I don't wanna holiday in the sun
I wanna go to new Belsen
I wanna see some history
'Cause now I got a reasonable economy
Thus the Sex Pistols, on their calculated-to-shock debut album 30 years ago. But today, a holiday stop at the former Nazi concentration camp at Belsen is far from unthinkable; it's a common destination, together with Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka, in the growing travel niche market known as "Dark Tourism."
While many of us will head for the beaches, the mountains and the amusement parks this summer, some will be going to un-amusement parks. Lonely Planet, a leading publisher of travel guides, predicts in its Blue List a summary of 2007 travel trends that dark tourism will be one of the major growth areas in the industry. Some people want a holiday experience that others would deem anything but a holiday. "Travel to sites associated with death, disaster + depravity," is how Lonely Planet defines dark tourism. We're talking not only about the concentration camps, but also South Africa's apartheid museum and Robben Island prison; Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh trail; the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian; the old dockside slave dungeons of West Africa; the Tuol Sleng Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh; Rwanda's genocide memorials; even Katrina tours of New Orleans .
New York City's Ground Zero is probably the most famous example of a disaster site that almost immediately became a tourist attraction, and to considerable controversy. But it's not only recent catastrophes that attract: Auschwitz-Birkenau saw a 37% increase in visitors in 2004.
My work has taken me to a fair few of the destinations on the dark-tourism itinerary, but increasingly, I'm visiting them with a brochure. Afghanistan now has boutique hotels and cultural tours. The old stamping grounds of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are overrun with tourists. I had to queue for scuba dives on a bunch of wrecked World War II Japanese ships off a remote island in the western Philippines. And when I embedded with a U.S. military unit for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I had with me a 2002 edition Bradt tourist guide to Iraq.
Is this a good thing? Yes, and no. Professionally, as someone who spends his life attempting to ram the reality of what's going in the darkest corners of the world down the public throat, I'm delighted. A magazine article is one thing. But it's a lot better if people go voluntarily to these places and educate themselves.
But be warned. You are, in the prescient words of the Sex Pistols, taking "a cheap holiday in other people's misery." As any journalist who's ever reported a car wreck will tell you, it's amazing how many people want witnesses to their stories of death and destruction. But remember that these are invitation-only moments that you should never gatecrash. And you should always leave if the victims choose to withdraw the invitation.
Also: most journalists will tell you that exploring other people's horror isn't the healthiest way to spend your day. I was once a rather happy-go-lucky lad. Then I started covering war. Now, I'm a happy-go-lucky-and-sometimes-rather-sad lad. I'm not saying that a day out in the Normandy graveyards is going to alter your view of humanity. But it might. It might also change your view of yourself. Most of the war correspondents I know share not only a profoundly depressing view of humanity, but also an equally cynical idea of themselves. Voyeurism and self-gratification are bad enough, but building a career out of war plumbs whole new depths of poor taste. This what the 9/11 families meant when they called the Ground Zero merchandise sellers "unbelievably sick."
So be warned. There's much to be gained from dark tourism, but also much to be lost. And don't expect much of a break.