Can "dark tourism" be good?

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Can “dark tourism” be good?

Ruth Stokes writes: is it ever OK to have a holiday in a war or disaster area?


Cambodia's killing fields

Toshifumi Fujimoto recently went to the Syrian war zone for a holiday and people called him the world’s most extreme tourist. It’s dangerous, but he enjoys it. He takes photos of rebel fighters and people who are injured or dead.

Fujimoto isn’t the first person to go to a war zone on holiday, and he won’t be the last. But, apart from personal danger, this type of story makes us think about the ethics of this ‘dark’ tourism. Many of us want to go to places of poverty, death and destruction, but sometimes we don’t think about the effect of this on the communities and the place itself. Can dark tourism ever really be a good thing?

Dark tourism – also called thanatourism – has many different forms: visits to memorial sites such as the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland; trips to the wreck of the Costa Concordia; or tours of slums (very poor areas around big cities). But tours were banned in 2006 to make sure they did not get in the way of cleaning up the area. The residents complained, but many of the tour operators still tried to make the rules more relaxed. This shows little respect for the suffering of the local people.

Rachel Noble, from ethical tourism charity Tourism Concern, believes that it is often best to have no disaster tourism at all. ‘If you’re going to countries that have recently had a war or where there’s been natural disasters with deaths and devastation, you should really think about if this is a good idea. You might get in the way of people helping,’ she explains.

It is similar with slum tourism where tours go to where very poor people live, she says. The effect of these tours depends very much on how the trips are managed. ‘If it’s done well, it can be positive: if local people develop the tour, have control over the tourism and the benefits go to those communities and their development,’ she explains. ‘But it can be done in a very negative way, where tourists simply look at the poor people. There is no benefit for local people.’

Reality Tours & Travel is a slum tour based in Mumbai, India. It is getting a mainly positive response for its work. The organization only has six people on each tour, no cameras are allowed and they invest 80 per cent of the profit into the community. They want to show how local people really live and help the community. Last year they won an award for responsible tourism.

Chris Way, one of the founders, admits that not all the locals are completely happy with the tours – but he says he believes that the overall effect is positive. ‘We didn’t speak to the community a lot before we started the tours – people laughed at us and didn’t believe it would work,’ he explains. ‘But when we started the tour we told them what we were trying to do: stop people having a negative view about the slums and get money for the community.

‘We still communicate. We speak if there are any problems and to decide what tours to do, and on the whole we have a good relationship with the people in the area. But there are still some people that are not happy, and this is partly because they don’t know what we do. We can improve on our communication. I feel that the overall benefit is positive.’

Tourism to a memorial – such as Auschwitz in Poland and the Killing Fields Museum in Cambodia – is different again. This is often successful in educating people. Usually, they are respectful. But not always. The Sri Lankan army have plans to open holiday homes on a site where many thousands of people were killed in the civil war. People criticized them, saying the army was glorifying the deaths. ‘Sri Lanka is divided; the process to build peace is very fragile and the government is oppressive and authoritarian,’ says Noble. ‘Some people say that’s very dark tourism.’

It’s difficult to see the difference between people who go to look at suffering and people who go with respect to learn. But Philip Stone, co-founder of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, thinks it can be very easy to criticize who people visit these sites. For him, even the most controversial types of dark tourism, such as disaster tourism, are not always a bad thing. Stone says that we shouldn’t criticize, we should speak to people and understand dark tourism in the context of today’s society. This is something the institute, which opened last year, is working on.

‘People want to know what’s going on,’ he explains. ‘We live in a very fast, globalized society. If a disaster is on Twitter and other social media, people want to see what has happened.’ But he agrees that how people act is important. He says that at memorial attractions such as Auschwitz, tourists with no respect can take away the purpose of the memorial. ‘So there’s a balance. You’ve got to get people to enter a place like Auschwitz, but then they must act a certain way. We need to keep the place alive to tell a political story.’

It’s a complicated problem. Dark tourism is not always damaging, but it is not always helpful. But if you think it’s good or not, the ethical question is about who really benefits? ‘It is important to do your homework, understand what you’re going into and how the survivors of the tragedy might see you,’ says Noble.

Ruth Stokes is a freelance journalist who write about the environment, social issues and travel. She runs the Ethical Travel website and has written a book about activism, published in Spring 2013:

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: