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Dark tourism: For travellers who like vacations with a macabre twist

Lac Megantic used to be a well-kept secret for savvy travelers. Now it's another pit-stop on the disaster tourism tour.
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Rita Silvan, July 18, 2013 3:32:10 PM

It’s the thick of summer and naturally our thoughts turn to getting out of town. For some it’s a cabin by the lake, napping in a hammock under the fragrant pines and sipping sundowners. For others it’s big-ticket travel, jetting off to Sardinia or a villa in Tuscany. And, for a special and growing group of tourists, getting away from it all means a visit to a place of violent death and destruction. Vacations with a macabre bent are a bonafide travel category. They go by several names, all of them bearing a Gothic touch: Dark tourism; Grief tourism; Thanatourism.

The latest “beneficiary” of this trend is right here in Canada at Lac-Megantic, location of the recent train derailment that killed scores of people, injured many more and destroyed the formerly picturesque town. Originally the mayor issued a public plea for those who had planned a vacation to the area not to cancel. However, her concern was misplaced  because the town has never been more popular! It’s become a magnet for gawkers keen to view the derailment site, despite the fact that it’s obscured by a high metal fence covered by black cloth.

Disaster tourism is not new. Pilgrims travelled long distances to catch the slaughter of humans and animals in the Roman Coliseum or religious sacrifices in Mayan temples. And nothing perks up a jet-lagged visitor to the Tower of London like listening to a Beefeater spin tales of murder, mayhem and public beheadings. (Followed by a peek at the Crown Jewels, a quick stop at the gift shop for a Queen’s Jubilee commemorative tea towel and then a pub lunch.)

There’s something queasy about dark tourism. Should private enterprises and governments make a profit on human misery? Some people argue that visiting places where great tragedies occurred, such as the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland where 1.1 million people perished, is a way to memorialize the victims by bearing witness to their fate. Others say it’s simply a way to capitalize on atrocities. A psychological approach offers that it’s a way for us to come to terms with our mortality. Likely, it’s all of the above.

The problem with thanatourism is it’s hard to have it both ways: voyeuristic and sacred. I mean, if you’re visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia, site of a notorious Khmer Rouge torture centre or the killing fields in Choeung Ek where 9,000 bodies were buried, do you smile for the cameras and then discuss lunch options with your travel companions next to the stupa made of 5,000 human skulls? It’s awkward to say the least. But skipping lunch isn’t going to bring those people back. And, if no one visits, then eventually it’s going to become a massage parlor or casino.

Bearing witness, no matter how gauzily, is better than complete ignorance. It lends meaning to the experience, even if it won’t prevent another one in the future. In his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, described his experience as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Every morning, the chained prisoners would be marched to a construction area to perform hard labour, not all of them returning to their barracks at the end of the day. As the men trod on the frozen mud, tiny sparrows sat on top of the barbed wire that encircled the camp, watching the condemned, bearing silent witness.

The world is light and dark. Even Disneyland has a few goblins.

Above: Railway cars which contained crude oil are shown in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., Tuesday, July 10, 2013, following a derailment and explosions on Saturday, July 6, resulting in loss of many lives.
Image credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES /Graham Hughes

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Rita Silvan

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