Ethical issues

On the one hand, there's a general point applying to all kinds of tourism: what damage does it do – culturally, environmentally, etc.?

The environmental aspect in particular has been receiving a lot of attention in recent years (see the separate discussion here), esp. the issue of carbon emissions and their impact on climate change – the "carbon footprint" one leaves with every domestic or international flight is a much discussed issue. Indeed, as a traveller one should always consider whether it's possible to avoid flying (and, of course, if you really have to go at all). When it comes to far away destinations, there's often no alternative to flying, or it may not be feasible (time-wise, for instance). But one should weigh it up. If you decide to fly, then you should look out for one of those "carbon offset" schemes, which channel money into programmes aiming to counter climate change. Many airlines offer such an option when you buy your ticket – they calculate the carbon emission impact relative to the journey you are making and suggest a certain surcharge equivalent to what it costs to "offset" that amount of carbon emissions, and promise to pass the surcharge on to organizations undertaking such programmes. Travel agencies offering packages have also picked up on this idea and offer such options. Of course, one should try to ascertain whether the relevant scheme makes sense and whether it uses the money targetedly (and not just funnelling money into some general charity-related fund which you don't know who has its hand in).

It is a subject way beyond the scope of this website, though. But it's important to at least mention it, for it is likely to become more and more of an issue in the tourism trade.

There are other, related questions regarding environmental sustainability etc. – as are questions regarding the nature of companies offering tourism products. E.g. you could ask yourself if the company you are thinking of using is part of a big multinational (maybe an exploiter?) or if it has a positive impact on the local community and economies. Big resorts run like foreigners' "enclaves", sealed off and completely separated from the country they're in may not be such a good idea, for instance (this is quite an issue in places like, say, Cuba). They don't give much back to the country.
But none of this is specific to dark tourism – on the contrary: it's less likely to be an issue with dark tourism than it is with the mainstream beach-holiday industry.

There are, on the other hand, issues that do pertain to dark tourism in particular, such as:
- voyeurism – some claim that dark tourism as such constitutes voyeurism to some degree and that this makes it questionable in principle … but in my view that's a grossly over-generalized and ultimately wrong way of looking at it. Visiting memorials dedicated to some tragic event has always formed part of tourism, as has gazing at the often dramatic effects of natural disasters such as volcano eruptions. And that should be OK as such (see also the concept of dark tourism).

BUT: if it's about goggling at the misery of others that is the result of very recent or still ongoing disasters, then the aspect of voyeurism does indeed come to the foreground. It's often a question of how much time has elapsed since a given catastrophe. (The Lonely Planet Bluelist 2007 called the issue "going back to early"). It's indeed ethically dubious to go to places suffering from ongoing disaster just to ogle (it's different if you're there to help, of course – but see categories of dark tourism, esp. disaster-area tourism). The time that needs to pass before dark tourism to recently affected areas can be justified is a difficult issue in itself, however. For example, when people flocked to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to look around and take pictures of the devastation, that caused some quite justified outrage. In short: it was regarded as unethical voyeurism. The same happened after the disastrous earthquakes in southern China a few years ago or when people took selfies with the burned out shell of the Grenfell Tower apartment block in London as the background.

On the other hand, waiting too long to go back can be an issue too. It can actually be beneficial to a stricken area to get tourism up and running again as quickly as possible and thus recoup financial losses through tourism. Thailand after the Tsunami of Christmas 2004 is a case in point – tourists were actually encouraged to return early in this case. In some cases, however, it may remain an issue and one has to judge carefully. Often enough, though, it isn't much of an issue at all, esp. if it's about tragedy, disasters, etc. that happened way back in time, i.e. where the connection to the here and now is purely historical. That is the case for a large proportion of official memorial sites. These are thus generally unproblematic from an ethical point of view.

There may be borderline cases – e.g. some people feel a little awkward about the fact that Cambodia's "killing fields" memorial site at Choeung Ek has become such a tourist magnet, given that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge still have palpable repercussions in the country today: there's hardly a family that hasn't been affected by that (auto-)genocide. It's not that long ago that it happened – and coming to terms with the past, including tribunals against some perpetrators of the genocide, has begun in earnest only a few years ago. Another tragedy of similar proportions, the genocide in Rwanda, took place even more recently – and the relevant memorial sites have become part of the country's tourism infrastructure too. Here, this is generally seen as a positive thing, though.

- conduct – it cannot be reiterated often enough: when going to a place such as former concentration camps or any sites of persecution and genocide, it is essential that one behaves appropriately, and not as if at a funfair or a touristy beach. You'd think that this would go without saying – though often such sites also erect signs explicitly demanding respectful conduct (and often a restrained "dress code" too). But sadly, what some people consider to be acceptable behaviour at such sites leaves a lot to be desired!

All too often did I have to witness some unbelievable conduct at sites even as sombre and chilling as Auschwitz, StutthofSachsenhausen or the Killing Fields in Cambodia – such as prancing about and posing for snapshots with the apparently prerequisite "cheese" grin as if the site was just some theme park (see also photography); or people just being loud and boisterous or munching junk food etc.; behave like that and you'll make yourself an enemy of mine … Unfortunately, the emergence of the 'selfie' using smartphones has further exacerbated this issue. I don't get this selfie "culture" at all, nowhere, but for those who do: please people, show some restraint and at least stop doing selfies at DT sites!!!

However, I'm sure such misconduct is more often seen in what could be called "secondary" dark tourists, meaning people who only "take in" some dark site simply because it's somehow part of the relevant place's general tourism itinerary (as in Cambodia), and not because they're specifically interested in it, let alone travelled there with the actual aim of seeing it. The latter applies to what, in analogy, could then be called "primary" dark tourists. And you can probably assume that such primary dark tourists will come with a better awareness of what the place in question is about. They come to be informed or are already well informed and want to finally experience the place for themselves.

Being well informed usually goes together with more respectful conduct. In that respect I hope that this website may have a positive impact in this matter. (Although I am under no illusion as regards some apparently "hopeless cases" of the other type …)

- safety – to reiterate: to risk your own health and safety, or even your life, is "danger tourism" and NOT dark tourism. This website does NOT promote the former, only the latter. And obviously enough it's not just about yourself – you should not jeopardize anybody else's safety either. But that applies generally, not specifically to dark tourism.

However, certain categories of dark tourism do involve specific risks, first and foremost so-called nuclear tourism (e.g. going to Chernobyl, Trinity or Semipalatinsk). The issue of potentially exposing yourself to risky levels of radioactivity really has to be taken into consideration. You have to be careful at such places and not do anything stupid – best to rely on experienced guides who know the place and can point out dangerous pockets of radiation – see also health and safety risks (and also overlaps and beyond dark tourism).

- wrong support – for instance: supporting dodgy totalitarian regimes through tourism, such as in countries like North Korea, Uzbekistan, China, etc., etc. – so should one travel to such places? It can be a really serious concern, especially if you have to assume that the money that you put into the country as a tourist is only of benefit to the regime and thus supports its staying in power. One specific case in which I had to ask myself questions like these was my trip to North Korea. Indeed, it had to be presumed that the money a tourist brings into that country hardly benefits the poor general populace, but will remain with the elite class, dominated by Party functionaries. On the other hand, tourism in that pretty much closed country is on such a minute scale that it can hardly make a difference one way or the other anyway. It will hardly have an effect on what the regime does or does not do.

The ethical issue of wrong support can sometimes linger in what at a first glance doesn't appear to be so problematic at all. For instance: the new mass tourism that the recently opened Tibet railway in China has brought about can actually be seen as harmful: it further erodes the Tibetan cultural identity, in addition to the suppression and persecution China has been subjecting Tibet to for decades. Of course, the Tibet railway itself is a "cool" thing – but you have to be aware of the (cultural and political) role it plays in the Chinese-Tibetan conflict: it supports the Chinese side, the oppressors, the occupiers. You'd have to ask yourself if you'd really want to support that (or how you might be able to offset it).   

Some degree of doubt as to whether tourism in a certain country is, politically speaking, a good thing will apply to many destinations – ultimately everyone will have to decide for themselves. And obviously enough this will also vary according to one's own political point of view. To pick an extreme example: there is also deliberately regime-supportive tourism, even to North Korea: on my trip to that country I also saw other bands of a very specific kind of traveller: "Juche study groups" – who come to North Korea to study, or experience, the country's own specific (and pretty bizarre) ideology, which they see as a beacon of "pure" communism in the rough seas of the capitalist world, as a shining example that is worthy of admiration … as I said, it all depends on particular points of view – and these can come in very peculiar forms indeed …   

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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