The Extra Mile

Is it okay to visit 'dark tourism' sites?

Anna Hart & Paul Ash tackle the touchy subject of tourists tramping around places of extreme suffering

10 March 2019 - 00:04 By Anna Hart and Paul Ash
Political mural on Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Political mural on Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Q. We are planning a weekend in Belfast. My wife is keen to do a murals tour, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea of touring sites of tragedy and conflict on holiday. - A Daily Telegraph reader

Anna Hart of The Telegraph replies: "Dark tourism", meaning travel to places associated with death and tragedy, is a subject of much debate. Tourists have always visited sites of historical significance and much of history, sadly, is horrible.

I'm from Belfast and I don't object to the black-cab mural tours. They're well-run, informative and educate visitors about a complex subject. They also create jobs in a country still recovering from three decades of violence and economic chaos.

That said, we travellers must tread softly. It's crucial to research any tour operators thoroughly, to make sure we're not funding cynics profiting from other people's misery.

I'm thinking of township tours in South Africa, some of which are moneymaking rackets.

I stayed at Nombulelo's Airbnb in the Langa township in Cape Town, which felt like a far better way to experience township life than a bus tour.

Visitors walk among the buildings at Auschwitz.
Visitors walk among the buildings at Auschwitz.
Image: Reuters

But there's more to responsible tourism than research. It should also be respectful tourism, never more important than when we're stepping into a chapter marked by death, tragedy or injustice.

I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum as a 17-year-old, gap-year student living and working in Warsaw and I found it profoundly affecting.

But a couple of years ago, fierce debate about "holocaust tourism" was ignited by a film by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa showing tourists gleefully snapping selfies at Auschwitz.

Shahak Shapira, an Israeli-German writer, launched the website Yolocaust showing tourists in comedy poses at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The thought of behaving with anything other than sombre respect at Cambodia's Killing Fields, say, or Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum, is hard for me to grasp. Selfie sticks have no place at memorials.

While I do believe in respectfully keeping history alive, a destination is so much more than its darkest period in history.

Visiting Detroit five years ago, I realised that many young locals weren't comfortable with "ruins tourism" around derelict buildings and factories. They were sick of their city being mainly famous for economic disaster, decay and crime.

I could understand how galling it must be for residents to see their city, with its rich musical and industrial heritage and vibrant art and culinary scene, attracting tourists who are only interested in "ruin porn".

I'd be similarly unimpressed by visitors coming to Belfast purely to focus on the Troubles, blithely ignoring all the progress made since.

Whether you're a "dark tourist" or a curious history buff boils down to intention.

Coloured bracelets commemorate those who lost their lives at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
Coloured bracelets commemorate those who lost their lives at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
Image: 123RF/rtakken

Thoughtful travel is about trying to understand the place and the people.

If that's not what you're trying to do at the site of a tragedy or injustice, you're opening yourself up to charges of being voyeuristic, mawkish and obtuse. - The Daily Telegraph.

Sunday Times Travel editor Paul Ash adds: I am a keen historian and have spent a lot of time tramping around old battlefields, particularly here in SA where - unlike in Europe and the US - many of the country's old battlefields are pretty much as they were at the time of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer wars.

It is quite jarring sometimes to see coachloads of tourists in sunhats and loud T-shirts tramping blithely around sites where the dead are, quite literally, underfoot.

As Anna Hart notes, a little decorum and a lot of respect go a long way when visiting these sites. The important thing to remember is that these places - the battlefields, museums and memorials - are important reminders of histories that must never be forgotten, lest we be condemned to repeat those mistakes..