Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dark tourism--a good or a bad thing?

What is it and who are the dark tourists?
It seems that we humans are hardwired to leave our hearths and homes every now and then to discover what else lies beyond the horizon. So we turn into tourists or travelers, timid or intrepid, hewing to the known or smitten by the uncharted, more or less conscious of what we are seeing as we go. Perhaps the repetitive pressure of much contemporary life has stimulated our appetites for the authentic and the spectacular, allowing the emergence of a new genre-- dark tourism and the dark tourist, motivated by death and disaster and apocalypse rather than by sun and sea and sand and pastoral living, with even ecotourism and adventure travel no longer stimulating enough.

I came across the concept of dark tourism through Amanda Kendle, a travel writer for vagabondish, an Australia-based on-line travel zine and on her own blog,
I called her in Perth, Western Australia and she told me about grief tourism (the Paris tunnel where Diana died, Auschwitz, Pompeii, Ground Zero), disaster tourism (post-tsunami Thailand, post-Katrina New Orleans) doomsday tourism (Anarctic, Great Barrier Reef, rainforests) and, what I was most interested in, poverty tourism or ‘poorism’ (Soweto, flavelas of Brazil, slums of Mumbai and Delhi).

Some varieties of dark tourism focus on people, others on places; some focus on man-made, some on natural cataclysms; some are about living people, others about historical or recently dead people. (Dark tourism has captured the interest of academics, including at least one doctoral candidate.

Eco-tourism--dark or light?
On the face of it, eco-tourism is not dark at all but very much about the living, defined buy the Ecotourism Society as "responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people". I include it here because it shares ethical issues with dark tourism and because some of its consequences could be very dark indeed.

Ten or so years ago I was an eco-tourist.
How noble and green and enlightened and adventurous of me, I thought, traveling to Ecuador’s rainforest and the Amazon to see nature under attack so that when I returned to New York City I could report on the fragility of it all, the poverty but also report on the wisdom of the jungle people. I would become an advocate and persuade others to go see for themselves and the world would then be a better place.

Wrong! Do not go, is what I would say now. Keep your feet and your footprints right here at home. Look at photographs others have brought back and listen to their stories. Support the efforts of the rain forest custodians or the Galapagos or the Alaskan wilderness by donating money but don’t add your presence—and the carbon footprints it will take to get there. Leave yourself at home. Let the native people and the flora and fauna be. It’s the enlightened thing to do.
But this is now and I’m talking about then. I joined a dozen or so other people on a trip offered by a New Age organization in New York City. It was the first group trip I had ever signed on for and, so far, it has also been my last. A well-known leader was going to lead us into the rain forest where we would stay with indigenous people, visit shamans, learn about the healing powers of plants and trees, do psycho-navigation, drumming and shape-shifting and, an implicit promise not verbalized in the brochure, we would be able to sample the ayahuasca drug in a country where the long arm of US law could never reach us.

Ecuador Diary
Here’s what my diary pages have to tell about one of my days as an eco-tourist:
We walked for about four hours ending up at the house of a shaman in a clearing by the river. The people were making a hammock out of palm trees and making yarn from the young leaves. It was very hot, no noonday covering. We sat around, I drained my canteen and then some of our New Age-niks went shopping. To my chagrin and deep shame, they bought the hammock, the stools and anything else that was movable. One woman walked around in her bra, another took off her jeans, as if they were in a Sheraton resort. The Indians, evangelized by the missionaries, are a very modest, prim people.
I discussed my feelings with one of the women, trying to make sense out of the fact that we were supposed to be on a spiritual journey, to learn from the Indians and instead, here we were, raping their homes, escalating their sense of materialism, shopping their homes, for God’s sake. The Jungle Mall. Nobody was interested in learning how they used certain parts of the palm tree for the hammock and others for brooms or baskets. The rush to buy continued when we went to another house to see their pottery and then went on unrestrained at the back of the settlement where we slept. Eventually the shaman intervened as what was left of headdresses, bowls, baskets, stools were being traded for sleeping bags, money, mosquito repellent, flashlights, watches and money.
If you were to ask D. (our Ecuadoran leader) why he encourages this crass behavior from his group, he would say he is trying to show them that ecotourism is profitable and that they need the money. He is on their side and doesn’t really care what we do or how we demean ourselves.

The ethics of it all
What are the ethics of offering misfortune as a commodity for sale, of paying to see poverty, of objectifying slum-dwellers and street children. not necessarily with an intent of remedying their condition? Is paying to see glue-sniffing street kids in the slums of Delhi any different from paying to see animals in the zoo? Is the “otherness” of the animals different from the otherness of the children? If you were such a child would you have any way of understanding why Western tourists come to look at you, snapping pictures and talking to each other about you? Surely there’s something slightly perverse in spending vacation time observing profound misery.

It’s not like that at all, says Chris Way, owner with his partner Krishna Poojari of Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai. (I interviewed him in Mumbai a few hours before the attacks began on November 26.) Reality Tours who offer what they call slum tours of Dharavi, reportedly the largest slum in Asia, see it quite differently. Their objective is to counteract the negative image of slum dwellers by showing their productive and energetic sides along with their sense of community. Out of respect for the inhabitants, tours are small, no more than six people and photography is not allowed. Reality Tours and Travel also return some of the profits to the community. You can hear Chris Way point to a lack of understanding that leads journalists and others to condemn slum tourism.

Too complex for too many conclusions
It’s a complex subject and, altruism and greater good or not, it raises many provocative questions about voyeurism and exploitation. Perhaps it all boils down to intention: if you pay to go on a slum tour, what is it you expect to see and why? Will you be disappointed and feel you didn’t get your money’s worth if the slum dwellers are not as desperate or hungry or poor or dysfunctional as you’d expected? Do you wonder if the glue-sniffing children in the Brazilian favelas were instructed to play up their glue sniffing when the tourists come around? Do you wonder what would happen to the poorism business if poverty were eradicated one fine day?

Dark questions. Appropriate for dark tourism.

Perhaps that is where we draw the bright line—at intention and consciousness. And nobody knows your intention better than you. Perhaps paradoxically dark tourism contains its own light, the light of enlightenment. Know thyself and understand what it is that draws you to the dark side. And once there, understand what your actions may lead to. Whether you’re being perverse, morbid or a seeker of truth and knowledge—it’s all ok when consciousness makes it so.
(Dec. 20: Just came across this blog post about 'weird tourism'.)
Dark Tourism is also available as a podcast. In the radio series Tidings from Hazel Kahan, it was produced by Tony Ernst and broadcast on WPKN on December 4, 2008. Tidings can be heard streaming live on the first Thursday of every month at noo WPKN.org, broadcasting from 89.5 Bridgeport, CT and WPKM 88.7 Montauk, NY. WPKN is an entirely listener-supported community radio station. Hazel Kahan is also the creator of leafages.