Holidays that you don’t send postcards from

In Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ Hector asks where people eat their sandwiches when they go to Auschwitz. And whether they take pictures? And are they smiling? Looking into it, it seems that you do take pictures at concentration camps; they only ask for no flash photography. As for sandwiches, there is a visitors’ centre like anywhere else. The tourism websites are unsettling in themselves. The ‘general or standard tour’ is around three and a half hours – that is how long it takes to have an understanding of a place that no one can ever understand.

The phrase ‘dark tourism’ is a juxtaposition of the weighty macabre and the cursory glance of holidaymakers – the same ridiculous contrast as in the headline ‘nuclear Disneyland’ when Chernobyl officials decided to relax their tourism regulations. The association of the term with the tourism industry also chimes of exploitation, of money made from bloodshed. But this isn’t a modern phenomenon. Medieval pilgrims travelled to sites of religious martyrdom and the saints’ fingers that changed hands between purveyors of relics and the laity are early souvenirs of dark tourism. Paintings of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 show little pin prick people on the hills; the nobility that had come to watch from a safe distance.

It might be our difficulty in contemplating our own mortality that creates morbid curiousity – rubbernecking when driving past a car accident, flocking to the area of the Soham murders, flying to Hiroshima? Is it linked to an evolutionary instinct to know more about dangers so as to avoid them? Or is it about the luxury of invented terrors that allow us to get the adrenaline rush denied to us in our modern, bubble wrapped lives? Is that why you can take a tour in a black Mercedes that traces Princess Diana’s route on the night she died?

Holidays occur in liminal time when our reality is suspended. It might be that our standards of acceptable behaviour waver and we indulge bad taste, or it might be that on holiday we can simply take the time to look at death, in the same way that we can use that fortnight to gaze at sunsets or paintings. Dark tourism sites exist in the same extraordinary space; we visit them but we would not live in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland or raise a family in a house built on the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Most of us would not even wear a cardigan worn while someone had a heart attack.

The cynical might say that dark tourism is schadenfreude. We know we are capable of joy at others’ misfortune; just look at websites like where you can predict batches of potential celebrity deaths, win points when they die and draw winnings from a cash pool. But visiting Ground Zero is more complex than this hobby. Surely for dark tourists there is not straightforward happiness at the suffering of someone else but maybe it is that confrontations with death affirm our own existence. There might be ontological security from looking at death; there is no way to feel more human and mortal. There is also a suspension between our sense of humanity as good – piously visiting the site, condemning the actions – and as evil, looking at the mounds of shoes or tables of skulls that are left we are forced to realise the inhumanity of which we are capable.

There are more questions. Anthropologists are interested in whether the experiences are cleansing, somehow cathartic like watching everyone keel over in a Greek tragedy or whether people feel tainted?  And should it be compulsory for students to visit concentration camps, just as we think all schools should teach the Holocaust?

The graveyard visitors, shrine goers and battlefield snappers argue that their kind of tourism shouldn’t have a name and a category of its own. After all, to cordon off dark tourist attractions on the grounds of bad taste would mean Rome without the Colosseum. London without the Tower. No Pompeii at all. Lennon and Foley have argued that the practice of pilgrimage, which is often entwined with martyrdom and the macabre, is the very origin of tourism itself.

Our world and our history are full of things simultaneously living and dying. Lives can be defined by their ends, and often a measure of a cause’s importance is that people died for it or of the brutality of a regime that people were killed for it.  At least through dark tourism these deaths are remembered rather than forgotten; might it be darker and more tasteless to see the pyramids, built on the bodies of workers, or the Great Wall of China, the longest cemetery in the world?