‘Dark tourism’ in Asia: Exploitation or education?

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan. Source: Shutterstock

HUMANS are naturally drawn to darkness; it’s intrinsic in our nature to find fascination with murder, war and destruction.

And as history will tell, man have turned acts of violence into public spectacles: crowds used to gather to watch their own get stoned to death, ‘witches’ burned alive, and people and animals battle to their ends in Roman amphitheatres.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that around the world, kill sites and disaster zones have become tourist draws. Ground Zero, Auschwitz, Pompeii, Chernobyl are examples and their appeal is seemingly timeless.

Asia is no stranger to this form of tourism dubbed “dark tourism” (also “black” or “grief” tourism), every year attracting thousands to places like Vietnam’s Khe Sahn and the Chu Chi tunnels, Japan’s Hiroshima, Cambodia’s Killing Fields and Thailand’s tsunami tombstones.

But because this growing predilection for the macabre has also spouted the occasional story of the unfortunate selfie faux pas, some have begun to ask: is it ethical to profit off mankind’s suffering?

Why turn sites into memorials?

Cambodia is one of many countries in Asia said to be benefiting from the dark tourism trade.

The country’s violent history under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime saw over a million murdered between 1975 and 1979. Today, the Killing Fields, the sites where the dead were buried during the mass killing, have become increasingly popular with tourists.

Skulls at the genocide museum in the killing fields in Cambodia. Source: Shutterstock

According to VOA News in April, “the number of tourists visiting Cambodia’s genocide sites has more than tripled during the last 10 years”.

Speaking with New Republic last year, Louis Bickford, a human rights scholar and the former director of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, said it was important to render “the power of social memory to come to grips with past abuse”. Bickford has studied memorial sites in Cambodia and other countries across Asia.

Tom Widdowson, a tourist from Hertfordshire, told Travel Wire Asia that when he visited Cambodia, he felt it important to visit the Killing Fields so he could “better understand Cambodia’s history”, which he knew little about previously.

“I don’t think they’re exploiting anyone in this instance, as its purpose is to educate tourists on the atrocities faced there and you get the impression the locals support raising awareness,” he adds.

Memorials need money

In developing nations like Cambodia and Thailand, for example, tourism is a staple for the local economy.

“Any publicity is good publicity,” traveler Michael Beer, 26, from Devon, told Travel Wire Asia. “If the place is informing people at the same time as making money then that’s the job done.

“As long as the event is remembered and people are aware of the repercussions then that’s what’s important. Yes, it’s very sad that a memorial needs to make money in order to stay open but that’s unfortunately how the world works”

SEE ALSO: Is the Rohingya crisis affecting tourism in Myanmar?

Respect is key

Recently, Israeli satirist Shahak Shapira, who was disgusted with the number of people taking disrespectful selfies at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, made this viral video entitled Yolocaust. He photoshopped horrifying images of the Holocaust behind and underneath tourists smiling or doing yoga or posing.

Hannah Johnson, a 23-year-old Lonely Planet Pathfinders blogger from Gloucestershire who spent seven months travelling in Asia, has this to say of her experiences in Cambodia and Vietnam.

“I visited two dark tourism sites [in Asia] which I had very different feelings for; the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the Khe Sahn in Vietnam.

The Chu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh are an immense network of tunnels where several military campaigns were located during the Vietnam War. Source: Shutterstock

“The Killing Fields is cared for carefully and with love, collecting and rehoming bone and clothing fragments which resurface and keeping the site very much as it was found. There is an informative audio guide to take you round the site and give you the facts of the acts committed there, which keeps everyone to themselves so the site has a respectful, silent air,” she recalls.

At Khe Sahn, on the other hand, she said, “there is little information about the slaughter of Americans that occurred there. There are hawkers following you around the site trying to sell you badges and lighters […] which […] is disgustingly disrespectful to those, Vietnamese and American, who died in the game changing battle,” she says.

When she was there, a Vietnamese couple were having wedding photos taken in the trenches that had been reconstructed.

Johnson asserts it seemed like, “a gloating show over the struggle that occurred at the site.”

“I feel like it’s just a money maker for the Vietnamese.”

Much like Johnson, another traveler Charlotte Cole expressed her frustration at the way tourists behave at these sites. Cole visited the Killing Caves in Battambang, Cambodia, a lesser known site where tourists are able to see the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime.

Cole recalls seeing her hostel roommate, “at the top of the mountain, next to the temple” after a disagreement the night before.

“He was wearing his illuminous yellow, full moon party vest […], shouting over the monks kneeling between us.

“This is my problem with capitalizing on these types of sites… tourists who don’t care or respect the history,” she says.

Why remembering the past is important

“I think the darker parts of a country’s history are just as important as the lighter side – in a lot of cases it explains why a country is the way it is now,” says 25-year-old traveler Alex Wilson.

“Vietnam and Cambodia have been completely shaped by the wars and atrocities that occurred there in the last five decades, so you absolutely need to see the sites, visit the places, to truly understand.

“It hits you hard, but it should, because you’re learning about just how awful people can truly be.”

As Wilson asserts, to appreciate the present, it is undeniably important to remember the horrors of the past.

On top of that, dark tourism sites can provide the financial float to help countries, like Cambodia and Vietnam for example, to heal old wounds and more importantly, to prevent future tragedies.