History & Stories, 2nd July 2019

DARK TOURISM – A conversation with Asaf Leshem

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“Ghosts of the significant Other dead who haunt our collective conscience have been increasingly commodified through memorials, museums, and visitor attractions – and, consequently, the dead now occupies touristic landscapes. In other words, the term ‘dark tourism’ (or thanatourism) has been branded into an internationally recognized taxonomy to denote travel within visitor economies to sites of or sites associated with death and ‘difficult heritage.”

(From “Dominions of Dark Tourism and ‘Ghosts’ of the Significant Other Dead” by Philip R. Stone
in ATLAS Review, 2019-1, University of Central Lancashire, United Kingdom)

 

I had the pleasure of recording this conversation about the topic of Dark Tourism with Asaf Leshem, a tour guide and researcher based in Berlin, Germany.

Unlike some people might think, “Dark Tourism” is not related to Dark Fashion and Culture, although there is certainly an aspect connected to a particular dark atmosphere.

Grief, loss, death, as well as collective memory and cultural void are topics that relate directly to this touristic phenomenon that is growing as we speak in various areas of the world, as well as in the German capital city of Berlin.

Dark Tourism is increasingly popular among common travelers but how ethical is it?  How do we need to approach sites of tragedy, suffering, and death, and what are we searching for when visiting these kinds of touristic destinations?

Example of different organised ‘dark’ tourist destinations, are the Auschwitz concentration camp that caters for tourists to learn about the site’s World War Two history, and less formal sites such as the areas in Fukushima affected by the nuclear disaster, or the memorial museum to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed 1.7 million people in Cambodia.

Dark tourism has a strong educational potential and can be a force for good if we strive to be ethical and to build a global social conscience. Nevertheless, we often run the risk of abusing memory sites by transforming them into products of voyeuristic mass entertainment. How do we prevent this from happening? But especially, how do we create sustainable sites of collective memory?

Dark tourism seems to be part of an ancient tradition of collective curiosity for death and pain that included gladiators fights and public executions. Could it be that during centuries and especially through mass media we became “waterproof” toward pain and death?

Disturbing forms of Dark Tourism like for instance “Slum Tourism” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or in Johannesburg, South Africa – in the case of the former it’s also referred to as “favelas tourism”, and in the case of the latter as “township tours” (where there is at least a political-historical element involved too), or in New Dehli, India A competing cover term is also “poverty tourism”, which make us consider the possibility of a current lack of empathy in our own society.

What moves a dark tourist when he chooses to participate in a “Slum Tour”? Who is playing a role in controlling such a phenomenon apart from the tourist himself?

These are some of the questions that Asaf Leshem and I are discussing in this interview and we do hope this way to do a little step toward a better social awareness.

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