As far as I can tell this is the first non-academic book-length piece of travel writing that actually uses the term dark tourism in its title. And it's a brilliant read! The author, in case you don't know, is a British comedian (he first came to fame through the "Trigger Happy TV" series), who is also a keen traveller, and travel writer "on the side", as it were. He discovered at some point that there is a term, namely 'dark tourism', that describes the sort of preference (which he's always had anyway – just like myself) for the unusual, weird and places with a dark
history. He too loathes "mainstream" standardized tourism, especially beach holidays. My kind of man!!
The book does not attempt to give a comprehensive overview of dark tourism in any way at all, instead the author picked six destinations he travelled to within the space of one year and describes his experiences in detail in a kind of travelogue. It's a very personal style, full of wit and insights – and, as befits a comedian, frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
Not all of the book is really about dark tourism, though – with respect to both parts of the term. For one thing, there's the celebrity bonus factor, which he sometimes employs to help open doors and get contacts in ways "normal mortals" couldn't – but that hardly detracts from the readability of the book (on the contrary, if anything), it's just not always what an "ordinary" dark tourist could expect.
Also, arguably not all the places he went to really qualify as dark tourism. He acknowledges in the epilogue, in which he refers to the academic definitions of 'dark tourism' e.g. by Lennon/Foley
, that his choice of Iran and North Korea
had less to do with the 'dark' in the sense of death and disaster, but rather with experiences of what's it like to live under "dark regimes". Indeed, I too would argue that such places should also fall under the umbrella term of dark tourism. However, Dom Joly's first destination of choice, Iran, which is not covered on this website, indeed proved to be less of a dark and more just a very unusual destination – one to make people back home raise their eyebrows in disbelief (which seemed to have been the point, at least partly).
So he goes skiing in Iran. That's already too much for many people to get their heads round – as he painfully experiences later when questioned about this by US immigration officers, who insist that that's impossible to go skiing in a "desert country". Well, it is perfectly possible, and quite normal for Iran's internal tourism (for the well-heeled), it's just very unusual for a Westerner to go there. And herein lies the exoticness of the Iran chapter (that, and the encounters with people he has). It is not really dark tourism, though. The only actually dark sights he saw were in Tehran – but they were not touristy. One was a huge grimly anti-American propaganda mural which he wasn't even supposed to see (he had to laboriously persuade his guide to stop for a photo), the other the former US embassy
(the place of the infamous hostage-taking) which had been turned into a "Museum of the Great Satan" (viz. the USA
) but has been closed for years. I found that this revelation justifies my not including Iran in my list of dark tourism destinations on this website. Dark as the regime may be (it sure enough is, very much so) the tourism experience in the country does not target the dark (that's different in North Korea
– see below).
He then heads off to the USA
, where he mainly visits assassination sites (in Dallas
, New York
) as well as Ground Zero
. It's very selective dark tourism in the US, but does cover a good part of the country's premier dark sites. The experiences he reports are often very close to what I encountered in these places so I felt it was quite representative. In addition he makes a side trip to Graceland – and this section is hilarious (esp. his rebelliously asking "Elvis who?" – which made the other tourists give him looks that tried to kill … marvellous!).
Next is Cambodia
. And of course it doesn't get much darker than the Killing Fields
or Tuol Sleng
. Like most people would (me included) Dom Joly combined his dark sightseeing with the mainstream attractions of the country: the temples of Angkor Wat etc., but what sets this chapter apart are the encounters he has with former Khmer Rouge perpetrators. This is where it gets seriously creepy (but I won't give away any spoilers). The chapter as a whole is certainly one of the strongest – Cambodia was also, as Dom Joly points out in the epilogue, his favourite of the six countries, and at the same time the darkest.
His next destination, in contrast, is one that he stumbles into surprisingly unprepared: he goes to Kiev
with the intention of going on a tour to Chernobyl
– without having properly planned, let alone booked anything in advance. I thought that was quite strange, given that even a few years earlier I found it quite easy to pre-arrange everything (i.e. booking the tour and accommodation) over the Internet in advance. In the end, Dom Joly did get the chance to join a group tour to the "Zone", Chernobyl and Pripyat. He was less lucky with his fellow group members than I was in 2006, but otherwise his experience of the place was pretty much the same as mine. Except that I couldn't share Dom Joly's surprising familiarity with Pripyat from some computer game (apparently a sort of "ego-shooter" thing) that he used to play (but I never did, and never will).
itself, Dom Joly's "darkest" experience was the hotel he stayed in – coincidentally the same old Soviet-style Kozatsky Hotel which my wife and I had chosen when we went there for our honeymoon (sic!). Only we had pre-booked a junior suite, which actually turned out cheaper than the rack rate Dom Joly was charged for a grim, cell-like single room when he just turned up at reception. To make matters worse he also got stuck in the lift and late at night was repeatedly pestered with dodgy phone calls offering "room service". He certainly had a few reasons to hate the place so much more than my wife and I did.
Somewhat surprisingly, Dom Joly did not visit any of the dark tourism destinations within Kiev
, not even the Chernobyl museum
, which I thought would be almost obligatory for anyone also going on a tour to the place itself. Although he later claims that he liked Kiev a lot more than he expected, the city isn't portrayed in the most rosy terms in this chapter. I think he should give it another chance …
The most hilarious, and easily the funniest in writing style, is – not so surprisingly – the next chapter, about North Korea
(or rather, as the reader quickly learns: the "DPRK"). He went with the same company and the same guide as I did in 2005, but on a shorter tour (without the mass games). Still, most points on his group's itinerary were exactly the same … as they always are in that country's highly regulated tourism: Panmunjom
, the "Friendship Exhibition
", and all the usual sites in Pyongyang
, except for the Kim Il Sung mausoleum
(shame, I would have loved reading Dom Joly's take on it). On the other hand, his group was treated to something very special at the DMZ
– namely one of the border military colonels offered them a tour of one of the trenches on the frontline. That's the bit that Dom Joly describes as "dark tourism at its best" – and I duly envy him the experience.
The final chapter/destination is very different from the rest of the book. It's about Lebanon, and in particular Beirut. This is where Dom Joly was born (to British parents) and spent his childhood. So this chapter is more about a kind of home-coming, much less dark tourism than it is "roots tourism". The only part that can arguably be called really dark tourism in this chapter is his going paintballing with what appears to be Hezbollah guys. Personally I can relate to the "game" of paintballing about as much as to ego-shooter computer games, namely not in the slightest, but others may see this differently. The parts of Beirut that in my view have greater dark tourism potential (bullet ridden, shell-holed war ruins in the main) are however in parts of the city that Dom Joly concedes "would be decidedly tricky for the average tourist to visit" (p 220). Another section of the chapter has its very dark connections, but on a very personal level: apparently he went to a school that was also for a while attended by Osama Bin Laden … Dom Joly fails, however, in his attempts to obtain a school photo for the relevant year showing them both (what a souvenir that would have been!). Other places he visits would pass as perfectly mainstream history tourism, e.g. the Roman ruins of Baalbek, if it weren't for the souvenir stalls trying to sell Hezbollah T-shirts.
The book's closing section is the said epilogue – just four pages, in which Dom Joly reports his meeting with John Lennon (as in the dark tourism academic, not a séance connecting with the dead Beatle) and also muses about his travel preferences in general. He bemoans the homogenized experience of much of mainstream tourism these days – and how depressing it is to spot Starbucks and McDonald's branches almost everywhere (except for precisely those last few "refuges from globalization" such as North Korea). Again, I couldn't agree more.
If there's anything to find fault with in Dom Joly's book it's some factual inaccuracies that slip in here and there. For instance, in the chapter about North Korea
he occasionally gets his Great and Dear Leaders confused. No citizen of the DPRK is likely ever to read this book, though, so they won't be offended by Dom Joly's error of saying that the little lapel badges they all wear show the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, when in actual fact it is of course his dad, the "eternal president" and Great Leader Kim Il Sung. It's just a detail but still wrong. Nor were those paintings of the torture methods of the Khmer Rouge that are on display at Tuol Sleng
commissioned and made during the time of these horrors, but afterwards, for the memorial museum. There are a few other inaccuracies of this sort. But maybe I'm just being pernickety. So I won't go into this further.
On the whole, Dom Joly's book is far and away the most entertaining book about dark tourism to be found today. I do hope he will produce a sequel … or even several – he could become dark tourism's Bill Bryson! And sequels would really be called for, given how very selective the book is in the destinations covered. Still, it is a promising start.
Obviously, I'm also grateful for such a popular-audience-targeted book promoting the concept of dark tourism and introducing it to a wider audience, which in turn might bring me more readers too. Mostly, however, I'm simply grateful for someone so like-minded, and one who's so good at expressing the fun aspects in practising dark tourism. So many people misunderstand dark tourism as depressing (or mistake it for danger tourism – when most of it isn't … even the allegedly "fearless" Dom Joly admits that deep down he's really a coward … I can relate to that too!). So it was time someone high-profile put this right. And in such an entertaining fashion. Highly recommended entertainment!