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31 Mar 2017
Into the Shadows: Roger Moorhouse on 'Dark Tourism'

Into the Shadows: Roger Moorhouse on 'Dark Tourism'

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The genre of travel dubbed 'dark tourism' has boomed in recent years. Visitor numbers at Auschwitz, for instance, have more than quarupled since 2000. Chernobyl, long off-limits, now welcomes 10,000 visitors each year.

This July I'll be leading a tour group exploring Poland's grim fate during the Second World War, visiting numerous sites including concentration and Nazi death camps.

Other popular 'dark' destinations include Ground Zero in New York, Robben Island in South Africa and Cambodia's Killing Fields.

The recent growth has been spurred by globalisation, and perhaps a growing popular awareness of wider histories. But though it sounds edgy and postmodern, dark tourism has a long pedigree. In the years after the American Civil War, travel firm Thomas Cook offered its customers tours of the newly cleared battlefields; they did the same after the First World War, taking groups to the Flanders cemeteries.

What is it, then, that drives our interest in holidaying on the darker side of human history? Partly, it is just that: history's horror stories have long exerted a strange magnetism. Partly, too, it is that the opportunities for such unconventional travelling are so much greater and more affordble now than even a decade ago. But it is also undoubtedly the lure of the 'sense of place' — the frission of seeing with one's own eyes the spots where tyrants walked, where death lurked, where history was made.

Of course, there are limits. Sensitivity must always be paramount. A tour to a 'dark' location must never be carried out in an exploitative, disrespectful or tasteless manner. Moreover, given the still-controversial nature of some subjects, it is not enough for a guide or operator simply to provide the location; there is also an obligation to educate and provide accurate context. One cannot visit the former site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, for instance, and come away denying that the Holocaust took place.

Some find the idea of holidaying on history's dark side incomprehensible, even distasteful. That's fine. But we must not forget that, done properly, this form of travel can be challenging, enlightening and hugely rewarding, providing a vital new aspect to our understanding of the subject at hand — whether we are on the bridge on the river Kwai or at a former Soviet gulag.

To my mind, the throwaway phrase 'dark tourism' scarcely does the concept justice. Visiting history's most infamous locations reminds us of the subject's emotional element — its visceral appeal. And that is a reminder that can be of benefit to us all.

Roger will be leading two tours for us in 2017: The Final Solution - Life & Death in Occupied Poland, and The Face of Evil. This article originally appeared in BBC World Histories Magazine Issue 3.