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The moral wormhole of Dark Tourism


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Dark tourism, the travel phenomenon where tourists visit places associated with death or disaster, was recently the subject of the Netflix documentary Dark Tourist. The rising form of tourism may be a way to visit sites of death to show respect and remembrance towards victims, but it is nevertheless a method of capitalizing on tragedy.

Dark tourism is not wholly morally wrong. Visiting sights of tragedy can be an educational experience or a way of remembering those who died in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, which is hugely popular for this reason. After all, it is natural to be curious about the macabre since it is human nature to be interested in death. However, the documentary focuses (to its detriment) on the "wrong" types of dark tourism, opening viewers' eyes to the exploitative side of the phenomenon.

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One of the stops on David Farrier's dark tourist tour is Aoikagahara, a forest in Japan where many people go to commit suicide and the place where Logan Paul filmed his controversial YouTube video last year. While there is nothing particularly controversial about Farrier filming there, it makes the viewer feel a little uncomfortable because it does not seem as though people visit the forest with the intention of remembering those who died. Rather, it appears tourists visit the so-called “suicide forest” in the hopes of seeing a dead body. Obviously, this is degrading towards the people who have committed suicide there and disrespectful to their memories.

There are other stops on the Dark Tourist tour that feel more than a little exploitative. Particularly horrifying is a museum in Littledean which features a Nazi-era lampshade made from the skin of Holocaust victims. Of course, the Holocaust needs to be remembered, but this feels unethical, disregarding the death of millions of people, in addition to being rather disgusting.

Another instance of dark tourism that rubs viewers up the wrong way is a tour of the assassination of JFK, which features actors playing the murdered US president and his wife Jackie, and a tour of the route of his murder - portrayals which are more than a little distasteful. The Pablo Escobar tour in Colombia and the Jeffrey Dahmer tour in Milwaukee are equally as unsavoury, seeming to glorify these men's crimes. 

However, not all tourist destinations branded as "dark" necessarily must be unethical. The difficulty with Dark Tourism is that its morality is dependent on the intentions of the person travelling, a notoriously hard thing to gauge. For example, on a school excursion, I travelled to Munich to visit the concentration camp Dachau. Tours of concentration camps could quite easily turn exploitative, but those who run them at Dachau are very aware of the history and the need for respect for the dead, so whilst it is a harrowing experience, it is also educational and respectful.

The Dark Tourist documentary does seem to err less on the side of caution, exploiting some destinations for entertainment, but ultimately the destinations chosen by David Farrier are deliberately chosen for their controversial nature.

The Dark Tourist documentary does the concept somewhat of a disservice because it portrays those who engage in dark tourism as "weird" and urged on by a morbid curiosity. While this may be true in some cases, this is an oversimplification because there are many different reasons people may want to visit these kinds of destinations and, in reality, there are many dark tourist destinations that do not exploit the memory of those who suffered there.

Darkness is inherent in all country's histories. By avoiding death and disaster, we forget the past. Sites of tragedy are important to visit because only by seeing them can you truly understand the magnitude of what happened there. There is a big difference between going to Anne Frank's house to learn about her life and history and to understand the experiences of those who lived in Nazi-occupied countries, and following Logan Paul’s example by visiting a place where thousands have died merely to film a dead body for entertainment.

There are large issues with the commercialisation of tragedies, where tour operators earn money from the deaths of thousands. The thought is enough to leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but, again, the morality of the tours boils down to the purpose and approaches of those running the experiences.

As with many trends, Dark Tourism is neither wholly good nor wholly wrong. At its best, Dark Tourism is a way of educating people about the tragedies of our past, encouraging compassion for other people, and helping to boost the economies of some of the poorest destinations in the world.

At its worst, it exploits and commercializes tragedy, making a mockery of some of the worst disasters in history. There is no simple answer here: as long as these places exist, people are going to want to visit them. What matters most is that we are always aware of their history and behave respectfully. 

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