Travelling right


They say travel broadens the mind, but not all tourism promotes the best behaviour

By Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison

Tourism today is a multi-trillion dollar industry. We set out time in our calendars to rest, to break the routine. But escape has become routine: we go to places, look at packaged sites, take a photograph and return home to tell the story to bored acquaintances. Travel and tourism are different things: travellers are surprised by the unexpected whereas tourists only look for the expected. For both, home is always a breath away. Yet travellers know that home is an elusive place while tourists are anxious to go home from the moment they arrive. The former thrive on getting lost; the latter always want to be found.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said: “There is no foreign land; it is the traveller only who is foreign.” In a world like ours, increasingly small, where exoticism is constantly packaged through glowing ads, adventurous TV shows and extravagant rendezvous, the statement is stunningly prescient: we have lost the capacity to wonder.

To push the thrill to the next level, we pander to what the Germans call schadenfreude. An example: after Hurricane Katrina, all kinds of outsiders descended on New Orleans. A few came to help, others to document the disaster, make films, take pictures, write stories. In parts of town, these were the only people you were likely to meet out on the street. In the Lower Ninth Ward, which became a focus of international attention, a small but visible cottage industry sprouted selling ‘Katrina tours’, taking busloads of tourists to survey the wreckage. A lifelong resident told the New York Times, “I felt like an animal in a zoo. Videos of me are all over YouTube.”

Call it dark tourism. Death becomes the destination and tragedy is on display. What motivates these types of journeys? Why do we want to experience that physical proximity to places where human misery has unfolded? There are no easy answers. Sites of human catastrophe inspire a special kind of awe; we call these places hallowed ground. Because some events are so terrible that they exceed our comprehension, we crave something tangible, a place with defined boundaries or a specific object, through which we can give ourselves safely over to emotion.

The tourist, on these occasions, masks his curiosity in the form of empathy. Mark Twain wrote about a visit he made to a Crimean War battlefield in 1867 where he witnessed people’s strange impulse to take souvenirs from the grisly site:

“They have brought cannon balls, broken ramrods, fragments of shell, iron enough to freight a sloop. Some have even brought bones, brought them laboriously from great distances, and were grieved to hear the surgeon pronounce them only bones of mules and oxen.”

With or without souvenirs, the phenomenon seems to be proliferating because of the explosion of tourism as a global industry as well as our general contentment with simulated experience.

Light or dark, tourism is about marketing, even while trumping the facts. Giving visitors emotional catharsis is more important than presenting authentic history or affecting real change. During the 2011 tsunami in Japan, a forest of 70,000 trees was washed away in Rikuzentakata, a beach town popular with tourists. Hundreds of years of growth were undone in a moment, except for one tree, which came to be called the ‘miracle pine’. Then, a year or so later, the tree died, its roots exposed to saltwater. Local authorities spent $1.5m on reviving and reinforcing it, in an area where debris was still being cleared to make room for new accommodation, with thousands still living in temporary homes. The tree was finally sliced into segments, hollowed out and reconstituted around a carbon spine. Now tourists come to see the ‘tree’ that survived the tsunami. It will be the centrepiece of a new memory park, lit at night in commemoration.

Not all experiences in dark tourism are equal, or equally dark. It is important to distinguish between the legitimate commemoration of suffering and its shameless performance, between the uses and abuses of grief. Visitors to concentration camps and killing fields, from Poland to Cambodia, often come to connect with a personal or family experience. When President Obama made highly publicised visits to a slave fortress on Africa’s Gold Coast or to Robben Island in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, the poignant moments were presented as both roots tourism and redemption narrative. At its best, this kind of tourism is an opportunity to exercise our empathy. It can be educational, even inspirational. Even so, we are still risking a kind of moral self-pampering: we tell ourselves that to be present on the stage of atrocity is somehow to impede its repetition, thus appointing ourselves as witnesses to history and therefore its judges. As tourists we stand in the presence of terrible history and feel our own importance.

There is another brand of dark tourism that trades in kitsch (also a German word, meaning junk replicas and false emotions). Consider the Tourist Landmark of the Resistance, in Mleeta, a village in southern Lebanon, also known as the Hezbollah Resistance Museum. It was designed by Hezbollah, and opened in 2010, marking the 10th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Costing millions, it attracted 300,000 visitors in its first three months, not only from Lebanon and neighbouring Arab states, but from all over the world.

Guides welcome visitors to “the land of resistance, purity and jihad”. Children show up at the park in miniature paramilitary costumes. They carry plastic AK-47s. They play inside decommissioned tanks, crawl along barbed wire and into replica bunkers. They can even aim weapons at Israeli- uniformed mannequins. This is only the most egregious example of a kind of political manipulation that is routinely deployed by states and other groups to promote their preferred history, worldview or self-image. Political kitsch gives cover to all kinds of despotism and exploitation. It is not a world of human beings, in all their complexity, only heroes and villains, perpetrators and victims. The world of kitsch is a simpler world with very bad guys, very good guys, and causes so righteous that no blood or dirt can taint them.

This type of dark tourism engages in vicarious excitement at other people’s despair. A hotel chain in Bloemfontein, South Africa, called Emoya Hotel and Spa, invites tourists to stay a few days in a fake shantytown. The rooms are made of corrugated metal, cardboard and other trash. Outdoor light depends on fires. The location is ideal: in the middle of nowhere. There are rooms for 52 guests and the rooms are cheap. Needless to say, certain local features are absent: crime, hunger, congestion. In fact, guests spend their stay in rather comfortable surroundings, enjoying privacy and modern comforts such as running water and Wi-Fi.

This second type of dark tourism is odious. It devalues human suffering to the degree that it makes us look at the legitimate commemoration of tragedy as somewhat perverse. It is a mistake: to acknowledge human suffering, to make it relatable, to dream of controlling it, is a legitimate way of reacting to a world that is messy, ambiguous and indecent. But in the face of horror, we must pause. What we should not do is cheapen it, and tourism can do precisely that. Objecting to it — refusing to indulge — is a step towards reclaiming our humanity.

This article originally appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2015

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