LONDON, ENGLAND — From the Lower Ninth Ward in a post-Katrina New Orleans to Ground Zero in Manhattan, Auschwitz and Chernobyl, sites of disaster, destruction, and death have always drawn visitors attracted to the dark side.
“Grief tourism” or “dark tourism” is nothing new: It’s been around at least since the days when crowds flocked to Roman gladiator games. But in an increasingly digital era, the rules of conduct are becoming more blurred than ever.
Tourists in west London were severely criticized for taking ghoulish selfies at the charred remains of Grenfell Tower, the blackened 24-story building where 79 people died after a massive fire.
Many residents were outraged to discover that, while many people in the community showed up with messages of support, donations, and offers of help, other clueless tourists pulled out their selfie sticks.
Several residents posted messages on social media and put up signs around the neighborhood urging people to stop treating their tragedy as a tourist destination. Wayne Kilo Lewis, who lived near Grenfell for almost 30 years, told The Independent that outrage has been mounting among local residents, and confessed that after spotting someone smiling and taking a selfie he had felt the urge to “rip their phone from their hands.”
“People are saying, ‘Show some respect, this is not the time and place for it’, but they have continued doing it and just walked away to do it elsewhere,” said Lewis, 36, who lost several friends in the disaster.Brenda Mercer, 64, a member of the Grenfell neighborhood’s residents’ association, said many in the area would welcome the demolition of the charred tower as a chance to move on.
Mercer told the Press Association:
“It is wonderful but it is making the grieving hard because it feels like Notting Hill Carnival at the moment. If people want to make a donation or to show they are thinking about us that’s fine, but to stay around, some start to treat it like a tourist attraction.”
In 2004, Patrick West criticized grief tourism in a report titled Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes It Really Is Cruel to be Kind. In the report, he criticized “recreational grievers” who he said were not really crying for the victims, but for themselves in a type of emotional catharsis.
But Dr. Philip Stone, who created the world’s first academic hub to study dark tourism, The Institute for Dark Tourism Research, said that tourists who head to sites considered more “macabre” often could help to understand how society felt about death.And the shocking photos posted of the charred remains of Grenfell serve another purpose: They make sure that we never forget these scenes of horror and, hopefully, help to prevent them in future.
On June 28, academics, historians, and policy makers are due to gather at a four-day conference at Glasgow Caledonian University for a conference titled “Dark Tourism Sites related to the Holocaust, the Nazi Past and World War II: Visitation and Practice Conference” in order to debate and explore the phenomenon of dark tourism and its soaring popularity.
According to the website, the Holocaust and Nazi architecture will form the central focus of the conference, which will “consider how memorial sites such as concentration camps and the locations of mass genocide strike a balance between tourism, remembrance and education.”
Sites connected to the Holocaust continue to prove hugely popular with tourists, with the former German Nazi camp Auschwitz-Birkenau attracting more than 1 million tourists each year.
Dark tourism may be here to stay, and experts broadly agree that, while documenting horrific tragedies is important, there are a few important rules to keep in mind:
- Make sure that your presence does not take resources away from residents in need.
If you visit the site of a disaster shortly after a tragedy has occurred, remember that your presence could put a strain on the already taxed resources of the community — which may already be scarce.
For several years, I lived around the corner from Grenfell Tower in a flat near Ladbroke Grove. Several friends who still live in the neighborhood wanted to pay their respects to the site, and see if there was any way that they could help or provide donations.
But in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, tourists who visited devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans were blamed for getting in the way of search and rescue efforts, and they upset relatives of the dead and survivors whose homes were destroyed.
- No selfies. No exceptions.
It’s sad that this would even need to be said, but — especially for many younger people, for whom taking selfies has literally become as automatic as breathing — it’s worth pointing out that putting yourself at the center of someone else’s tragedy with a smiling-selfie stick is never, ever okay.
On the day I walked by the towers, I (thankfully) did not see anyone taking selfies. If you do take photos, experts suggest that you be discreet, and then move on. It’s also worth bearing in mind that if you leave flowers or tributes, someone will have to clean them up later.
- Show proper respect.
Once time has passed and the area has been created for the public to visit, like the National September 11 Memorial or Vietnam Veterans Memorial, tourists are a crucial part of bringing business back into the area. But it’s worth remembering that for many, even years later, these sites are places to grieve. They are cemeteries, not celebration sites.
Some memorials have rules posted in place: The rules of conduct for visitors to the Field of Stelae memorial for murdered Jews in Berlin, for example, forbid loud noises, calling and shouting, music, dogs, cycling, and sunbathing.
Main photo: Grenfell Tower in London [Catherine Townsend / Investigation Discovery]