Genocide visit or murder tour? 'Dark tourism' hits the mainstream
Some tourists go for a cheesy picture next to the Pyramid of Skulls at Phnom Penh's Killing Fields. Others opt for a tour of Kigali's genocide war memorials. Or, students of the macabre can join a walking tour following the footsteps of US serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dark tourism, a lucrative travel industry offshoot catering for a desire to visit sites of mass murder, atrocity and destruction, has now been recognised with an institute devoted to its academic study.
Morgue tours became the fashion in Victorian times, and there are plenty of similar attractions today. But Dr Philip Stone, co-founder of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, which launches with a symposium today at the University of Central Lancashire, says there is more to "thanatourism" than a ghoulish desire to gawp at tragedies.
"The institute aims to provide an ethical framework to look at the packaging and commodification of death," he said. "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?" Dr Stone believes studying "dark tourism" will help the appropriate development and management of such sites and attractions.
The institute defines "dark tourism" as the "act of travel to sites, attractions and exhibitions of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre."
In Cambodia, the surviving remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime encourage visitors to buy trinkets after visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum, where a display of skulls commemorates the 14,000 victims of Pol Pot's regime who died at the former torture camp.
However, at the Dahmer attraction – which was condemned by the families of the Milwaukee killer's victims – visitors are also taken on a walking tour of the bars where the killer, who mutilated and cannibalised many of his 17 victims, picked up his young prey.
The institute includes the 1.5 million people who annually visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in Poland, and those who pay their respects at Ground Zero whilst visiting New York, as "dark tourists".
Professor John Lennon, director of the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development in Glasgow, who coined the phrase "dark tourism" in a 1996 paper, believes these dark tourists like to imagine how they might have reacted facing such a disaster.
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