Dark tourism study centre unveiled
A British University has unveiled a dedicated centre for academic research on “dark tourism” – known as thanatourism in academic circles – a phrase coined to describe visitors travelling to sites of death, brutality and terror, such as concentration camps, Cambodia’s ‘killing fields’, and ‘Ground Zero’ in New York, as well as the sites of disasters, such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine.
It is not a new phenomenon – morgue tours became the fashion in Victorian times – but it is becoming more popular and bigger business. For example, 1.5 million people visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in Poland every year.
Now the University of Central Lancashire has unveiled a dedicated centre for academic research on the subject. More than 100 delegates from around the world attended an inaugural symposium for the centre – said to be the world's first – at on April 24th.
The Institute for Dark Tourism Research (IDTR) will look at ethical ways to develop and manage dark tourism sites without them becoming voyeuristic. Director Dr Philip Stone said such places make people face their "own mortality" and allow them to consider death, from a comfortable distance.
His research – which has looked at people who visit such sites as part of a wider holiday, rather than people who have specifically travelled to see them –
suggests that visitors want to find some kind of meaning in these places of suffering and the visit becomes a form of "secular pilgrimage”.
Visitors try to empathise with victims and imagine the motivations of the perpetrators, he says, and then have a sense of relief that they can step back into the safety of their own lives.
"The institute aims to provide an ethical framework to look at the packaging and commodification of death," added Dr Stone. "People can dismiss the act of visiting sites of death and disaster as voyeuristic and macabre. But what are the consequences of people visiting these sites?"
Any scene of disaster or violence is going to have an uneasy relationship with tourism - in terms of how sensitively such events are presented, and how visitors are expected to behave. A tourist attraction based on the crimes of Milwaukee serial killer and ‘cannibal’ Jeffrey Dahmer was condemned by the families of his victims for example, as it took visitors on a walking tour of the bars where the killer picked up his young prey.
However, Dr Stone says the ‘packaging’ of such sites can focus on what people experience, rather than a recognition of the awful real-life events, which are being commemorated. There is a "blurred line between memorialisation and tourism", he says.
The IDTR also plans future research plans looking at people who made trips to see the damage caused by earthquakes in Italy, and to examine the visitor industry around the Pendle Witches in its own county of Lancashire.
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