A holiday in the danger zone
Not everyone seeks out sunshine and sandy beaches on holiday. Dark tourists like to visit places that somehow connect to death and turmoil, like Palestine or North Korea.
Rosalind Franklin Fellow Dorina Buda from the Faculty of Spatial Sciences wants to know why. What do they get out of it? Is it merely thrill-seeking, or is there more to it than that?
She found that the psychoanalytic concept of ‘death drive’ is strongly connected to dark tourism. It’s the urge that some people have to try and get closer to intense feelings and emotions that aren’t usually expressed freely.
This may mean they reflect upon there personal histories, like a French tourist on the West Bank who remembered how his father was traumatised by the Algerian war, or a tourist from Switzerland being propelled back to the Cold War.
Tour operators and people working in the industry can use this for advertising. These tours can actually help tourists reflect upon their personal history.
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The summer holidays are coming up, and most people are probably headed to destinations like France to enjoy the festival of Avignon and the Mona Lisa in Paris, or perhaps to a sunny beach to relax or party all night on Ibiza.
Alternatively, holidaymakers could go to the West Bank in Palestine and visit Bethlehem. It takes quite a bit more effort to get there, though: would-be vacationers have to travel through Israel and pass through the border controls. Awaiting them on the other side are poverty, the wall dividing Israel and Palestine and soldiers with machine guns guarding important locations.
Even at Bethany beyond the Jordan where Jesus was baptised, soldiers stand guard. In a place such as this, there is always the possibility of turmoil or even terrorist attacks. But the sort of person who chooses to go there may not care about that or, at the very least, would not let it stop them. People who decide to travel to regions where conflict is present are dark tourists, a somewhat gloomy term for those who defy the common assumption that if conflict exists somewhere that it’s no place for tourists. They are the ones that go to the places where death, disaster, atrocities or political turmoil are present.
The question is: why? And what do you get out of it?
That’s what Rosalind Franklin Fellow Dorina Buda from the Faculty of Spatial Sciences really wants to know. In her recent book Affective Tourism: Dark routes in conflict, she explores what the effects are on people who partake of ‘dark tourism’ and what their emotions and motivations are to travel to places like Jordan, Palestine, Israel or Iraq.
Many researchers in her field will claim that people go on holiday in search of tranquility or fun, but that’s not the whole story. Some people choose to visit ‘the cradle of civilisation’ in Palestine/Israel, or visit Auschwitz, or even take a tour through North Korea. Do they do it because of the thrill? To collect stories to share on Facebook? Is it some sort of morbid voyeurism, or do they have an underlying drive to ‘reflect and remember’?
Buda’s approach to the question is different than that of most tourism researchers. She does not use questionnaires with limited space to answer questions like ‘Why did you travel to – say – Petra in Jordan, or Bethlehem in the West Bank?’
That’s far too easy for her. ‘There are many obvious reasons to go there. Petra is one of the Wonders of the World, they’ll say. As for Bethlehem and the region, they’ll say it’s the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions. People also travel because they want to show support for one of the conflicting parties, and others still for the thrill. But I want to take a more affective approach and go deeper.’
She wants to know about the emotions that people experience when they travel, for example in the West Bank. Those emotions are not clear-cut, she stresses. Fun is not the opposite of fear, nor is safety necessarily the opposite of danger. Fear can transform into fun and back again, and Buda wants to know what this does to people.
To fully grasp what they are thinking and feeling, she interviews travellers extensively. She will go to the West Bank or Jordan herself and meet up with tour operators, guides and tourists from all over the world. ‘It’s not a piece of cake’, she says, but it is very rewarding. ‘A world of ideas and emotions opens up in front of you.’
Her findings showed that these places hardly ever leave the people who visit them untouched. Being a tourist in a special place alone isn’t enough to trigger feelings like this. It’s the added tension of police with guns that does it. ‘In psychoanalysis, we call it the death drive. That doesn’t mean you literally want to die, but it does mean you want to get closer to intense feelings and emotions that usually are not expressed freely.’
‘Take this French tourist, who went to Bethany beyond the Jordan. Seeing those soldiers on both sides of the Jordan river with machine guns brought back memories of his own family tragedy. His father had fought in the Algerian War and after he came back, he wasn’t the same, although he never talked about what happened. He was morose and silent, and it affected the whole family’s history.’
Another tourist told her that he suddenly realised how he felt about war and death. ‘He said he realised he would rather kill himself than be forced to kill another human being in war’, Buda says. One Swiss tourist was emotionally propelled back to the Cold War and Checkpoint Charlie while visiting Berlin.
Life and death
At times, the reflection on life and death can be brought on more strongly than a tourist may expect. Take the case of British hiker Andrew Barber, for example. He was travelling in Iran in 2010 and took a picture of a beautiful sunrise in the mountains, but he was arrested for being spy because of the pylons of a power plant were also visible in the photo. He was imprisoned for 58 days and had a lot of time to reflect more on life and death than he bargained for.
‘The tension, boredom and uncertainty in a prison cell makes you question your life and whole existence’ Buda says. Barber faced a possible life sentence when police found more similar photos from neighbouring countries, and he considered committing suicide. ‘It’s impossible not to have those thoughts when you have no daylight, nothing to do and are fed only once a day’, Buda says.
What drove him to do what he did? Buda thinks it may be a sort of voyeurism, the urge to gaze upon what is somehow forbidden. The conflicting emotions of fear and attraction trigger even more intense emotions and self reflection. ‘Still, he had no regrets. He praised the hospitality of the people and felt that the places he had seen were amazing.’
The task of trying to understand the phenomenon of how emotions and tourism connect makes Buda’s work extremely relevant. Academic research into tourism is scarce in the Netherlands because it’s a field typically covered by the applied sciences. But her work can make a difference.
‘Tour operators and people working in the industry can actually use this,’ she says. ‘Who knows. Maybe one day they’ll be making flyers saying, ‘Take this tour and get to know your own history’. Or, ‘Visit Bethlehem and get closer to your identity.’’