In Ho Chi Minh City, people are crowding into the War Remnants Museum. They stare in silence at the iconic Vietnam War photo of the naked and screaming girl running down the road after being burnt in a napalm attack.
In Poland, crowds solemnly file into the
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the iron gates are inscribed with
the words "Arbeit macht frei" (work sets you free).
In Sydney, there are sightseers entering Hyde Park
Barracks where convicts and then the destitute were held many years ago.
What links these sites, apart from their depiction of some
of life's saddest, baddest and maddest moments, is that each is part of a
phenomenon that is reportedly growing around the world. Dubbed "dark
tourism" by academics who are starting to focus on it, the trend reflects
a fascination with places or exhibitions that are mounted around themes of
suffering, trauma, death and punishment.
In Australia, academic Dr Jacqueline Wilson says dark
tourism attracts at least 1 million people a year. "Hundreds of thousands
visit places such as Port Arthur, Fremantle Prison, Old Melbourne Gaol and Hyde
Park Barracks, and if you add them up along with all the other dark tourism
sites, it totals more than a million visits around the country," the
University of Ballarat lecturer says.
Dr Wilson, author of Prison: Cultural Memory and Dark
Tourism and one of the few to seriously study it in Australia, says dark
tourism here is focused on prisons. But there are other places, too.
"At Darwin's museum there is a cyclone Tracy room
where people can listen to the sound of the wind that was recorded on the night
of the cyclone. It is one of the most ear-piercing and eerie things anyone has
ever heard. It's about suffering and trauma and loss."
It may be fascinating, but is dark tourism ethical? Dr
Wilson says that, on the whole, people visit out of a sense of social
engagement rather than simple voyeurism.
"We can all do with seeing that side of life as long
as we are not getting our kicks out of it," she says. "I've
interviewed thousands of tourists at these sites, and I'd say that most people who
visit are well motivated.
"Dark tourism sites are of tremendous importance in
terms of understanding our society. People who go to them feel deeply and may
be aggrieved. Some are looking for redemption or explanation."
But, she acknowledges: "There's also the flip side of
the fascination of the macabre, which I think we all have in us."
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