Check your privilege: dark tourism and encounters with a war zone

Published

Credit: Jordy Meow

Layal Alghoozi
Writer

Layal Alghoozi discusses the ethical soundness of war tourism.

Whether it’s dressing up as Anne Frank for Halloween or asking gay couples, “who’s the guy and who’s the girl?”, it’s safe to say that human beings continue to test social boundaries in grossly inconsiderate manners. The latest trend is visiting war-torn countries for amusement and sheer curiosity, boasting about short-lived encounters of real-life conflict. While some people travel to these areas with the legitimate purpose of research or reporting, the overarching trend seems to be that people are vacationing in war-zones with the intent of “living through” the adrenaline of ongoing disasters. This, of course, grossly undermines the severity of such conflicts.

Dark tourism is the visiting of sites where horrible things have happened. The more recent and niche trend of war tourism heightens this element of adrenaline by going to active war zones for sightseeing. Simply put, people are attracted to gory things, including sites where communities have been decimated and thousands have been killed.

While dark tourism as an industry has helped build and develop countries, commodifying horrible experiences is questionable at best. It’s true that dark tourism can increase empathy and is a means to pay respect, and some sites do attract historic and patriotic relevance that ought to be commemorated. However, it’s the way people go on about it which makes encounters insensitive. In my opinion, it all depends on the intention; the legitimate historical value behind dark tourism depends on the intention of the visitor and tourism providers. Is it to pay respect for the deceased and foster education and humanity? Understanding the past surely helps understand the present and the future. Or is this another opportunistic chance to make money? Turning a country’s dark history around for tourism profits the country greatly, and many nations have seen significant fiscal gains from their histories.

However, if the purpose of reinstating tragedies as tourism is profit, then it misses the point. Education and paying tribute should be the legitimate purpose behind dark tourism. It’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, considering one can profit and educate at the same time – just look to prominent museums worldwide charging entry fees. But one must not normalize events under the guise of “educational tours” when so many of these events demand reflection. The insensitiveness depends on the reaction and intention of those visiting these sites – so yes, selfie-takers in Ground Zero should know better.

This is comparable to the new trend of Instagram influencers posing in front of sites of disaster for their fellow followers. Instagram model Veronika Rocheva recently received backlash for posting photos of herself in lingerie at the site of Chernobyl. Sexualizing the nuclear accident doesn’t really say much about the struggles of victims and their families. Likewise, Julia Baessler also orchestrated a photoshoot in Chernobyl, once again trivializing the very real disaster that took place.

Auschwitz concentration camp has also been a popular site for dark tourism: so much so that the Auschwitz Museum confronted its tourists by urging them to stop glorifying the Holocaust by posing on the railway tracks which were used to transport victims to their deaths. Indeed, the Holocaust Memorial Museum has visitors register with an I.D. card that matches with the age and gender of real Holocaust victims, allowing visitors to ‘experience’ the life of real victims, and arguably puts people in the shoes of the victims.

But here’s the thing: while roleplaying may provide insight into the horrors of history which should undoubtedly never be forgotten, it’s still a pretty insensitive understatement to have people pretend to know what victims have gone through. There is no way for them to truly understand the tragedies, and I don’t think they should try to either. That’s not the point. While it is important for us to be informed and reminded of our history and for people to understand the barbarities humans are capable of committing, it feels like an overstep to place oneself in the shoes of victims when the shoes don’t fit.

Likewise, visiting a site of mounting conflict serves no educational purpose for a tourist. Morbid curiosity highlights the privilege of people without heightening their true appreciation of terrible events. If this is true, then this behaviour should not inspire a sense of righteousness or sanctimony. Visiting the Golan Heights from a safe space behind the conflict that continues to displace thousands means tourists get to sit back and watch missiles go off for “fun”. It’s inappropriate and distasteful. They don’t get to experience an adrenaline rush from the sidelines. They don’t get to glorify war. They don’t get to “experience it” because they’re not. A true experience of conflict doesn’t include a pre-booked flight back home. There’s nothing “insightful” about watching people’s lives and homes disintegrate.

There’s something distasteful about someone playing adventure seeker for a day only to go back to the privilege of their own homes. It is insensitive and devalues minority groups by allowing tourists to exploit miserable conflicts for their own self-righteous purposes without actually enduring or understanding what people have gone through and continue to go through. Ultimately, what makes a site offensive isn’t its history, but how people choose to understand and share it.