The ethics, benefits and problems of dark tourism : A case study on Cambodia

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Dark Tourism is the official label given to sites that have any association with death and suffering where a mass destruction of racial, political, or cultural group has occurred. Travel to and experience of places connected with adversities is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it dates back to the Middle Ages when pilgrims travelled to sites of religious martyrdom. Auschwitz, Mandela’s cell on Robben Island and Ground Zero are modern examples of dark tourism sites which experience numerous amount of visitors every year. Considered as tourism’s dirty little secret, this niche market has been driven by Western society’s fascination with death.

The demand for dark tourism is often considered to be a product of post-modern travellers. As traditional mass tourism continues to become increasingly dismissed, contemporary travellers seek new destinations and experiences with a focus on authenticity, truthfulness, and a tendency to educate themselves through their holidays. Dark tourism allows death to be brought back to life – allowing absent death to be made present. People are motivated to visit these sites for contrasting reasons. This spectrum of desires ranges from the grim fascination with death to simply the status of visiting a certain site.

However, due to the nature of dark tourism, these sites also face a very thin line between tasteful and obscene. Many curators have become under scrutiny for displaying skulls of the dead or showing graphic images. Opinions differ on the amount of realism exhibits should show. Some see dark tourism as an opportunity for education, while others find it offensive and voyeuristic.

Dark Tourism and Cambodia

One country which is heavily invested in dark tourism is Cambodia. This nation has had a very rough and insecure past with political instability and the Khmer Rouge crisis. After the end of the five-year civil war in Cambodia, the communist party of Khmer Rouge emerged as the dominant party in 1975. Citizens were quickly forced out of their homes by the troops. Residents were marched to the countryside to live and work as a communist society. The party’s slogan was “keeping new people is no benefit, losing them is no loss”. Workers were tortured and executed if they did not perform to the appropriate (but unrealistic) standard. In 1979, the regime was terminated when Vietnamese troops captured the capital and dissolved the Khmer Rouge.

Dependent on millions of dollars of foreign aid, and plagued by widespread poverty, Cambodia is currently considered to be a developing nation. The region heavily relies on tourism as it accounts for one-fifth of Cambodia’s GDP. Undeniably, the country also uses its horrific past and genocide sites as tourism destinations in order to generate income. The two main attractions are the Toul Sleng genocide museum, and the Choeung Ek killing fields in the capital city of Phnom Penh. The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (also referred to as S-21), formerly a school, was Cambodia’s most important prison in 1975. People were severely tortured here before being executed in the killing fields. Choeung Ek killing fields is the largest gravesite in the country, containing almost 9,000 bodies and over 8,000 human skulls. The sites are nowadays conveniently accessible, and are heavily advertised to tourists as must-see attractions.

For most of the residents of Cambodia, they believe that museums and genocide monuments are one important way of preserving the history and heritage of the country. Locals often visit these areas to remember the heartbreak of the genocide, pay their respects to the ones they have lost, and learn about their heritage that formed their nation. It is believed that without the money from tourists, the government would be less likely or willing to fund the upkeep of these areas. Hence, the memories that are within these buildings would cease to exist. Moreover, these sites are considered to be as income generation centres, which provide employment and a means of earnings for the locals. Improvements in the areas will benefit all parties. For instance, infrastructural enhancements (especially transport infrastructure) have been developed and has provided increased mobility of both tourists and locals.

The educational value that the site offers to tourists is perhaps the largest benefit of making these sites accessible to the public. While I was there it was hard to keep my eyes open, let alone manage to truly comprehend the psychological and physical damage the “prisoners” must have gone through. The ultimate goal of these dark tourism sites is to raise awareness of the horrific past and to help prevent future genocides by raising educational awareness.

At the other side of the coin, Cambodia’s great focus on dark tourism can also be seen negatively. People who have a deeper connection to the site feel that developers and tourists are commodifying their sacred areas. With the increase of tourism services, such as restaurants and hotels, souvenir shops located inside the genocide museum, they seem to be “…desensitized to their country’s misfortune in their pursuit of making a few dollars” (Flemming, 2011). These genocide areas can be perceived as being exploited for money, and there is the risk that the real meaning of the site is lost.

I believe, however, that one of the worst negative of marketing these sites as “must see” tourist attractions, is that you attract tourists who are not interested in learning and understanding the country’s unfortunate past but are there just to tick off another box in their itinerary. While most tourists, understandably, have distraught and shocked faces while exploring these sites; there are also travellers who choose these sites for inappropriate selfies and loud laughter. Yet, perhaps the worst part of my visit was reading the S-21 museum guestbook where some insensitive individual could only think of this disgusting thing to write:  “Grab them by the pussy – Donald Trump”. Can you imagine? After spending an hour of seeing atrocious pictures, going through blood stained walls and floors, listening to gut-wrenching stories – the only thing that comes to your mind is that? Comments and behaviour like these make you wonder if we (foreigners) even deserve to be allowed inside those walls.


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