Every now and then there is an article about us that intimates our tours constitute ‘dark tourism’. It would be fair to say that the majority of these articles are less than flattering. Is it fair to decry, however, every person that travels with our company as a ‘dark tourist’? Is being a ‘dark tourist’ even something that should be considered derogatory?
Dark tourism is a bit of a nebulous concept; there is certainly no clear definition of it, but its detractors might define it as the act of visiting a place associated with tragedy or death. Defining such tourism as ‘dark’, however, is usually done in an opportunistic manner: tourists to Auschwitz (one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth) are rarely labelled as dark tourists – even the idiots doing selfies in the ovens (a practice I think we can all agree should be universally condemned).
Chernobyl/Pripyat tours are often cited as an example of dark tourism. People going there are accused of glossing over the pain and suffering that happened there so they can grab a photo op. But is it really so different to visiting Pompeii (where a number of people also died)? What, exactly, is the statute of limitations on a tragedy?
I, personally, have found that the people who visit Chernobyl have sufficient respect for the catastrophic events that took place there, and realise the gravity of setting foot in the Exclusion Zone. On perhaps a more frivolous note: people simply like exploring ghost towns, windows as they are into a half-remembered past.
The main criticism of dark tourism is that it exploits the dead, contributes to building a macabre ‘fun-house’ atmosphere, and desecrates the place in question. In my experience this is, frankly, a crock of shit invented by the media to ostracise a group of people that have deeper touristic aspirations than simply checking off another cathedral or beach. It’s easier to criticise than to understand.
From an economic standpoint, ‘dark tourism’ can actually be beneficial to places more recently affected by conflict and tragedy. Should Syria, for instance, be denied the tourist dollar simply because it doesn’t have a pretty beach? And isn’t it ultimately more meaningful – and more valuable for both tourist and local, on both a pecuniary and personal level – when people choose to spend their vacation time learning about tragedy-stricken areas and helping the economies of such places?
‘Dark tourists’, if we’re unable to avoid such a moniker, tend to be much more respectful than your average tourist, in my experience. They’re certainly much more respectful than those that go on party holidays to Ibiza or Sunny Beach. As someone who’s been to Sunny Beach at the height of tourist season, I can assure you that your average ‘dark tourist’ engages in a much more sustainable brand of tourism than a typical lager-lout Brit abroad.
If I’ve not made it abundantly clear: I’m not a huge fan of the ‘dark tourism’ label. But if it’s going to be thrown at us, I’ll happily embrace it and discuss it. I’d rather that than the ‘Club 18-30’ label..