File 20170919 15741 1fr4q8l.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Dark tourism can be voyeuristic and exploitative – or if handled correctly, do a world of good

Federico Zovadelli / Shutterstock.com

Dark tourism can be voyeuristic and exploitative – or if handled correctly, do a world of good

Dark tourism is in vogue. It involves travel to sites associated with death, suffering and the seemingly macabre. Trips to former concentrations camps, sites of genocide, places of mass destruction, prisons and former battlefields are all part of the dark tourist’s controversial itinerary.

While not a new phenomenon – the Roman catacombs have been considered a “respectable” tourist spot for centuries – dark tourism has been increasingly popularised by glossy travel blogs and newspaper articles citing “must see” dark destinations. Key sites for visitors include Auschwitz-Birkenau, Tuol Sleng in Phenom Phen Cambodia, Ground Zero, Alcatraz and Robben Island. War kitsch sells.

My own dark tourism, which I undertook in a research capacity, was based in Northern Ireland, which has been no exception to the dark tourism trend. There, visitors can avail of multiple opportunities to delve into the sights, sounds and spaces of conflict.

A tourist in Belfast today will very likely opt to go on a “black taxi” tour around the city’s most troubled spots, a walking tour related to a specific atrocity such as Bloody Sunday, visit graves of republican volunteers in Milltown Cemetery or go to the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Memorial Garden. The presence of the Titanic museum – a multi-million pound “experience” commemorating the construction and maiden voyage of the ship – further underscores the city and its visitors’ fascination with death and disaster.

Belfast’s Titanic Museum. Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock.com

I am very much alive to ethical concerns about voyeuristic attitudes to places of trauma and the commodification of suffering. But I also think that undertaking such tours offers an opportunity to honour the dead, to remember victims from all communities and to demonstrate a commitment to “never again”. Indeed, in a time of intense cultural, religious and political difference, it is hard to argue against the importance of learning lessons from past conflicts.

Yet, if dark tourism is to have a function beyond the macabre – and as it becomes an increasingly popular leisure activity and academic subject – there are some issues that demand our attention.

Victims and perpetrators

Dedicated tours or sites of dark tourism tend to concentrate on “the victims” and “the perpetrators” as distinct and exclusive categories. There are of course good reasons for doing so. For example, many victims and survivors feel that it is insensitive and a challenge to their sense of loss and victimhood to house or represent the accounts of both victims and perpetrators in the same space.

This debate has been well rehearsed in Northern Ireland, where in 2013, planning permission was granted to transform the site of the former Maze prison into an “International Centre for Conflict Transformation”. Amid political controversy and claims that allowing visitors access to former prison buildings, including the infamous “H-blocks” and prison hospital, would act as a shrine to and platform for the glorification of terrorism, the plans collapsed in late summer 2013.

The entrance to H-Block 5 at the Maze Prison, near Belfast, Northern Ireland. PA Archive

In other cases, it would be inappropriate and wrong to feature the experience of those who committed violence at a site of mass atrocity.

Yet violent conflict is not black and white and the categories of victim and perpetrator are neither static or mutually exclusive. Packaging dark tourism around binary conceptualisations of victims and perpetrators is to take the easy exit route. It does little to complicate our understanding of the past or the messy reality of violent conflict.

Honesty about the past demands challenging easy and uncritical assumptions of innocence and guilt and the role that blame plays in political claims making. But handled sensitively, the architecture of dark tourism – the use of images, narrative trails and the physical landscape – provides an ideal medium through which to begin to address these thorniest of questions.

Whose voices?

Equally, there is an element of choice regarding which voices are articulated, which atrocities are highlighted and which particular spaces become key stops along the way.

Having participated in one tour which recounted the events of the Ballymurphy massacre in West Belfast and another which focused on the experience of members of the Protestant community who lived along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland during the conflict, this point was starkly brought home to me.

On a popular Belfast black taxi tour. EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

In part, such tours serve as a potent reminder of the contest over space and the geographical intimacy of the Northern Ireland conflict. But there are inevitable tensions concerning which community memories are represented – and thereby legitimised – and which are marginalised or erased altogether. Competing and multi-layered memories are often reduced to one experience of history, one experience of victimhood and one interpretation of social memory.

Similar tensions exist regarding which particular victims’ voices are highlighted and which are silenced in the recounting of the past. In making that choice, it is frequently those voices which fit into and reinforce the underpinning politics of the tour and the relevant organisations’ broader perspective on the past which are highlighted. It is important to guard against the fetishisation of particular narratives and the use of victims’ voices for political gain.

We should not forget the past or let its horrors overwhelm the present. Rather, we must be alive to its complexities and contradictions. That means challenging our understanding of what victimhood and perpetratorhood mean, recognising the complexity of conflict, empowering victims and seeking to reflect on the reasons why individuals become involved in conflict.

Handled correctly, Northern Ireland’s sites of dark tourism can play a vital role in doing precisely this.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.