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Dark tourism: closer to peace


Have you ever visited the memorial centre at Westerbork transit camp, Ground Zero in New York or the West Bank of the Jordan River? In that case, Dorina Buda, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, would call you a ‘dark tourist’. She researches tourist spots associated with death or peril.

‘Academic research into tourism is still in its infancy in the Netherlands compared to many other countries. It is mainly an applied science, with a general focus on the entertainment value of holidays and leisure. But there are so many more dimensions to it, and so many possibilities.

I want my research to give an impulse to a broader academic perspective on tourism’, says Dorina Buda, whose approach to tourism is rather new to our country. Buda, born and raised in Romania, has worked in China, the United States, New Zealand and Jordan, among others. In 2012, she was awarded a PhD in New Zealand for her thesis Danger-zone Tourism: Emotional Performances in Jordan and Palestine. In 2013 she came to Groningen, where she was appointed a Rosalind Franklin Fellow one year later, and last year she received a Veni grant for the further study of ‘dark tourism’.


Buda went into the theme in great depth in her latest book, which appeared last year and is titled Affective Tourism: Dark Routes in Conflict. It focuses on Jordan, where she studied both the tourist psyche and how to turn dark tourism into a sustainable industry. Dark tourism turns out to be quite an umbrella term. ‘It covers memorial sites and historic battlefields, as well as areas that parts of the local population themselves would rather get away from, such as North Korea, Fukushima or the slums of South Africa. The common denominator for these locations is their association with peril and death as a result of poverty, conflict or natural disasters.’ Buda explains that these places are in part so attractive precisely because of these characteristics, a phenomenon called ‘death drive’ in psychoanalysis. ‘While this does not mean that these tourists actually have a death wish, consciously or subconsciously they are looking for a confrontation with death or peril.’ And for those who think that these people are somehow exceptional, Buda has a clear message: ‘almost all frequent travellers, around 10% of the world population, have visited at least one dark place.’


Though Buda is focusing on tourism in Palestine in her Veni research, she remains very interested in the small number of dark places that the Netherlands boasts. She shows me photographs of her visit to the former transit camp at Westerbork. ‘Look, this elderly couple probably has a completely different experience, with vastly different emotions, than that youngster sitting on the lawn. Thus, the question “Why visit Westerbork?” can elicit an infinite number of answers such as “Because I am interested in history”, “Because I am a relative of one of the victims”, or simply “Because I was in the area and felt like doing something”.’ Likewise, there are different and accepted reasons for a visit to the West Bank of the Jordan River: ‘Religious or historical fascination or an interest in the current political and societal situation... Few people will admit that reading inscriptions on graves helps them reflect on life in general or that it is exciting to see armed soldiers in the streets, perhaps because they are ashamed to do so or, more probably, because they are not even consciously aware of it.’ To describe this situation, Buda uses the term ‘affect’: ‘Spinoza made early use of the term to describe a subconscious sensation underlying our emotions. Most people are subconsciously looking for discomfort, for the rough edges, because they gain something good from it on a personal level.’

Photo diary

To find out what that good entails, Buda takes an ethnographic approach. In Middle Eastern countries mentioned above, she immersed herself in tourist life, travelling with tourists and talking to locals who worked in tourism. ‘I asked tour guides, for instance, to keep a photo diary in which they recorded what they considered important. I interviewed tourists about their experiences, changes in perspectives, thoughts and emotions.’ Thus, Buda discovered that almost all tourists she interviewed said their travels had affected and moved them deeply. Besides giving a face to the political conflict, to which they had started to feel connected, it generally also sparked reflection on their own life. Buda: ‘It put problems at home in perspective and showed them who and what was really important in life. For some, these insights were very concrete, for instance, the tourist who had realized that he would rather kill himself than someone else in a war. These are insights they would not have obtained in a different, more comfortable context.’

Step towards peace

Despite the negative connotations of the term ‘dark tourism’, Buda prefers to see its opportunities for achieving good. ‘Tourism is a strong political, economic and social means to unite people and places, or to divide them, and this certainly goes for dark tourism too.’ By catering to the affect and emotions of tourists, a stable sector of the tourism industry might arise.

Buda can already imagine West Bank entrepreneurs advertising with the message: ‘Get to know yourself better – take a trip to Jerusalem.’ We are not there yet, but the industry is already taking advantage of this craving for reflection and understanding. As a case in point, Buda describes the company Green Olive Tours: ‘This Israeli company consciously seeks cooperation with both Israeli and Palestinian tour guides, so that tourists who travel with the company develop a sympathy for both worlds.’

Buda saw a Dutch example of this in Westerbork. ‘At the moment, former camp life is being linked to the current situation of refugees. This is a good example of how dark tourism can have an educational purpose or raise awareness, and, ultimately, bring us one step closer to peace.’

Text: Kirsten Otten
Photo: Reyer Boxem
Source: Broerstraat 5, the alumni magazine of the University of Groningen

Last modified:19 March 2020 10.15 a.m.
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