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Dark Tourism

August 14th 2015

Tourism is timeless. Around 1500 B.C., privileged folks marvelled at the Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza, already some 1000 years old at the time. In the 16th and 17th century, young noblemen embarked on ‘large journeys’ to discover places of large cultural historical significance. At the end of the 19th century, the writer Theodor Fontane complained about mass-tourism. ‘The modern man, as he grows more tense, needs increasingly more relaxation’, he wrote in 1877.

For a growing number of travellers, holidays are now hardly relaxing. Instead, they are tense and revolve around how one impresses co-workers during lunch. The best way to do that is to actively search for suffering, dubbed ‘dark tourism’.

Coming Monday, the northern part of the Netherlands will resume work and you will read all about the stories if you haven’t already seen them on social media. One co-worker might have rented a small boat to capture the Costa Concordia from up close in the Genoa port. Someone else might have attended the 70 year anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, or lighted a candle at an orthodox church in Chernobyl. Let’s pray there’s no one showing their pictures of a Bombay ‘slum tour’, as that’s way out of fashion now. Pompeii, on the other hand, is here to stay; selfies with obscene drawings in the antique brothel still appeal to people’s imagination.

As a term, ‘Dark tourism’ was coined in 2000 by John Lennon (not the singer) and Malcolm Foley. They investigated the appeal of tragedy and death in their book, and visited the Changi Prison in Singapore, Auschwitz and Pearl Harbour.

The more contemporary ‘dark tourist’ remains underexposed in the book; I don’t relate to it enough. I’m one of those people who will spend a ridiculous sum of money to be entrapped within North Korea, facing the propaganda of the last remaining Stalinist nation. I even went swimming in the Aral Sea, not long before it dried up. I also recommend the Golan Heights, where you can hear the Syrian explosions and with some luck, witness the artillery fire. I even visited the volcano-hit city of Goma, Congo, where due to constant violence in the region the influx of refugees has quadrupled rapidly, and it’s also the quarters of the world’s largest UN peace-keeping force.

The archetype of dark tourism is Renzo Martens. With his movie Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, he made a significant contribution to the public debate about foreign aid. Presented as an art project, he established a unique emancipation programme. Given how foreign aid is Congo’s largest source of income, he taught the locals that ‘images of poverty’ are the country’s most lucrative resource. He trained photographers to snap effective pictures of starving children for them to compete with western photographers. More recently, he had river-clay sculptures made of plantation workers that were scanned locally and sent digitally to the Netherlands to be produced into chocolate replicas, from the same cacao on the plantation that was used for the global market in the past decade. The sculptures were available for € 10.000 apiece. Renzo Martens has been nominated for the Amsterdam Prize for Art 2015, which will be awarded on August 28; I am curious to see if his work will please the judges.

Let me just hand out some travel advice of my own: visit countries that have a travel warning. Tunisia, for instance, was given a code orange by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stands for ‘strictly necessary travel’. Necessary doesn’t even cut it for this great country, especially after the June 26 attack. Some 100.000 tourists used to enjoy the sun there every year yet now it’s desolate, while tourism is a vital part of their economy, ranging between 7% and 15%.

I’m setting the right example: as you read this, I’ll have touched down in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, which is also subject to a code orange because of the many kidnappings and robberies in the country that is still so disrupted (according to the ministry) after the 2010 earthquake. Let’s see how many gourdes (local currency) I can dish out.

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