Over the past ten years, there have been times when I’ve thought I’d become a marauding pub yarn. Among other things, I have photographed Chernobyl’s abandonment porn, turned up to Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum still drunk from the night before and visited Saddam’s former torture prison in Iraqi Kurdistan. Doing this for some combination of work and leisure sounds depraved, and has led to many midnight reckonings. Am I a sadistic voyeur, or does this curiosity help me make this stupid rock we’re on a tiny bit better?
Dark tourism – tourism in sites of tragedy – has come under a lot of fire this last decade or so, probably thanks to some combination of the internet, new parts of the world opening up, and the ability to fulfil the perpetual search for meaning and understanding.
PJ O’Rourke noted in his classic, Holidays in Hell, that rather than a foreign correspondent, he had been a “trouble tourist” who was “bored by ordinary travel”, spending his time “going to see insurrections, stupidities, political crises, civil disturbances and other human folly because… it’s fun.”
His brashness on the subject is right, and he doesn’t just mean for those of us who are stupid enough to write for a living. As a starting point, it’s damn good to be honest about our ethical purity; if we were all as high-minded as we’d like to profess, most of us would be naked, starving, bored, and sure as hell not flying to places our friends have to Google.
Professor John Lennon of Glasgow Caledonian University, who helped coin the term “dark tourism”, says it “may be a recent growth area for the travel industry but it’s not a new phenomenon.” He points out that even in the Dark Ages pilgrimage to sites of religious martyrdom were common. More recently, there were tours to the bloodied war fields in the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars, and relic chasing following the sinking of the Titanic.
“‘Dark tourism’ sites are testaments to the consistent failure of humanity to temper our worst excesses and, managed well, they can help us to learn from the darkest elements of our past,” he says. “But we have to guard ourselves from the voyeuristic and exploitative streak that is evident at so many of them.”
Professor Lennon thinks the line of what is acceptable might be chronological distance. Rubber-necking in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina might provide a few unscrupulous locals some cash, but it’s crass and disgusting (not to mention it’s New Orleans – go have a drink with them, for Christ’s sake). Few of us, by definition, are trailblazers; so if your moral compass isn’t calibrated, it’s not hard to research whether locals really want you there. Hell, you can probably ask them yourself.
Dark tourism has always been – and will always be – present, because the impulse to confront our own mortality will never disappear.
There is, of course, a base economic argument in favour of unrestricted, hedonistic travel, but it’s boring and murky and misses the point. The counter-argument that your money on visas, tour guides, flights and hotels is probably funnelled directly to the regime is woefully myopic, too. Pontification from our iPhones, constructed from human misery, isn’t going to get us anywhere.
Dark tourism has always been – and will always be – present, because the impulse to confront our own mortality will never disappear. But it’s not a question of being ethically neutral. Making connections sounds like a laughable riff on LinkedIn, but it is, undoubtedly, a force for good. It has to be, otherwise our existence is meaningless.
Of course, I’m bloody lucky to have been able to travel to these places and, like PJ O’Rourke, to somehow have managed to turn it into a career; trying to give life to the things our mass media has turned anodyne.
I’ve long joked about something I believe to be entirely true: I have a stunning lack of imagination, so I need to go and see things for myself. I think back – constantly — to the day when, at Amna Suraka Prison in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, a Kurdish freedom fighter happened to be showing his family where he was tortured, where he carved graffiti into the wall and explaining how he managed to lever his legs in the isolation cell to see the flying birds that kept him from killing himself. But bearing witness is only a starting point.
A fascination with human suffering is a stone so heavy, it casts an endless shadow. But the alternative, where trauma is hidden in shame and curiosity for the human condition is absent, is equally horrific. At a time when the world has never been so connected and we’ve never felt more alienated, seeking to apply context to our lives, to allow history to reverberate through us, and interact with others, is an entirely beautiful thing – even in the darkest possible places.