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Dark tourism: Why are we attracted to tragedy and death?

Visitors to Chernobyl have faced criticism for their behaviour in recent weeks
Visitors to Chernobyl have faced criticism for their behaviour in recent weeks Credit: GETTY

The appeal of sites, visitor centres and museums linked to atrocities and tragedy is known as “dark tourism”.

There are numerous morbid destinations currently popular with travellers around the world - from Ground Zero in New York, to the tours of concentration camps - but the biggest surge in recent times has been to Chernobyl in the aftermath of the resounding success of HBO's recent drama series.

Documenting the tragic events following the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster, one of the worst man-made catastrophes ever to befall our planet, the show deservedly earned some rave reviews

Its success has seen tourism numbers skyrocket, and has reportedly attracted a raft of Instagrammers who have been accused of posing inappropriately in the ghost town of Pripyat.

But this isn’t the first time in recent years that tourist behaviour at harrowing locations has been put under the spotlight. Back in 2016, visitors flocked to Auschwitz in Poland after a film from Ukranian director Sergei Loznitsa called Austerlitz was released. The film was a quiet study of the more than a million visitors who stream through the infamous gates every year.

The gates of Auschwitz Credit: Getty

It showed but refrained from commenting on some exuberant groups who could be deemed by the audience to be behaving inappropriately - perhaps because they were speaking too loudly, or even dressed too loudly. They also took lots of selfies, raising the question of whether such behaviour should be better policed.

Professor Lennon - a lecturer in dark tourism from Glasgow Caledonian University London and the man who helped coin the term - believes such visits are “motivated by a desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.”

The darker side of tourism is nothing new, according to Professor Lennon. Our ancestors, after all, visited Roman gladiatorial games, honoured death in pilgrimages to Canterbury, and enjoyed days out at public executions.

Tong Lam, an Associate Professor at Toronto University and author of the book Abandoned Futures: a Journey Through the Posthuman World, recently told Telegraph Travel: “I think ruin tourism or dark tourism has become popular because it helps to negotiate our growing anxieties over the existential threats that we are facing, including climate change, globalisation, nuclear annihilation or simply death.”

But if we visit dark tourism sites, not just to tick a box but because we want to remember a tragedy and be affected by it, doesn’t it follow that we should want to behave respectfully?

The fatal car crash involving Diana, Princess of Wales, prompted pilgrimages to the Parisian underpass where it happened, as did her burial in Althorpe. Adrian Bridge, a Telegraph Travel editor, was one of those who went to pay his respects. “I was curious,” he said. “I went and stood at the junction and, although it was busy with traffic, there was a poignancy to it. There is something quite powerful about being at a scene where something like that took place.”

There was some outrage expressed a few years ago when President Obama was seen taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. The rules of conduct for visitors to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, for example, forbids loud noises, calling and shouting, music, dogs, cycling and sunbathing.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Credit: getty

“Sites of mass killing,” suggested Professor Lennon, “particularly those associated with the Jewish holocaust, present major challenges for interpretation and invariably questions arise concerning the nature of motivation for visitors.”

Where the sympathies and behaviour of visitors cannot be relied upon, appropriate conduct can be imposed. Guards at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam are on hand to ensure visitors walk in single file and maintain a respectful countenance.

It is for those planning attractions that commemorate death too to consider what kind of reaction they want.

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum Credit: Getty

“The emotional impact of such sites is not culturally straightforward, it is about more than creating reflective memories for the visitor,” said Professor Lennon.

And turning the location of a tragedy into a profit-making tourist attraction is not something that can be done without proper consideration.

“There is a clear profit motive at a number of such sites,” he said. “Even if admission is free there are secondary revenue streams from retail, catering and so forth.

“Concentration camps are usually operated by trusts which use a contribution from sales for maintenance and staffing costs.”

Relics from the Chernobyl disaster in Pripyat Credit: Getty

Indeed, some tours to Chernobyl were closed temporarily in 2011 after it was alleged that the takings were not being spent on cleaning up the area’s deadly radioactive legacy.

Profits aside, the impact of dark tourism sites on local communities needs also to be considered. Londonderry’s more famous attractions include large street murals depicting the Troubles.

Some commentators have suggested that these should be updated with something more positive, and that the city should not be forever looking to the past.

But Professor Lennon believes it is more important to ensure that events presented are historically accurate.

Pictures of children at Auschwitz Credit: Getty

“Many locations have a tragic past (Paris and the revolution, Berlin at the heart of the Nazi government), but that does not mean such places cannot change,” he said.

“The murals in Northern Ireland are associated with a period of history but remain a major attraction because of the images of the period they detail. New images of a peaceful and prosperous location are unlikely to exert the same fascination.”

He pointed out that visiting dark tourism sites may be a crucial way for us to learn the lessons of the past, whether or not current governments want us to.

“When we look at which sites are maintained and developed and which are not, it provides an insight into which are acceptable and unacceptable histories,” he said.

“The Cambodian government, for example, has been slow to conserve and finance the interpretation of the Killing Field sites of the Khmer Rouge, therefore mapping the acts of this particularly barbarous regime.

“But to remain silent and not to record and interpret these events for tourists, may encourage future generations to ignore or forget these terrible periods of human history. Dark tourism, like our dark history, occupies an important part of our understanding of what it is to be human.”