Dark Tourism isn’t just OK, it’s necessary

I wrote an article on “dark tourism” for National Geographic Traveler yesterday. Coined by researchers in 1996, it refers to travel to places associated with death or suffering. When travelers go and share thumb’s up photos on Facebook from Auschwitz, criticism roars. But, I argue in the piece, that’s just bad travel. It’s intent not the place.

DSCN6777In my travels, I’ve visited gulags and concentration camps and assassination sites and war reenactments. I was the lone visitor at some, like the massacre sites at Wounded Knee and My Lai, Vietnam, just south of Hoi An where tourists get shirts made from city’s tailors. A New York Times foreign correspondent, Nicholas Wood, even broke away from journalism to create Political Tours, which offers “travel beyond the headlines.” One trip revolves around Kosovo, a formerly war-torn Balkan country that Wood covered. Visitors meet refugees, politicians and UN groups. Wood realizes the tours can’t “shake up foreign policy,” but hopes they offer a “more informed and nuanced view of foreign affairs.”

(I recently made a video on Kosovo after my December visit.)

There’s been so much discussion of dark tourism recently that a researcher in the UK started the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (the site is still under construction). The founder, Dr Philip Stone has called “dark tourism” the “commodification of death.”

Not everyone is critical. Another paper, “What’s So Dark about Dark Tourism?,” notes the negative connotations of “dark” embedded in its name (another is “tourism,” but that’s another story). The paper compares this with Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-winning book The Denial of Death, and how an inability to come to terms with mortality actually can lead to war and genocide.

I only know that dark tourism can – if handled with care, education and the right timing – can be the best travel, and the world without it, in some form, would be a less caring place.

It just needs a new name.

Read my full story for National Geographic Traveler here.

About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
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