I DON'T WANNA HOLIDAY IN THE SUN...WHY DO PEOPLE TRAVEL TO PLACES OF HORROR? DARK TOURISM
- Posted by Alice Rombach
- On 6. September 2022
Re-Post: Published in iz3w magazine on 22.08.2022
The term dark tourism covers a wide range of destinations and activities from Jack the Ripper tours to abandoned cities and genocide museums. Thanks to media dissemination, they are becoming increasingly popular. What motivates people to engage with horror on holiday?
Places where atrocities were committed - medieval torture chambers and former prisons, ghost towns that remain after disasters - spaces that stand for destruction, suffering and death are increasingly becoming a magnet for tourists. The series "Chernobyl", for example, re-enacted the nuclear disaster of 1986 and contributed to the popularisation of the exclusion zone around the reactor as a tourist destination. While around 8,000 people visited in 2014, around 124,000 tourists came in 2019.
In the meantime, Dark Tourism even has its 'own' Netflix series: In "Dark Tourist", New Zealand journalist David Farrier travels, among other places, to a house in the USA where torture took place and to the radioactive surroundings of Fukushima. In the Colombian city of Medellin, he met with Jhon Jairo Velásquez. The latter had killed over 200 people on behalf of Pablo Escobar, who had built up a drug empire in Medellin in the 1970s and 1980s. For a while, Velásquez had become an important figure in this new tourism sector: For a fee, he allowed himself to be photographed with tourists, for example, until he was arrested again in 2018. Medellin has become a hotspot of 'creepy tourism'. While most locals don't even want to pronounce his name anymore, the so-called narcos tourism around Escobar is booming. In Medellin, countless Escobar tours are now offered, on which tourists can visit various stops, for example a place of worship, but also Escobar's former prison residence. There are also tours on which role plays are staged for the tour participants - for example, actors dressed as Escobar and his crew commission alleged murders over the radio while tourists ride in their cars. In addition, tour operators such as "Paisa Tours" also try to clarify the situation and do away with the glorification and heroism that is, if not explicitly, then often implicitly attached to many of the Escobar tours. Paisa Tours identifies the suffering and fear of the city's inhabitants and the mechanisms by which young people are sucked into this fast-money system, regardless of the consequences. It also offers tours that deal thematically with graffiti, coffee or Medellin as a city of art and culture in transition.
These explicitly touristic offers often mix historical facts and staged entertainment: in the Karosta prison in Riga, a former military prison where revolutionary Russian sailors, Wehrmacht deserters and later Stalin victims were imprisoned, tourists can today be led away as a prisoner, be lined up against the wall or spend an entire 'extreme night' in prison. The tour operator Eco Alberto in the Mexican town of Ixmiquilpan in Hidalgo even offers the experience of an illegal border crossing from Mexico to the United States as a four-hour post-hike with torchlight tour. According to reports on Tripadvisor, tourists have actually been chased, shouted at, assaulted, robbed at gunpoint or even threatened with death by acting tour guides during this tour.
Those who go on holiday with the travel company Young Pioneer Tours are also playing with danger: the company, which initially specialised in trips to North Korea, describes itself as "the world's leading company for adventure tourism and dark tourism" and advertises with the slogan "destinations your mother would rather you stay away from". So you can be "the first tourist after the war" in Syria or celebrate New Year's Eve with the Peshmerga in Iraq. The guided trip to the internationally unrecognised Somaliland was advertised as an experience of the most dangerous country in the world. More clearly than in other examples, it is not only the tourist search for something special that shines through here, but also for a real (possible) danger.
The motives for all these trips are, of course, as different as the various destinations that come under the heading of dark tourism. Of course, the motivation to take part in a Jack the Ripper tour in London is different from actually putting one's health at risk in the Fukushima exclusion zone. Creepiness has long served as entertainment, be it in horror films, ghost trains or now in some dark tourism destinations. However, it will rarely be the main motivation for travelling to places of mass violence. These motives are very different and individually difficult to grasp.
Some dark tourism trips lead to places where tourists travel with the promise of learning more about the history. Probably also with the hope of feeling, perhaps understanding and grasping something diffuse at the site of the former events. The motive "I was there" and am interested in the history of the places I travel to certainly also plays a role. For some, the place of suffering or violence is also more or less on the way, becomes a stop on a longer journey that is primarily for recreation or pleasure. It could be a mixture of curiosity, thrill and the need for adventure, certainly in connection with the remembrance of the victims and atrocities, without wanting to deny or damage them. The drive to want to know more about the history and an emotional involvement through an identification with the atrocities on site can also play a role. If a place has received media attention, it can increase the motivation of individuals to want to know what the reality behind the media portrayal is actually like, what it feels like to have been there.
It is known from places of remembrance that some of the travellers feel morally obliged to leave something like guestbook entries. Since the actual motives of travellers are difficult to capture, one of the few scientific studies on this topic attempted to draw conclusions about the motivation of the visit from messages in guest books. According to their own information, many visitors felt deeply touched, thought about moral questions, their values and their actions, and experienced the places as connecting and giving meaning. Due to the exceptionality of such a place, the usual thinking and feeling is obviously broken through and there is room for deep experiences.
...or learning effect?
There are hardly any studies that capture the motives of travellers. One of the few is the thesis of business psychologist Katalina Ketschau, who concludes that it integrates the darker side of human existence: "the inability of postmodern Western society to perceive its fears and pains, as well as its longing for them. Death in Western secular societies largely takes place behind closed doors, relegated to hospitals and old people's homes, is how researcher Philip Stone explains the longing for the experiences of dark tourism. What happens through dark tourism is a kind of "social filter between life and death", based on the desire for a quasi "symbolic encounter with death". The confrontation with one's own nightmares and the question of how one would behave in the event of a catastrophe could be a motive, also confirms the self-proclaimed Dark Tourism expert Peter Hohenhaus on his website. So it's also about borderline experiences. Or as the "Dark Tourist" David Farrier puts it after a trip: "Now I am even happier to be alive. Maybe that is the purpose of disaster tourism".
However, tourism sociologist Wolfgang Aschauer from the University of Salzburg also sees a classic tourist motive in the growing interest in dark tourism: the search for the promise of the uniqueness of a place in a globalised world in which almost all tourist niches are occupied and much has become interchangeable. Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley also note that visiting such sites has a positive effect on the moral sense of the visitors. It has the effect of a rejuvenating cure. The confrontation with death leads to a kind of 'foaming up' of the moral sense, to a revitalisation of sensitivity.
If one looks at the travel examples presented, however, it is noticeable that in many Dark Tourism locations the fictional realities mix with the real places of horror to such an extent that it becomes difficult to know what is real and what is not, and whether that is the point at all. What becomes visible are the voids - the facets of these places, the people and their stories that are missing. The example of the staged border crossings from Mexico to the USA is particularly drastic. It remains completely open whether and what effects actual attempts by people to cross the border from Mexico into the USA have on the local population and this place.