Angus Reoch and Edwin Montoya Zorrilla explore the uneasy relationship between travelling and death.
To be a tourist is to be out of time, and out of place. The moment of arrival is one where our path is erased behind us, and with it our anchor to the present. Every new present, every new street corner we come across, is reluctant to accept us, for we offer little more than voyeurism. Thus, we seek footholds among a medium that transcends that which evades us. We turn to stories. As the name would suggest, the tourism industry is largely driven by tours, but what is promised is more than a journey – it is a story. Walking tours, for example, rarely, if ever, only concern the present moment; rather they are filled with stories from the near and distant past.
It was Walter Benjamin, in The Storyteller, who identified the link between storytelling and death. He wrote of the authority which a life story acquires at the arrival of its natural end, for only once it acquires the character of memory can it become unforgettable. In the interwar period of the nineteen-thirties, he argued that death itself was spirited away from public consciousness, and that this correlated closely with the decline of storytelling. Today, when we see videos of drone strikes and hear about countless accidents and murders yet are only rarely exposed to bodies and blood, it appears that we have only continued on this trajectory.
If tourism contains some inherent commitment to storytelling, it raises the possibility of bringing death to the surface. However, death is an odd concept to fit within the viewfinder of modern tourism. It is an industry that glorifies exoticism (the driving commodity of blogs and apps like Instagram), even as it maintains a notional search for authenticity. As an activity so heavily reliant on aesthetics, it hits a snag – most places where tourists visit are known for their beauty and vitality, and not for their morbidity. The two most prominent trends that explicitly attempt to integrate the modalities of death and tourism are Dark Tourism and Doom Tourism.
We will begin with the phenomenon of turning death into the destination. Dark Tourism is dedicated to visiting sites associated with death and suffering, such as war memorials, natural disaster-struck areas, prisons and death camps, and even active war zones. The idea behind it arose out of research in the 1990s into how horrific disasters become popular culture through their circulation via mass media and shortly afterward turn into tourist attractions. Dark Tourism has since developed into an entire area of academic study with its own Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Lancashire, and contributions across a range of academic journals, although its growth has in large part been fuelled by the development of a specialised industry that offers tours to intrepid travellers. A type of storytelling, it relies on recent history, whose fresh corpses resurface in the moments of collective anxiety.
The term seems to suggest that, from an experiential perspective, sites that lay witness to unspeakable cruelty, like the Auschwitz and Birkenau Concentration Camps, have more in common with other places that evoke death and doom, such as Chernobyl or the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, than they do with the nearby cities where the victims lived their lives. Dark Tourism lays bare the assumption that the intensity of the experience should be measured in the amount of morbid suffering associated with each site, rather than with the integration of lived experiences of passage and loss, something one finds in abundance in Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships.
Such a form of travelling can purposefully reassert a symbolic order that makes death visible, in contrast to the reluctance within late capitalist society to confront death in its material reality. One of us, for example, developed an interest in cemeteries after his grandparents passed away and yet he was unable to attend their funerals, separated as they were by continents and waters. And yet, anyone who has travelled widely would recognise that such a traumatic, drive-oriented outlook often marks transitional points along the way, rather than the entire journey. The trip is also marked by extended periods of play that turn travellers from voyeurs into participants, and destinations from regulated, documented spaces into heterotopias pregnant with diverse perspectives. As experiences accumulate the meaning of places changes. One draws boundaries only to cross them along the way. This playfulness and transcendence do not sit well with the premise of Dark Tourism. The meaning imputed upon each “dark” location relies on a strict demarcation between death and life, between the sacred and the profane. Yet if such boundaries exist, they are, wittingly or unwittingly, violated constantly by travellers whose very character is defined by their freedom of movement.
The more damning critique, however, is that such a demarcation may constitute little more than a fetish, because what is so ‘dark’ about Dark Tourism anyway? Sites of memory host shifting and contested practices both for local and international communities, and through ritual, play or mere observation, their meaning evolves over time. Industrial ruins in particular document the failures of the grand narratives of the 20th century, but they also point towards the future state of all aspects of our built world, however banal or magnificent. Lessons against modernity and the ideology of progress that such places hold for visitors are diffuse, latent in unexpected signifiers or otherwise exist in other, more popular tourist destinations. To focus on the geography of death and suffering, as Dark Tourism does, is to commit to the imagined past a set of problems or catastrophes that for locals may still be imminent in the form of ongoing oppression and marginalisation.
This fetishism of locking in a static understanding of place further violates a fundamental impetus of Dark Tourism – to free oneself from the more mainstream forms of travelling that regulate tourists’ enjoyment of popular destinations. It instead prescribes to tourists ways of appreciating sites of death and ruin based on existing value structures. This tendency clearly informed the recent satirical photographic project Yolocaust, which inserted the bodies of thoughtless tourists assuming characteristic selfie poses in front of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial into images of sites where death is much more apparent, such as the Nazi killing fields. The project was rightly criticised for its patronising approach to an ambiguous memorial that suggests a range of practices and perspectives. Dark Tourism fails to open up these places as contestable spaces, ripe for reappropriation and imaginative transformation, instead limiting their possibilities with reductionist moralism. Rather than allowing death to enter one’s field of experience by allowing tourists to tell their own stories, no matter how trite, it merely moves in circles around it. Dark tourism’s fascination with death takes it nowhere closer to understanding the phenomenon.
While Yolocaust was undoubtedly the wrong response to this phenomenon, no doubt there are ethical issues with tourists avoiding the weight of history altogether by using such visits as mere photo ops, a sight that is all too familiar across the world. If the excesses of these maladroit tourists represent any drive at all, it is that of inserting oneself into the story, whether that story is told instantly as a kind of visual performance, or after the journey This suggests another solution to the dilemma of tourism and death, one more sincere about the impact of the tourist on cultural landscape – to explore travel and storytelling in its temporal dimensions, knowing the path you tread will soon be lost forever This is Doom Tourism, which in one form or another characterises the entire tourism industry, but is epitomised in the bizarre, hedonistic utopia of Lonely Planet.
When Lonely Planet cofounders Tony and Maureen Wheeler set out on their famous voyage from Europe to Australia through Asia, they made visible a dimension of travel that goes well beyond mere holidaying. Lonely Planet lurched travelling out of the kind of naïve elitism that characterises resort towns on the French Riviera, and helped globalise the notion of travel as a lifestyle. It earnestly promotes long-form travel around the world, stressing engagement, authentic cultural interactions and learning as opposed to box-ticking tourism. This is reflected in the publication’s original call to arms:
“All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go.”
In other words: it doesn’t matter where you go or why as long as you see it through. This kind of mass self-actualisation combined with the ‘forever at home’ ideal is something only later epitomised by the sharing economy. If AirBnB and Uber are the infrastructure of the digital nomad lifestyle, then Lonely Planet remains one of its intellectual and cultural pillars.
Lonely Planet’s highly personalised style, engaging cultural research and frequent ethical statements demonstrate their awareness that a travel guide is more than a mere tool: it is a cultural manifesto. Couched in their ‘no bullshit’ demeanour and youth focus, the editors of the books are aware that their distinctly ideological product sets them far apart from their more pedestrian counterparts. Their product has become a way of seeing.
This has sparked some predictable if reactionary criticism of Lonely Planet, the kind overheard by the more ‘authentic’ travellers in the hostels, aghast at the herd-like behaviour of the masses. This sort of critique builds on the well-documented distorting effects of ‘empowering’ thousands of Western tourists to converge in one particular place, faithful as they are to their blue bible. Despite its mission statements and frequent footnotes that propose a more authentic and sustainable model of tourism, Lonely Planet relies upon the familiar Faustian bargain of mass tourism: see cool shit before too many others do.
Yet, this critique of Lonely Planet as commodifying and rendering tourism artless is itself laughably naïve: the commodification is the point. If travel is a virtue in and of itself, it comes with a healthy dose of hedonism. Our intention is not only to call out Lonely Planet, important though it may be to do so, but we would prefer to follow its logic down the rabbit-hole to the point where its narratives reveal its own encounters with death. This journey begins in the 1989 of Francis Fukuyama’s imagination – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of History. It picks up where much of Dark Tourism drops off. Where we emerge is in a strangely hedonistic, post-political world characterised by such spectacles as the historical fairground occupying the centre of Skopje.
Lonely Planet embraces modern norms of diversity and equality, but its interaction with the political contexts that produce them is oddly detached. Gay rights, a major movement of the late 20th century is often a focus of the series, with each book featuring detailed mini-guides dedicated to their LGBT readers. Lonely Planet recognizes that the personal is the political: visit this nightclub, party in this former bomb shelter, can you feel the history? There’s no social problem without its commodified cure: shop here, be aware of this tradition, don’t buy that. For a text that asserts the importance of , little space is spared for the difficult tasks of advocating for real social change, based in collective mobilization rather than individual awareness.
By imbuing our travels with such prescribed morality, only to then step back and entirely empty our experiences of any substantive content, this consumptive form of tourism injects us with an idealistic sense of purpose with no political resolution. Lonely Planet doesn’t tell us to dance the night away in existential abandon; instead it recommends a nice brunch place for us to ease our hangovers at. An example of the unwitting evolution of hippie values into the totalising structure of commodified social relations of neoliberalism, Lonely Planet aligns itself with the looming giants of Facebook and Uber.
Haunted by the spectre of alternative realities, yet unable to account for them beyond vague progressive truisms – ‘things get better through time’ – the only cultural expression it is eventually capable of is a form of post-modern nihilism. Given the explicit reference to climate change in its manifesto, when Lonely Planet encourages us to ‘see the world’, how far off is the implicit conclusion, ‘before it is wrecked upon the shores of capitalism’? Its entire corpus is an epistle to what has become known as Doom Tourism.
Doom Tourism is more obvious in some places than others. For instance, it is the explicit reason behind the recent drive of Westerns to start holidaying in Cuba. Take this recommendation for travel, from the travel pages of the Sydney Morning Herald:
‘Where to go for this year’s family holiday? Cuba! My wife Mandy says with wide eyes. “We have to beat Ronald McDonald there.”’
See cool shit before other people do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Cuban or Antarctic tourism: the understandable intention to ‘see it before it changes’ actually accelerates decay. The problem is that Cuba and Antarctica are often understood as exceptions to tourism rather than its rule. Yet the problem of ‘too much tourism’ has become so apparent that CNN have even produced a hilarious article declaring ’12 places to avoid in 2018’. So it is widely recognised that our ability to see the world’s beauty is fleeting and limited.
Of course Lonely Planet had already inherited this lesson from the hippie movement: all things are ephemeral. The difference with Lonely Planet’s message is that for them tourism is not a neutral category but a for better and for worse. The difference between travelling to Italy or Antarctica is merely empirical: both are voyages to future ruins, only the myth is different.
Within this universe, politics as a mode of human association has been entirely eclipsed, and all there is to see is the eruption of cultural spontaneity in the world’s great many destinations. This is most evident whenever statues of Marx, Engels or Lenin appear in the blue bible. Whether in Shanghai, Delhi or Berlin, these historical monuments are written off as amusing anachronisms that belong in the murky past, before the End of History arrived. The social in Lonely Planet’s tourism is reduced to a futurist figure on Planet Earth’s ruins, only able to catch glimpses of a past that once was.
The problem is that this imaginative capacity seems to never be able to cross over to the political realm. Lonely Planet’s damnation of society leaves it incapable of expressing anything beyond an ironic twist into negativism. If, to paraphrase Adorno, ‘there is no right living in the wrong world’, the Lonely Planet subject will be content to witness this wrong world’s repeated end, without considering the possibility of changing it. Yet for Adorno, this world is wrong only because another kind of existence is possible. Our ruins-to-be aren’t supposed to be picturesque. They are to become the foundations of our future.
In some sense, Lonely Planet is more honest than its contemporaries. As opposed to those who in newspapers and magazines would lambast today’s Doom Tourism – a phenomenon which uncannily reminds us of capitalism’s endless ability to thrive off crisis – Lonely Planet makes evident the standard position of any tourist in modern capitalism. It accepts Hegel’s dictum that the truth can only be understood once it has become history, and yet in the same breath forecloses any view of the past that may give birth to a new future.
This leads us to ask – how we can possibly connect our present existence with death and disasters of the past? How can we connect horror to doom without the cynical crutch of nihilism? What would a guide book that accepts, rather than denies the world’s brutality, look like? Could it embrace the apocalyptic tendencies immanent even within tourism’s most banal moments? There is no ethical escape, no prescriptive cure and no right living in the wrong world. Only in vain can we wait for this existential guide to the galaxy.
The flaw that pervades both the geographical approach to the dilemma of death and tourism that constitutes Dark Tourism and the temporal one that Doom Tourism represents is that the connections woven across the cultural and historical landscape are made subordinate to the gaze and experience of the Western tourist. The commercial drive underlying tourism must be held responsible, whereby tourists are sold the freedom of exploring new environments, but a freedom that is conditional on them paying homage to a predetermined set of cultural and commercial signifiers. The freedom of the tourist in this context does not correlate with that of history as an open-ended, continually unfolding process, but rather represents an attempt to stand apart from and ultimately subjugate history.
Death and trauma do not tie the landscape into a coherent whole, but rather introduce discontinuities. Loss and transformation in everyday life upset our symbolic reality. The image of the grave stands where once was a vibrant human being. The sleekness of a new apartment block hides local heritage underneath, present through its very absence. Ruins, perhaps more than any other sites of loss, are testament to this. Contrary to the morbid exceptionalism of Dark Tourism and the nihilistic anticipation of Doom Tourism, ruins in fact blend into the topography of modernity, and remind us of the permanent condition of our environments as future ruins.