Shining a light on dark places

A tour of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site may not seem like everyone’s idea of a holiday break. But the radiation exclusion zone in Ukraine is an increasingly popular destination for visitors.

Some 33 years after the nuclear disaster that rendered large parts of the area uninhabitable for humans, there are a number of visitor tours to the radiation zone. And according to recent reports in the UK press it is also becoming an ‘in-place’ for raves and stag-dos.

Chernobyl has joined places like Ground Zero in New York, Cambodia’s ‘Killing Fields’ and the scene of JFK’s assassination in Dallas as global tourist attractions with a dark twist.

Visiting such scenes of tragedy, destruction and death may seem inappropriate to many travellers – but so-called ‘dark tourism’ is on the rise.

So much so, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston has an internationally recognised Institute of Dark Tourism Research based at its Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise.

Its executive director, Dr Philip Stone, has advised businesses, religious organisations, NGOs and governments across the globe.

Unfortunately death sells and it always has!

As well as research, the institute is regularly consulted over the appropriate development, management, interpretation and promotion of dark tourism sites, attractions and exhibitions.

Dr Stone, whose background is in management consultancy and the visitor economy, says that dark tourism has become a growing focus for “mainstream tourism” providers across the globe.

And he points to the popularity of visits to places such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ground  Zero and Hiroshima in Japan, where the world’s first atom bomb was dropped. The Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam is another internationally renowned visitor destination.

Dr Stone says that the fascination visitors have for such destinations is not a new phenomenon and adds: “Unfortunately death sells and it always has!”

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However, with the advent of budget airlines and cheaper travel, more people now have the opportunity to visit these parts of the world.

Dr Stone explains that there is a “fine line” between commemoration and the commercialisation of death and tragedy – something the institute emphasises to all those it works with.

He says: “Dark tourism raises complex moral and ethical dilemmas, not least those that focus on how to incorporate sites of death and tragedy into the mainstream visitor economy.

“There is a very fine line between commercialisation and commemoration. Our work examines dark tourism activities and considers the consequences of people visiting these sites.

“We look at issues such as how the money they make should be used and the appropriateness of tourism photography.

“The key issue often revolves around tourist behaviour and the ethics of consuming tragedy at touristic sites.”

And he adds: “It is about blending enterprise with the ethics, and how to stay truthful and authentic, and perhaps educating visitors in how to act and react. Another question is where does the past stop and the future begin?”

These are just some of the many issues surrounding a growing branch of the tourism industry that has arguably occurred ever since people have had the means and motivation to travel for leisure.

Dr Stone adds: “Often the villain becomes immortalised, whilst victims are forgotten. For instance, we recall Jack the Ripper through the murders committed in Whitechapel, yet the victims’ voice is largely forgotten.

“It is here that the study of dark tourism can shine a light on the darker recesses of tragic history. The question is not so much why people go to these places but what happens after, what are the consequences?

“In reality, there is no such thing as a ‘dark tourist’ – there is nothing ‘dark’ about wanting to discover issues of mortality and memorialisation.”

Dr Stone believes there is more work to be done in Lancashire to address the heritage issues of towns and cities like Lancaster and Liverpool and the prosperity that the slave trade brought them.

Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise at UCLan works to prepare students for careers in tourism, hospitality and event management.

It is home to internationally-acclaimed academics involved in world-leading research such as that carried out by the dark tourism institute.

To find out more about the work of the Institute of Dark Tourism Research and Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise please contact Dr Philip Stone by email at pstone@uclan.ac.uk