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The rise in dark tourism

03 August 2012

BEFORE the Iron Curtain came down, my brother and I holidayed in East Germany. While we were there, we visited Buchenwald concentration camp. Little did we know that we were starting a trend. It is called "genocide tourism".

One of my abiding memories of the recent European football tournament was the visit of the English team to Auschwitz. The experience had a profound effect on Wayne Rooney. "It's hard to understand," he said. "I am a parent, and it's tough to see what happened there. You've seen the amount of children who died. You see the children's clothes and shoes; it's really sad. You have to see it first hand."

The visit got a mixed press. Oliver Holt, in the Daily Mirror, said: "The harrowing visit made an extremely powerful statement," as football struggles with racism among players and fans. Melanie Phillips, in the Daily Mail, however, found it a "deeply distasteful football PR stunt".

But England was not alone in exchanging goalposts for gas chambers. Players from Italy and Holland had been there before them, and representatives from the German team followed.

Whatever the motives, "dark tourism" is becoming increasingly big business. Auschwitz received 1.4 million visitors last year, and, as Clare Spencer, from BBC News, recently reported, it is not the only genocide memorial that is seeing a rise in interest. Bosnia, Rwanda, and Cambodia have also become popular destinations.

The tour guide George Mavroudis, who charters planes to fly Americans around Rwanda to see the gorillas, says that most of his clients also ask to visit the memorial in Kigali that marks the murder of about one million Tutsis and Hutus in 1994. More than 40,000 visited the memorial last year, where row upon row of skulls are on display, as they are in Cambodia, where the victims of the Khmer Rouge are remembered.

It seems that people are broadening their holiday horizons, and showing a desire to get beyond the pool-side bar. "People want to be challenged," the psychologist Dr Sheila Keegan says. "It may be voyeuristic and macabre, but people want to feel those big emotions which they don't often come across. They want to ask that very basic question about being human: 'How could we do this?'"

But this is not the only response. In a famous scene in Trevor Griffiths's play Comedians, the sympathetic figure of Eddie Waters makes a shocking confession after visiting Buchenwald. "It wasn't only repulsive," he says. "I got an erection in that place. An erection!"

There will be mixed motives among the genocide tourists this summer. Respect, horror, sadness, and strange fascination. When in New York, I had to stand where John Lennon was shot. Why?



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