Are you a dark tourism enthusiast?

  • Malaysia
  • Friday, 09 Nov 2018

Some 8,000 human skulls of Khmer Rouge victims on display at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial in Cambodia. Photo: Reuters

Have you ever taken time out of a holiday to visit a place that you know will not be traditionally “fun” or is perhaps even a little macabre? Or maybe you’re someone whose idea of a holiday is to travel to a destination with a dark past? Dark tourism is not a new concept yet it has received a bit of attention in the media of late. Films and TV shows like Netflix’s Dark Tourist series and constant mentions of it on social media may have helped reignite the travel trend among curious travellers.

In a nutshell, dark tourism is described as travels to destinations with a dark history, specifically involving death or disaster – or both. Academics and travel experts have a more complex definition, of course. For example, dark tourism comes in many categories and sub-categories, and it can sometimes be cross referenced to other types of tourism like adventure travel.

There’s also a discourse on who would go for these kinds of travel. Would you be considered a strange or creepy person if you were interested in visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland? Or, instead of taking selfies at the iconic Eiffel Tower, you prefer to walk around the grey grounds of Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris – is that odd?

Of course not. Many places listed in the dark tourism category are interesting because they carry important historical values, some of which are not discussed in basic history lessons in schools. Just like how visiting an art museum enriches one’s cultural knowledge, a trip to a war memorial helps travellers understand a little bit more about the political strife that a country has gone through.

dark tourism
Visiting the room of mugshots and prisoner records at Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul, South Korea will make some people feel uneasy. Photo: The Star/Melody L. Goh

Understandably, some of these places can have an emotional impact on visitors. A solo trip to the Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul, South Korea, a few years back brought chills down my spine as I walked through its cold, dark hallways. There were mannequins – dressed in prison garb – placed inside some of the cells, while audio playback of mournful screams was on loop.

Prior to the visit, I knew very little of South Korea’s history but the prison museum gave me some insight. It was built in 1907 and was first used by the Japanese to detain Korean liberation activists and patriots. There were separate sections for men and women; children were also imprisoned, and you can see hundreds of mugshots and records in one of the exhibition rooms. And then there is the torture room ...

You can’t help but feel terrible for all the senseless killings. But there’s also a sense of wonderment at how much pain the human body and mind can endure. I was proud that many of the activitists stood their ground right to the end, even if we did not share a country.

dark tourism
One of the tombstones at Pere Lachaise. Photo: The Star/Melody L. Goh

Not for everyone

One topic that’s widely debated within the discussions of dark tourism is visitors’ conduct. Doing selfie challenges, creating Instagram/Facebook Stories or streaming Live clips from these destinations is a sign of disrespect yet many visitors think nothing of it. Some travellers have been heavily criticised for posting pictures of themselves posing provocatively at places like Holocaust museums and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields in Cambodia.

Surely, anyone who is empathetic and compassionate would know that this is not proper behaviour.

Some argue that the reason why they make those social media posts is because they want more people to know about these places. Apparently, their posts could garner more interest from the younger generation than say, an article in a boring old newspaper.

While that may hold some truth in today’s technology-driven society, it also brings to question the motivation for visiting dark tourism destinations. Are you interested because you genuinely want to learn something or are you just going because your favourite Instagram star once took a beautiful picture there?

Whatever your true motivation may be, it must be stressed that respectful behaviour is of utmost importance when visiting any tourist site. Some places will impose rules and regulations for visitors, while a handful may even have dress codes. Do adhere to them as much as you can.

What is and is not dark tourism

Still unsure about the definitions of dark tourism? Consider this: It does not include popular places where you can find throngs of tourists doing regular tourist things like shopping and sun bathing. What kind of souvenir do you think you could get at Auschwitz without feeling like a horrible person anyway? (There is a store there that sells educational items like books and postcards, though.)

Anything with a cultural or architectural element also does not fall into this category, and neither do most museums – unless they focus on “dark” issues like war or genocide.

dark tourism
Visitors at the Tugu Peringatan Tsunami in Kota Kuala Muda, Kedah. Photo: The Star/Mustafa Ahmad

Some may include haunted houses/buildings or sites but only when there is a true dark element attached to the background of these places. For example, the Tai Kwun – Centre For Heritage and Arts building in Hong Kong is a newly-restored property that used to be a police station and prison. Previously nicknamed the White House, the building used to house political activists, suspected spies and rioters during the British rule in the 1960s. Many of these prisoners were said to be tortured while a handful were known to have died there; reports of mysterious screams and images of headless figures at night make this place an intriguing dark place to visit.

Closer to home are the affected locations of the tsunami in 2004. In Kota Kuala Muda, Sungai Petani, Kedah, a Tsunami Gallery opened last year showcasing pictures of the disastrous event. There is also a monument that was created from 26 fishing boats destroyed by the tsunami.

In Thailand’s Khao Lak and Phuket – as well as in Aceh, Indonesia – you can find a few monuments and museums that are put up in honour of those who lost their lives to the disaster.

Do note that visiting a place where natural disasters have recently occured is a big no-no, unless you are going as a relief volunteer or an aid worker. A “holiday” in Palu, Indonesia, for example is certainly not encouraged at the moment, at least not until the community has fully recovered and the city has properly rebuilt itself.

dark tourism
Anne Frank's room in her former house in Amsterdam. Photo: AFP

When to go dark

Dark tourism does not have to be macabre or depressing. It can be a purely educational visit like the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The building is now a museum dedicated to Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis for more than two years with her family in a small section of said house. While in hiding, Anne wrote about their lives in her diary, which was later published into the famous book, The Diary Of Anne Frank.

Going to the Tsunami Gallery in Kota Kuala Muda, meanwhile, will give you a chance to help out the community there. This is where dark tourism goes hand-in-hand with rural tourism, a sector that is thriving in Malaysia.

And if you are on the fence on whether to go dark on your holiday, then this is a good place to start.

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