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EPA-EFE/Thibault Vandermersch

Dark holiday: D-Day and the growth of ‘grief tourism’

As Britain prepares for the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, visitors will be travelling in huge numbers to pay their respects at the Normandy beach landing sites. Back in England, Portsmouth on the south coast was the assembly point from which much of the invasion force sailed – and the city is the focal point for UK’s commemoration.

The event takes place while US president, Donald Trump, is on a state visit to the UK – and, on June 5, Portsmouth will host Queen Elizabeth II, Trump, the UK prime minister (for a few more days) Theresa May and other heads of state, including including French president, Emmanuel Macron, and German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to mark this occasion.

More than 300 D-Day veterans will sail to Normandy in northern France on MV Boudicca, a ship chartered by the The Royal British Legion to Normandy for the anniversary itself on Thursday, which will be escorted by a Royal Navy vessel. Altogether it is estimated that two million “remembrance tourists” will visit the beaches at Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary this year.

It’s easy to understand why so many people want to travel to see the major sites of what is, after all, one of the defining moments of World War II in western Europe, especially for any veterans or for the families of those who risked and sacrificed their lives. But there are also those who find the idea of visiting places linked with such death and destruction to be a little macabre. There have been reports that Chinese authorities are keeping tight security around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the 30th anniversary of crushing of student protests in 1989 in which hundreds were killed.

Holidays in hell

“Dark tourism” is a growing market. Whether the whole point of a holiday is to visit all the battlefields of Normandy, or whether it’s a side trip on a visit to Poland to take in Auschwitz – and people have plenty of good reasons to take a detour to this appalling death camp, not least as an educational experience – many people, at least once in their lives, decide to skip the beach resort and opt instead to visit dark tourism sites.

Dark tourism (also known as “black-spot tourism”, “morbid tourism” or thanatourism – after the Greek word “thanatos” meaning death) was identified in the 1990s. It is defined as “an attraction for places associated with death”. Researchers have found the trend difficult to accurately pinpoint as tourists may not necessarily realise they are visiting a site identified as a “dark destination”. But more than 2.1 million people visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz in 2018 while the 9/11 memorial in New York attracted more than 6.8 million visits in 2017.

The notorious Alcatraz prison in the US attracts an estimated 1.4 million visitors each year. And, interestingly, given the widespread perception of the health risks involved, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine is also becoming a popular destination for the curious.

Tourists at the Slavutich town and Chernobyl nuclear power plant museum in 2016. EPA/Roman Pilipey

Following the huge success of the recent television drama series about the disaster, you wouldn’t bet against visitor numbers to Chernobyl increasing from the estimated 50,000 people who visited in 2017. The same trend is identifiable at the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, which received an estimated 17,000 visitors in 2018.

Morbid fascination?

The reasons that people give for visiting these dark tourism sites are many and varied. They can include wanting to understand one’s family history and paying respect to relatives. There is also a desire for empathy or identification with the victims of atrocity or wanting to see a significant site for the purpose of education and understanding. Of course, sometimes, there is an element of voyeuristic attraction to horror.

Sadly not everyone approaches these sites with the respect they deserve. We live in the era of the “selfie” and, despite being obviously inappropriate, there have been reports of hordes of tourists queuing to take photos of themselves at the 9/11 memorial. This, in turn, has led to calls for “selfie sticks” to be banned from Ground Zero. Similarly, visitors to Auschwitz have been asked to stop posing for photos while balancing on its infamous railway tracks.

Read more: Why tourists go to sites associated with death and suffering

Whatever their reasons for visiting sites associated with suffering, death and grief, many people find their visits cathartic and fulfilling. There’s no doubt that among the many people coming to Portsmouth – or travelling to the battlefields of France – for the 75th anniversary of D-Day there will be many for whom it is the first chance to pay tribute to a parent or grandparent who sacrificed their lives for a greater good.

So for anyone else who might be drawn to these places out of a sense of curiosity, or simply because it is a “bucket list” destination, remember that for many people you are treading on sacred ground – so walk softly.

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