Is ‘dark tourism’ ethical?

Chernobyl and Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, among others are tourist spots that remember the death and suffering of people in history. But when does it become unethical?

by Portia Ladrido

One of the rooms at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia. © Paul Mannix at Wikimedia Commons

On May this year, HBO released the new drama series Chernobyl, which revolved around the nuclear disaster at the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic (Soviet Union) in 1986.

Its depiction is largely based from testimonials of locals of Pripyat, the city in Ukraine now known to be a ghost town because of the nuclear meltdown. The show has been widely talked, critically acclaimed, and reported to have broken a Game of Thrones record for HBO.

Due to the show’s worldwide popularity, fans and tourists alike swarmed to Pripyat to experience the abandoned spaces — carnivals, classrooms, stores, all complete with the radiation monitors that serve as a soundtrack to the tour.

This phenomenon paints the picture of ‘dark tourism,’ a phrase used for promoting and visiting venues that are historically grim. The Nazi concentration camps in Europe, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in the U.S. all depict the tragedies that befell these countries — attracting millions of tourists yearly.

However, it can be deemed inappropriate when you see social media posts with carefully crafted photos of tourists all dolled up while using these venues as a backdrop, especially when these places have seen the worst of humanity.

“Are you visiting to deepen your understanding and pay your respects, or are you going to check a box or take a selfie?”

In an interview with CNN Travel, Tony Johnston, the head of Tourism at Althone Institute of Technology in Ireland, says that there are different kinds of tourists who go to these places for a different set of reasons.

“Quite often the intention of the visitor is to learn about atrocity or a dark heritage in a useful way, and it could be a reflection on what went wrong in the past and what lessons they can learn from the future so that mistakes aren’t repeated again,” Johnston tells CNN.

For National Geographic writer Robert Reid, the intentions behind going to these places do matter. He says in the piece: “To me, the problem lies not with the choice of destination, but with the intention behind the choice. After all, why should we avoid the Anne Frank House just because Justin Bieber left an insensitive message in the guest book?”

He adds: “The first thing we should ask ourselves: Are we traveling to a place to heighten our understanding, or simply to show off or indulge some morbid curiosity?”

Rebekah Stewart, a communications manager of the Center for Responsible Travel, agrees with Reid. In an interview with CNN Travel, she says: “Before visiting places that are associated with death and tragedy, it’s important to reflect upon your intention.”

She explains further: “Are you visiting to deepen your understanding and pay your respects, or are you going to check a box or take a selfie?”

All this boils down to is travelling consciously. This concern is in the same vein as people who go to third world countries to experience “the culture,” when their intention is to have a photo in an urban poor community carrying an impoverished kid and call that “experience.”

When travellers go into a country, it is their responsibility to know the context and the nuances of that place before permeating a space that is alien to them.

The ease of travel has enabled many individuals to experience lives outside of what they know, but perhaps it is more productive to not only treat travelling as a means to enrich your own life, but also to empathise to the place and its people.

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