The Conundrum of Dark Tourism

Morbid, ghastly and dismal. Death is in the air.

I felt distinctively uneasy as I was touring the Cu Chi tunnels.

An extensive network of connecting tunnels, they were the Viet Cong’s hiding point and their base of operations during the Vietnam War.

Booby traps and needle pits, which fatally injured numerous American soldiers were on (the word here I would use is, proud) display. The tunnels were so narrow, stuffy and constricting that it was almost impossible to believe that anyone, let alone war-fighting, adrenaline-pumped soldiers and their families could have lived here for months.

Doom and gloom lingered at the site still, some 40 years later. I exited the attraction somewhat queasy and downright weary at the vast amount of brutality that had occurred not too long ago.

Can we even call the place an “attraction”?

A trap door of the Cu Chi tunnels. Photo courtesy of claire_h

My notion of the ideal vacation is fun and adventure. Amusement parks. Breathtaking scenic views. The bustling shopping districts.

Yet somehow, in my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the Cu Chi tunnels was on my list of must visit sites.

At first glance the phrase “dark tourism” evokes sentiments of anguish and malaise. Would anyone on vacation, seeking a much-needed break and breath of fresh air partake in such activities?

But unknowingly, we all partake in it.

Like how I ended up visiting the tunnels.

The Cu Chi tunnels is just one of the many dark tourist sites round the globe. Especially, in light of the cruelty of mankind over the years of our existence, these landmarks that are related to death and suffering are aplenty.

Been to Poland? You are likely to have visited the Auschwitz Birkenau, the infamous concentration camp operated by the Nazi Germany and where close to 960 000 Jews (according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) lost their lives during World War II.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum drew more than 3.1 million visitors to the museum and more than 6.8 million to the memorial in 2017 alone, according to their official webpage.

A gas chamber in the Auschwitz Birkenau.

People also visit the more remote, isolated destinations that probably don’t normally feature in itineraries, but certainly count as dark tourist sites. In Netflix’s documentary, Dark Tourism, journalist David Farrier explores such sites.

Think Battleship Island, which Farrier visited, a now abandoned Japanese island which got its name from its shape. Popularised by a recent South Korean action-flick film, it was formerly a Japanese coal mining settlement and once a symbol of Japan’s industrial revolution. Except that all the hard labour was carried out mostly by Korean and Chinese workers, during the Second World War, under extremely difficult conditions.

Or the ghost town of Pripyat, situated close to the site of the Chernobyl disaster. Following the day of the never-before-seen catastrophe, the entire city was evacuated, leaving behind, a now uninhabited town of distinct Soviet character. A town levelled by radioactivity, stepping into the area was akin to committing suicide, just less than two decades ago.   

Above: A ferris wheel in the abandoned town of Pripyat. Below, upper: A sole desk stands, amidst the mess. Below, lower: A dilapidated building, unoccupied for decades.

A visit to a dark tourist site might leave one emotionally depleted. But there is without doubt inherent value in it. Critically, the visitor has to head in with the appropriate intention. Is it with wistful respect for the heroes, the sacrificed, the prejudiced, and with an attitude to perhaps glean some insight from humankind’s past mistakes? Or is the stopover fuelled by some arcane logic or the sinister pleasure at the unfortunate demise of many who came before them?

Professor John Lennon, co-author of the book Dark Tourism, in a column for The Guardian, wrote, “We have to guard against the voyeuristic and exploitative streak that is evident at so many of (us).”

If dark tourist sites are to serve any constructive value at all, Lennon’s words must ring in everyone’s ears.

And when we shed such morbidity and embrace humanity, can an utterly poignant lesson arise.

The Battleship Island

Much of my anxiousness around the Cu Chi tunnels revolves around the grim and gruesome sentiment of the site.

Later on, after donning on the soldier hat (or helmet) myself did I realise the gravity of war, of violent conflict, of mass destruction. More often than not, completely avoidable. Yet, after every single episode, soul crushing. Humanity shattering.

The ghastly system of subterranean dwellings stand today, for all to see, as a stark reminder of the failures of mankind.

National Geographic writer Robert Reid shared one particularly moving anecdote.

“What I remember most about the time I spent in Warsaw’s WWII-era Jewish ghetto is a fellow visitor, a white-haired man who, when I noticed the number tattooed on his arm, acknowledged my silent inquiry with a nod. The experience made history more real for me.”

Siggy Weiser, 75 year old Holocaust survivor looking on as Jewish children pray at the Auschwitz Birkenau.

There exists historical accounts of people, rushing to the town of Gettysburg, the scene of one of the deadliest clashes, right after the Civil War. In Innocents Abroad, legendary author Mark Twain penned an entire chapter on his trip to Pompeii, the Roman city buried by ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Evidently, dark tourism is here to stay. As long as we live on Mother Earth. As long as atrocities occur. (See Myanmar, see South Sudan, see ISIS). As long as mankind continue to disagree, disrespect and discriminate  against one another, and with each other.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. A surviving structure from the lethal world-war ending explosion.

I probably won’t head to a dark tourist site anytime soon. The sorrow and anguish that lingers is perhaps too sombre, too dreary.

But if I were to head to, say Hiroshima, or maybe Berlin sometime in the future, I know I would be there without closing my eyes to the crude realities before my eyes.

Leave a Comment


Enjoyed this article? Please spread the word :)