The ways in which societies (re)present death, dying and their dead has long been symbiotic with particular cultural representations of mortality. These representations are often bound up with heritage and tourism, whereby travelling to meet the dead has long been a feature of the touristic landscape. However, over the past twenty years there has been an increasing academic and media focus on contemporary ‘dark tourism’ – that is, travel to sites associated with death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre. Dark tourism has the capacity to expand boundaries of the imagination and to provide the contemporary visitor with potentially life-changing points of shock. Consequently, sites of dark tourism are vernacular spaces that are continually negotiated, constructed and reconstructed into meaningful places. Furthermore, dark tourism can represent inherent political dichotomies of displaced heritage and, in so doing, offer a socially sanctioned, if not contested, environment in which difficult heritage is consumed.
The purpose of my presentation, therefore, is to reflect upon two decades of interdisciplinary research and to outline key parameters of dark tourism and its fundamental interrelationships with ‘difficult’ heritage. I reveal that dark tourism, while being a contested term, is simply a global scholarly brand that can shine critical light on the touristic consumption of ‘heritage that hurts’. Indeed, discourses of both cultural heritage and dark tourism converge and cluster readily when themes of war, disaster, tragedy or social conflict, and memory and identity are in question. However, interpretations of these themes are understandably prone to concerns about dissonance, inclusion, exploitation, sensitivity and appropriateness, and are vulnerable to ideological shifts. There may also be a perceived responsibility, or indeed political direction to support or engage on some level with conflict resolution processes, including rehabilitation and reintegration, especially in pedagogic and interpretation activities. Therefore, I argue that developing touristic opportunities at particular difficult heritage sites is an increasing, perhaps inevitable, feature of creating contemporary traumascapes in shifting political and socio-cultural contexts. Of course, the practical possibility of travelling to landscapes of conflict and tragedy is one influencing factor in their evolution as tourism destinations, as is their historic and human significance. Therefore, I suggest that it is likely that dark tourism scholarship will continue to find significant, even growing, mutuality with those of cultural heritage studies and indeed other associated subject fields. Ultimately, as heritage concerns and systems are further globalised and integrated by political institutions and processes, dark tourism will provide a heritage mechanism in which death is democratised and shared and narrated for the contemporary visitor economy.
Philip R. Stone is Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Preston, UK. His principal research interests are in dark tourism and its fundamental interrelationships with the cultural condition of contemporary society. Philip has a PhD in Thanatology and has published extensively in this area as well as presenting keynote addresses at numerous international conferences. Prior to academia, Philip spent 15 years in the British private sector as both a General Management and Management Consultant. He has acted as a subject expert on dark tourism and ‘difficult’ heritage for a range of global press and broadcast media organisations, including the BBC, CNN and The New York Times. His co-edited/co-authored books include The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism (Channel View, 2009), Tourist Experience: Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2011), and Contemporary Tourist Experience: Concepts and Consequences (Routledge, 2012). In 2016, Philip will publish a seminal reference volume – The Palgrave Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies (Palgrave Macmillian).