Just what is Dark Tourism? A chat with Dr. Philip Stone

Did you know the Karosta Prison in Latvia offers you an opportunity to relive a Communist era prisoner experience? Priced at 17 Euro’s a night, tourist’s opt to spend a night in a cell, undertake physical exercises as maybe mandated, and be punished in case of disobedience. What would make one opt for such a holiday, such dark tourism, you may ask? A thrill to visit and be part of its dark past, maybe?  This property served as a notorious military prison during World War II and has seen 100’s of prisoners sentenced to death.

Alongside places across the world, including Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Ground Zero in the US, Murambi, Nyamata and Kigali genocide memorials in Rwanda, this site is satiating a demand of travelers seeking to explore macabre destinations. Welcome to the increasingly popular field of tourism, Dark Tourism.

As Dr. Philip Stone, Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) puts it, “Dark tourism is a scholarly label given to the global array of sites that portray or memorialise death, disaster and atrocity within the visitor economy.” A leading voice in this field, Dr Stone published The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism in 2009. This book has become one of the most significant works on the subject of dark tourism. Since then, Dr Stone has completed a PhD in Thanatology, published extensively, and presented at numerous international conferences. His latest book, The Palgrave Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies has scholars represented from every continent offering comprehensive and grounded perspectives of ‘heritage that hurts’.

Dr. Philip stone pictured at Lancaster Castle

While the term has been formalised fairly recently, the concept of Dark Tourism has existed for long. Dr. Stone explains, “The term ‘dark tourism’ to denote visitor sites associated with death and tragedy was introduced in 1996 in a special issue of an academic journal. Since then, the term has become popular with students, academics, and the media alike to shine critical light on the consumption of tragedy and memorials. In many ways, ‘dark tourism’ is simply an old concept but in a new world, with the modern tourist often interested in the social reality of the significant Other dead.”

While many of us may not realise, some of the most popular tourist destinations the world over may fall under the umbrella of Dark Tourism. The Taj Mahal in India, which is regarded an architectural wonder of the world, is a mausoleum home to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Egyptologists believe the Great Pyramid of Giza was built as a tomb for the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Khufu.

In recent times, the motivation’s behind visiting sites, categorized as ‘dark’ has been questioned. Founded in 2012 and based at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), England, the iDTR which largely contributes to scientific research on Dark Tourism has been undertaking studies to explore this behavioral area. As Dr. Stone shares, “Motives to visit a particular dark tourism site may appear obvious; including neo-liberal market commercialism, media validation, or simply curiosity about a tragic event that has perturbed the collective consciousness. What is less obvious, however, is emergent motivations after a tourist has visited a specific site; and what are the consequences of affect and emotion has on people. It is these that are at the forefront of our current research.”

My own motivation to study ‘dark tourism’ is to better understand the cultural and social reality of tragic memory, and the role the visitor economy plays in the shaping and forming our sense of mortality”

The building of crematory and gas chamber I – Auschwitz

Shouldn’t this way of tourism obviously have Sustainability at its core? With the sensitivity attached to these sites and their past, particularly with the local communities, sustainability should be deeply ingrained within this field. Besides as this field grows, fears around the commercial realities are bound to emerge. Dr. Stone believes there is a fine blurred line between commercialization and commemoration. It is here that the ethics of dark tourism production and consumption come to the fore.

He points out, “The issue of sustainability within tourism is a contentious one. The mass mobility of people across landscapes and urban centres will always cause environmental and socio-cultural dilemmas that, in essence, are unsustainable. However, sustainability within dark tourism is perhaps more to do with the process of memorialisation – that is, what is remembered and by whom? In other words, what tragic memories are sustained and why.”

Fort Entrance Spike Island
Pictured above is Spike Island, a former fortress and prison off the coast of County Cork in Ireland. It was named a Europe’s leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards 2017.

Source: Spike Island Cork Harbour

And while Dark Tourism may remain contentious, it may also serve as a critical link in sensitizing individuals to some very relevant concerns of our times. Be it wars or mass-murders.

Dr. Stone concludes, “Yes, dark tourism for some people for some of the time can help mediate and inform the social reality of disaster and atrocity, as well as the political response behind such tragedies.”

What are your thoughts on Dark Tourism? 

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