Dark tourism is all around us – Column Dorina Buda

Living together in the city can make us quite vulnerable. What are the dangers we have to protect ourselves against? In Stadsleven ‘Rampspoed’  we investigate how we can make ourselves more resilient. Dr. Dorina Buda, researcher Dark Tourism at the University of Groningen, together with junior researchers Jordy Hindriksen and Jan Johnnie Meijer,  writes how disasters can attract people to visit a city.

What’s dark tourism?

Dark tourism is almost everywhere around us. Dark tourism refers to travel to places connected to cities, conflict, death and disasters. Visiting places connected to disasters – whether natural disasters such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or caused by humans such as the nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima – falls indeed under the wider umbrella of dark tourism. Dark tourism is a term increasingly used in the domains of industry and public policy, but also in academia. Dark tourism is sometimes referred to as thanatourism [thanatos = death in Greek]. When we visit places in Belgium, England or France, for example, connected to past wars such as the battlefields of Ypres, Waterloo, or Somme we engage in dark tourism. We are also dark tourists when we visit places of atrocities such as Holocaust concentration camps in Auschwitz or Dachau.

Dark tourism in the Netherlands

The Dutch city with the best-known dark/Holocaust tourism destination is, of course, Amsterdam, host of the Anne Frank House and the Secret Annex. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Annex became a tourist site, a must-see destination in the Netherlands with a record number of 1.268.095 visitors in 2015. In the Netherlands when one visits Amsterdam, several tours in the city are combined with a visit of the Anne Frank House. Such dark sites are of historic and cultural importance, and provide visitors with possibilities to better understand the atrocities of the war.

Dorine Buda - Image 1 Westerbork 2015

Westerbork 2015. Credits: Jordy Hindrinksen

What is less known about Anne Frank is that she was deported to Camp Westerbork in northern Netherlands, one of the infamous Dutch detention camps turned into tourist attraction. In April 2014 camp Westerbork received the European Heritage Label – a new instrument meant to strengthen European cultural heritage and to increase mutual understanding between European citizens. That same year, 2014, the Memorial Centre of camp Westerbork registered a record number of more than 148.000 visitors, and this number increased to 172.500 visitors in 2015. Also, other places connected to wars, such as the Japanese cities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Pearl Harbour in the United States of America are also representative of dark tourism.

How dark tourism can broaden your horizon

On the other end of the dark tourism spectrum is travel to cities of ongoing socio-political troubles such as Baghdad in Iraq, Beirut in Lebanon, Jerusalem, or Bethlehem in Israel/Palestine.

Visiting cities of more recent socio-political troubles such as Paris or Brussels can be a dark tourism adventure in itself, navigating the current heightened alert status and increased tension in these cities. As researchers of dark tourism we are not too surprised to read that there are people interested to visit the Belgian neighbourhood in Brussels where one of the alleged Paris attackers lived. These places with their ‘dark’ events provoke our curiosity and bring to the surface emotions, whether of awe, anger, empathy, fear and the like.

Dorine Buda - Image 2 Tourists and soldiers in the Old City%2c Jerusalem 2010

Tourists and soldiers in the old city of Jerusalem 2010. Credits: Dorina Buda

Travel and tourism do broaden our horizons, however clichéd this may read. What is even more illuminating about dark tourism is that it offers tourists opportunities to reflect on the troubled past as well as on present socio-political problems, thereby becoming more tolerant and empathetic. When travelling to these cities of ongoing socio-political troubles, whether on the European continent or elsewhere, tourists often return to their places of origin with messages of peace and reconciliation. A great example of spreading messages of peace, reconciliation and tolerance is the city of Hiroshima which has its own Peace Memorial Museum with its chief declared aim of building world peace. Peace education is embedded in the practices of this museum, which welcomes approximately 1.5 million visitors annually. Visiting this memorial museum in Hiroshima, and by extension through dark tourism, people can enhance their empathy and critical thinking about political conflicts, war and peace. Through the emotions felt in such dark places, tourists take with them lasting feelings of empathy, tolerance and understanding, which contribute to building and consolidating peace.

Engage emotionally with our past, present and future

To come full circle with the main message of this piece, dark tourism is indeed all around our world cities, from Jerusalem to Waterloo, from Brussels to Pearl Harbor, from Hiroshima to Amsterdam and Westerbork. Above all else, dark tourism offers us opportunities to engage emotionally with our past, present, and future too. To exemplify this point we want to end with the words of Omowale Luthuli, a tourist from the United States of America who visited the Anne Frank House and recorded the following:

“When we see those ideas of religious hostility, racial inferiority, it’s a challenge to us that we have got to nip those ideas in the bud before they begin to flower and prosper. Because, we don’t like to think that this could ever happen again, but it could happen again.“

Dorina Buda - Image 3 Museum visitors - destroyed Hiroshima in background

Museum visitors with destroyed Hiroshima in the background. Credits: Johnnie Meijer

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