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Interview for Stuff NZ

- full script

(just a couple of small bits have been taken out for privacy reasons - marked [...])
1.) “What exactly is 'dark tourism'?”   
Well, very general question that. A common shorthand definition (very, very simplifying) goes roughly like this: it's travel to places associated with death, disaster, tragedy, suffering, destruction, the macabre, …
But there's lots more to say about this (I have tried on my website – see the “what is dark tourism” section and especially the “concept of dark tourism” chapter and also the FAQs). And in academia this question has meanwhile filled countless volumes.
There isn't general agreement what does and what does not comprise dark tourism in practice. Some core areas and well-known destinations are undisputed, e.g. Auschwitz and other camps, Chernobyl, the 9/11 Memorial in New York, Robben Island in South Africa. But the concept has fuzzy edges and there are disputed forms.
For instance, some restrict dark tourism (DT henceforth) to modernity, so that only places whose dark associations have come about in the past century or so, or since the advent of modern media (i.e. ca. late 19th century), qualify for DT … and I for one adhere to that view. But there are others who cast the net much wider and include battlefield tourism in the Napoleonic wars or the American Civil War, or even going to see public executions in the Middle Ages or gladiators in Roman Times. I see those things as something fundamentally different, though. And I would have been in no way tempted to go and see any of those things. Nor am I drawn to “risk tourism” , which is something DT is also frequently misunderstood as (so many times I've had people ask me about “what other dangerous places are you going to next then?” - to which I usually reply: “none”, and then explain that it's not about danger but about interest; some places may come with minor risks, but I would never go anywhere with uncalculable risks or knowingly endanger my own life or that of others.).
Another contested type of tourism is contemporary 'slum tourism'. Some put this under the heading of dark tourism too, but I exclude it because, again, I see this as fundamentally different from virtually all other forms of DT. “Proper” DT is about places of past disasters/tragedy, and especially about commemorating these and, moreover, trying to understand, i.e. with an educational aim. Slum tourism, in contrast, is about current, ongoing misery … and for me going to see this as a (usually) well-off outsider is just too dangerously close to voyeuristic. Many who insist on lumping slum tourism together with DT do so precisely in order to discredit all of DT as inherently voyeuristic – which is quite unfair. Nobody visiting the memorial sites of Auschwitz or such like does so for voyeuristic reasons. That is simply absurd.
One tricky aspect about DT being about places with dark history, i.e. past, is how much time has to pass before it can be a kosher destination for tourism. It is usually agreed that going back “too soon” can be unethical (unless it is in the form of aid or relief work – which, again, I wouldn't class as tourism). But when exactly “too soon” ends is not easy to determine – and it can vary a lot. I remember the case of Sarajevo where there was some controversy when some 10 years ago the local tourism industry, initially on a small scale, began to focus on the city's recent war history (only about a dozen years after the end of the war). But it wasn't outsiders going there uninvited who initiated this, but it was the locals themselves who wanted outside visitors to come and see – and hopefully understand – their story. Yet some were quick to raise the voyeurism accusation. Meanwhile there is no question that a significant part of Sarajevo tourism is about the war, and most are now quite at ease with that fact.
OK, that was a long answer to a short question. I'll try to be briefer with the remaining answers:
2.) “why does it appeal to/fascinate people?”
Again, volumes have been written about the 'motivation' issue in academic studies. Yet as far as I know no single convincing answer has so far been produced. That will also be so because it just varies so much – not only from person to person, but also from destination to destination. The reasons why someone may be interested in, say, World War One battlefield tours and another in, e.g. seeing Chernobyl, will have fairly little in common with each other.
Speaking for myself, I am especially fascinated by contemporary history and within this in particular in a) places that are not so widely understood (e.g. Rwanda or East Timor), and b) places associated with the Cold War. The latter comes from my biography, being a child of those times and having come of age at a phase when the Cold War was especially dangerous (the early 1980s), so it made a big impression on me. And now that sites such as former ICBM bases and nuclear test sites have, to a degree, become accessible, I'm simply drawn to them.
Many dark tourist are also drawn to places of dereliction or dystopian post-industrialist wastelands, or generally to abandoned places, simply for the visual aesthetics of decay and ruin, especially from a photographic perspective … and I'm in that category too. But not all of what's now called “urbex” (from “urban exploration”) is also DT. For the latter there has to be more than the visual, some sort of dark(ish) historical associations, say, or environmental issues.
You see there are many different sorts of DT appeal.
3.) “how popular is it?”
There's a widespread feeling that it is growing, but hard statistical figures are notoriously hard to come by, as so much of DT is undertaken by independent travellers who tailor their own itineraries, and thus leave little in terms of official statistical traces.
There are exceptions, though, namely memorial sites that do record visitor numbers. Or places like Chernobyl where visitors have to submit paperwork in order to obtain a permit. [...] Between 2012 and 2016 visitor numbers almost quadrupled, by now they may have gone up something like six-fold. [...]
The memorial site of Auschwitz also releases visitor numbers and these have also gone up dramatically over the years, now having passed the 2 million per annum mark. And the 9/11 Memorial recorded a whopping 4.5 million or so in their first year after opening alone.
There is a growing impression in general that tourists these days tend to want something different than – or in addition to – the “classic”, traditional mainstream tourism experiences.
Yet some of these will remain pretty niche. Moreover, many dark tourism neither are aware that they are engaging in DT (and may never have heard the term) nor are they exclusively interested in the dark. I may well be the most widely travelled dark tourists, but even I do not only do dark. I need a balance too – so when I am on one of my field trips I try to include counterweights to the DT research, e.g. wildlife watching, nature, architecture, and the culinary side of travelling.
Most other dark tourists (usually unaware of the term) tend to be “normal” tourists who simply add the odd DT site just because ether they happen to be in the same location or because that particular place specifically interests them.
In general dark tourism is really quite harmless – simply finding something interesting that IS indeed interesting. Those grand psychological searches for hidden and/or morally deviant motivations are mostly ill-founded.
4.) Are you aware of dark-tourism sites in NZ?
Yes, I am aware of a small handful, but I have so far not been to the country myself. Thus my website only has stub chapters for NZ, stand-ins for proper chapters, which I can only write when I've actually visited those places myself.
So far I have three places pencilled in on the website: White Island – as a dramatic and apocalyptic-looking volcanic sight; Mt Tarawera and the Te Wairoa buried village – again, volcanic in part, but here also human tragedy was involved; and the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior (the Greenpeace vessel that was targeted by the French secret service and later scuttled off the coast of the North Island of NZ). [...] I should probably add a chapter about Christchurch and the earthquake. Isn't the ruin of the cathedral being preserved a kind of memorial to the disaster? That would certainly be something I'd be interested to see. [...]
5) “which sites around the world are growing in popularity?” 
I think I've more or less answered that already – see above re Chernobyl, Auschwitz, 9/11 Memorial. One place I could add is Berlin, and its various sites related to the former division of the city (Berlin Wall) and the former East German regime. I noticed for myself on a recent return visit to the Stasi Museum how much more popular it had become. When I first visited in 2008, I often had whole rooms to myself, but when I went back last year it was positively crowded in there.
6) “Are there any new ones you think are particularly interesting?
There seems to be a global rush towards more and more memorial museums and indeed new ones do appear all the time. I've just returned from a trip to Croatia and, e.g. in Vukovar I found a whole host of recently opened memorials and museum exhibitions about the battle of Vukovar, which was the first major military confrontation of the Balkans War in 1991. The capture of Vukovar caused so much destruction that it was even likened to Stalingrad (exaggerated, for sure, but it was the worst few months of war in Europe since WWII). Some of new sites these were indeed very interesting, such as the sombre Ovčara memorial or the reconstruction of the basement rooms of the local hospital as it would have been during the battle. Very visual and somewhat disturbing. What I found lacking was solid historical background of a sober balanced nature. It seems that the animosities between the different ethnic stakeholders are far from overcome.
One much talked about new site I am planning to visit very soon is, again, in Berlin, namely the expanded “Berlin Story” Museum in an old air-raid bunker from WWII. Last year they opened an all new section about the infamous “Führerbunker”, i.e. Hitler's last hide-out in Berlin during the final phase of WWII … and the place where he committed suicide. The actual Führerbunker is a non-site (only a plaque marks the place where it once was) and the traces found underground have been sealed and are unvisitable. But this new exhibition has taken the topic up and is apparently quite committed to it, in full awareness of the potential for controversy. I know from their previous incarnations that the Berlin Story enterprise is astutely aware of and fighting against any right-wing misrepresentations of history, so to prevent any Nazi pilgrimages, the topic is woven into a wider documentation about the rise and fall of Hitler. I'd seen the already existing general Berlin exhibition at the same site in 2016, so my expectations for this new addition are high.
7) “How did you get into dark tourism? What sites/experiences stimulated your interest?”
These two questions do indeed belong together. Like most dark tourists I had already long been one before I had even heard of the term. This was in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian in 2007, which featured an interview with one of the authors of the first academic book on the subject (who's ironically called John Lennon – like the murdered Beatle, but with no relations). The examples he gave made me take note. I had by that time already been to e.g. Chernobyl, Ground Zero in New York, North Korea and to various concentration camp memorial sites. So I suddenly found there was a term for being interested in all those things. It was the year after this that came up with the initial idea of setting up my website.
Where it all comes from is hard to say (I speculated a bit about this in this chapter), but probably it goes back to childhood. Seeing the Berlin Wall in the 1970s, as a 10-year-old or so, certainly made a lasting impression on me. My predilection for ruins and decay also goes back to childhood explorations of such places with my father. The interest in the historical dimension came later, but I've always been more focussed on the modern age. I find it hard to get interested in ancient history.
Having taken up photography more seriously (btw. I do not do selfies!) from about the same time as I discovered the term dark tourism has also had an impact and keeps steering me towards visually rewarding, unusual places.
Of those, Chernobyl and its ghost town of Pripyat still stand out as what I would regard as the pinnacle of DT. Not just visually, though, but also because it works on so many levels at the same time – including the element of “time travel”, here both into the past (the former Soviet days and its relics) but also into the future, in that it provides a glimpse into what a dystopian post-apocalyptic world after human civilisation ended may look like. And that aspect is becoming more and more to the fore in this day and age of climate change and its threat to human society and civilisation at large.

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2009-2023

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