As far as I am aware, this is the only TV documentary production ever made specifically about dark tourism and with the maximally explicit title "dark tourism".
It was made in 2007-2008 by a Canada
-based German documentary film-maker Manfred Becker and covers several of the world's best-known prime dark destinations. Being a journalistic documentary it aims in particular to highlight or find the problematic aspects (that usual moral panic
– cf. FAQ
). It does so from the outset by going straight to one of the very most extremely questionable dark tourism offerings: the "behind bars" show (by actors) at Karosta prison
aimed at giving tourists a "real prison experience", for "fun". It also covers a lot of the less easily digestible aspects of Wolfschanze
(Poles dressing up as Nazis and offering rides on period motorbikes) or Grutas Park
, where mock communist gatherings also disturb some. The machine-gun shooting for a fee at Cu Chi
is another example. Sites such as the Killing Fields
, on the other hand, are treated in a somewhat better light.
Overall, the programme lives off the friction between the observed and conveyed fascination with such sites, on the one hand, and the problematic and/or bad conscience aspects of some offerings or tourist behaviour, on the other. Interviews with tourists at the sites underscore this, esp. the uneasiness that a few of them express.
However, some operators of dark tourism sites get a chance to justify their offerings, e.g. at Grutas Park
, where the owner is confronted with the accusation that he has turned Stalinism into some kind of "Disneyland" – to which he coolly responds "where do you see any Disney here, then?" (Quite right – that is a common hasty accusation, not borne out at the site in reality, as I can confirm.) This contrasts with the fuming outrage about Grutas Park as expressed by an interviewee at the "Genocide Victims' Museum
" in Vilnius
– without this museum's misnomer in its name being challenged at all (UPDATE: meanwhile the museum has been renamed Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
, so they must have seen that the previous name was such a misnomer in the end).
For the general viewer and mainstream tourist, the documentary probably provides much to tut-tut at (it's been called "moral panic" in the academic dark tourism research literature
), but for us dark tourist practitioners it works on two levels: a) fascinating insights into, and original footage of even some more difficult to access places such as the DMZ
, and b) challenging some of the unsavoury sides of dark tourism that indeed exist and that we should be aware of in order to help avoiding or at least alleviating them.
While I am obviously uncomfortable with the possibility that the overall message conveyed by the production may be that all dark tourism is problematic as such (and the odd reviewer seems to have got that impression), I am also all for curbing those problematic aspects. I just would have liked to see more of less extremely problematic dark tourism sites/activities given more airtime for balance. I don't think it could fairly be claimed that visiting, say, a concentration camp
memorial site (and behaving appropriately at such a site!) can be shoved in the same pigeonhole as those offerings such as the simulated "prison experience" at Karosta
or similar "re-enactments" like those observed at Wolfschanze
or Grutas Park
– which, by the way, I saw nothing of when I visited either of those places. So, those dodgy things only occasionally happen there, not as matter of course … that's another thing that could have been conveyed more fairly in the documentary.
But I suppose, the programme would have been less sensational had it been more representative of dark tourism at large … But fair enough, that's what journalism is for: highlighting the problematic, not the normal. Let's just not forget that the problematic issues portrayed are the exception, not the rule.