Is there value in promoting tourism to sites tainted by death and suffering? Dr. Rami Isaac, tourism studies professor at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences, explains “dark tourism” and how destinations can capitalize on the concept without exploiting it.
Can you tell us a little about your background in tourism?
I am of the new generation of tourism, studying tourism from my bachelor’s degree all the way to my PhD. My PhD was in cultural and heritage tourism, but now my focus has changed slightly — I am now more interested in the political aspect of tourism and how political systems influence tourism destinations.
What would you define as the “new generation” of tourism?
My generation is studying tourism as a field and we are open to a wide range of disciplines. The tourism industry is now interconnected with a variety of disciplines: economics, politics, geography, anthropology, sociology.
You’re originally from Palestine, you teach in the Netherlands and much of your tourism research is in Asia. What are you working on these days?
Right now, I’m researching heritage tourism in Cambodia and sustainable tourism development in places such as Koh Samui, Thailand. I’m editing a book, “The Power of Politics and Tourism in Palestine.” I am also doing research on WWII memorial sites in the Netherlands, which is related to the concept of dark tourism.
Can you explain more about dark tourism?
Dark tourism is a growing fascination of tourists visiting sites of death and suffering, but it only recently emerged as an academic field of study. However, there is a kind of misuse of the phrase “dark tourism,” because that suggests visitors are motivated by darkness or death, which is not usually the case. People are not necessarily interested in death or suffering, but in learning about the history of a place. For example, if you are going to Cambodia, the Genocide Museum is a must-see attraction, especially to Western tourists.
How do you market a product like that in a way that is sensitive to the locals?
Of course, destinations don’t want to be associated with death and suffering. In South Africa, Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned is a must-see attraction, but it’s marketed as “political tourism,” not “apartheid tourism.”
In Palestine, they’re offering a wide range of options under the concept of “alternative tourism.” A group of people started the Alternative Tourism Group in 1995, and one of their options is a one-day political tour to Bethlehem that includes a visit to a refugee camp to hear the stories of political refugees.
Watch our exclusive video with Dr. Isaac on the politics of dark tourism in Palestine.
Have you come across dark tours that were unsuccessful because they weren’t managed properly?
Not necessarily within dark tourism, but in relation to community-based tourism (CBT). Much of community-based tourism is conceived in developed countries without consulting with local communities or engaging local experts. Once you try to implement it in rural areas, there are many limitations.
What about success stories? What are their secrets?
I was recently in northern Thailand, on the border of Myanmar, and there are some community-based projects that were initiated in the cooperation with a tour operator. The tour operator has been investing a lot of money in training the local communities. Those are the first successful community-based projects that I have ever seen.
Bringing it back to the dark tourism realm, what are your thoughts on promoting tourism in a destination under a military regime?
In Myanmar, we met with the minister of tourism. They are supportive of tourism and want to develop it in a sustainable way. But it is about politics. These people have the power to displace people from their own homes in order to develop tourism hotels and attractions, so it’s difficult to have tourism that will benefit the local communities. Once you try to understand what’s happening at a local level, which most tourism development agencies do, it becomes a different case.
Does this raise any concerns about how fast tourism is growing in Asia, especially in developing countries?
One of the concerns lies in tourism strategies and getting regional stakeholders organized. We need to ask the basic questions: Why do you need tourism and where do you want it to be in 10 to 15 years? The bottom line is that we need to plan it carefully and we need to have a vision for the future.
Photo credit: Alternative Tourism Group Study Center