in South Africa, or even the Cellular Jail closer home in Port Blair. The narratives and signage in the passages and narrow hallways, which the guides (ours was an ex-political prisoner) explain in detail fill you with a sense of deep sadness. A keen admirer of Nelson Mandela, I felt as if I was sharing a part of his time there. I did come away sad and pensive during these trips, but I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit again, if the clock so permitted. Though I took my time walking around the cells and quarries that the prisoners toiled at, I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture atAbandoned cell blocks at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. This was once the most expensive public structure in the USA Robben Island. The selling of souvenirs also seems distasteful, but a guide did confirm that gift shop proceeds supported some of the prisoners and their families.
While travelling with a group in Germany once, we had to miss a pre-booked tour to the Dachau concentration camp—some of the women in the group thought it would have been a ‘dark’ spot in a fun trip. The rest of us disagreed, but went ahead with the majority. Would I do a full-fledged ‘dark’ itinerary, visiting one concentration camp after another, including every other museum and monument associated with it? Most definitely not. My memory of the Residency in Lucknow remains through the eyes of a talented guide who used a tree on the premises as a narrator. It was a beautiful way to gain insight into the 1857 War of Independence.
I believe it is important how these museums are set up. The narratives and visuals ought to be presented as opportunities for sensitising people to a dark and defining moment in human history, with learnings both political and personal—of impermanence, shared suffering and the resoluteness of the human spirit.
Within the RARE community, we have a few hotels and retreats within close proximity of disasters. These continue to have an effect on people who hear about it. For example, our properties in Bhopal—the Jehan Numa Palace and the Jehan Numa Retreat (only on request) may take interested travellers to the locked-out site of the Union Carbide factory. These instances are very few and usually come from people with a humanitarian or historical interest in the disaster. There is also the more positive side of the story: NGOs who work with the gas tragedy survivors to help with chronic ailments and compensation even 30 years post the poisonous leak.
Another story that saddens me every time I recall it, is the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. It involved a Japanese steamship on which a group of Indians had attempted a Canadian emigration, only for the majority to be denied entry. Group leaders were faced with arrest upon return to Kolkata, and a riot ensued, with police firing eventually claiming about 20 lives. Budge Budge, where the Komagata Maru was allowed to dock upon return, is about 10 kilometres from The Raj Bari Bawali, and the hotel offers a day trip to the martyr’s memorial put up there by Jawaharlal Nehru. Many of our partner hotels do not propose these activities unless there is an interest for it. To each his own to explore what may move his heart or blow his mind.
By Shoba Mohan
Vestiges of the electrified fence at the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was one of the first to be discovered by the AlliesWhen I was stationed in Kabul for some months, working on a citizens’ media project, I met several people who were not attached to any civil society or development venture. They were there as tourists. Sometimes, in the evenings, when I’d head to a café with colleagues, I’d see them chatting, poring through local guides brought out by expats, mapping IED-free or (relatively) risk-free routes.They’d talk about going to a region such as Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold at that time, like they were about to go bungee jumping in the Himalaya. It’s not like Kabul, where most expats based themselves, was strife-free. You just didn’t know when the supermarket, building or café you frequented would get bombed or attacked. Yet, here were these (mostly) white tourists traversing the landscape as if on a game show like the Amazing Race. They were insensitive to the fact that people had died here—you could see the devastation in the bombed remnants of buildings, in the wheelchair-ridden people affected by mines, and in the thousands of cases of mental trauma caused by prolonged war and violence.
So is dark tourism wrong? Yes, and no. It all depends on the intention.
A version of dark tourism has always been around—the people who were curious to know more about Anne Frank and the house she lived in, those who wanted to see the camp in Auschwitz, and Gettysburg’s local-run tourism industry springing up soon after the battle was over. But what exists today is quite different—a commercialisation of such incidents and the prism of voyeurism, enabled through social media. The selfie-clicking masses whose knowledge about the places they visit is virtually non-existent, and the photos they post cringe-worthy—giving a thumbs-up in Auschwitz or a bunker in Sarajevo; perched above a valley in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, eyeing the conflict via binoculars; shooting an AK-47 at the Cu Chi tunnel network near Ho Chi Minh City. This version of dark tourism is problematic, joining along list of questionable methods that ennui-filled humans use as a form of entertainment.
A tour operator running a dark tourism outfit in Sarajevo told The New York Times that most of his visitors were from Australia, the USA, and similar English-speaking countries. Many were too young to remember the gruesome images of the 1,425-day siege by the Bosnian Serb forces. Locals were not interested in the tours, he said, wanting to forget the fact that they lived it everyday. It’s akin to the hordes that descended outside the Taj Mahal Palace hotel during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Hundreds of people had gathered near the site, clicking pictures. Some had even got their children along, bought them balloons and snacks as if it were a picnic outing. All the while inside, the desperate stand-off between terrorists and security forces was playing out, with people trapped, frantically trying to stay alive.
This is not dark tourism. It is dystopian.
By Anuradha Sengupta

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