Insensitive, grinning selfies being snapped in front of torture tools, visitors pocketing fragments of bones and Pokemon Go players storming a genocide museum are among the reports of disrespectful behaviour at sites serving as memorials to the estimated two million people who died under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
“We have seen a definite growth in the role of dark tourism,” says travel industry expert Carolyn Childs, co-founder of MyTravelResearch.com, referring to a global appetite for travel to destinations scarred by death and suffering. “There is no doubt a proportion of travellers are either ‘tick list’ travellers or whose interest has darker motivations.”
As travel becomes more accessible, and the trend of sharing experiences via social media more widespread, the question is: do such macabre experiences play a role in educating and atoning, or are they simply becoming vulgar and voyeuristic attractions?
In Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, author and war correspondent who covered Cambodia throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Elizabeth Becker accuses the country’s dark tourism industry of being exploitive and disrespectful to those who died, and those who survived. However, today she concedes that sites can be either educational or exploitative – depending on their purpose, how they are curated and how true they are to the history of the site. “Sites that memorialise the darkest of evil deeds are necessary, if for no other reason to ensure they are not forgotten or the history rewritten,” she says , adding that they should avoid commercialisation. “The best are those that show utmost respect for the victims by putting their stories at the centre.”
Cambodian Kimhean Pich, CEO of travel company Discover the Mekong, also believes they serve a purpose. “For local people, they are places to learn about our bitter history and to make sure we avoid repeating this mistake in the future,” says Pich. “But visitors need to understand the need to be respectful and remember where they are.”
If you do choose to visit a place with a dark past, Childs suggests that you carefully consider your motivations before you go. “Be aware of what you are visiting and reflect on that,” she says. “Ensure you understand sensitivities; dress and behaviour on site should be appropriate. Put yourself in the place of the families of victims or survivors – if it was a member of your family how would you behave?
“Some visitors do have a questionable fascination with torture and death,” says Becker. “But for the vast majority of visitors, the sites cannot only shock with the evil presented but also engender empathy and admiration for the victims and their courage. Hopefully such sites will also spark questions about politics that may help visitors see red flags in our own world today.”
For those keen to explore the region’s darker side, here we throw the spotlight on some initiatives that are using tourism as a tool to heal and help – as well as some common mistakes to avoid.
Anlong Veng Peace Centre: Cambodia
Cambodia is dotted with grim sites left over from the Khmer Rouge years of 1975 to 1979. Aiming to use the country’s bitter past as a way to tell and reconcile, non-governmental organisation the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) is working in the remote area of Anlong Veng – the final Khmer Rouge stronghold. Home to 14 Khmer Rouge-related landmarks, including Pol Pot’s cremation site and home of infamous commander Ta Mok, the area also houses communities of exiled former Khmer Rouge cadres.
Two years ago, DC-Cam opened Anlong Veng Peace Centre, and since then has been working with local students to develop many of the sites, adding information for visitors. In July, it started training local tour guides, and has encouraged former Khmer Rouge soldiers to share their experiences with visitors, many of whom are Cambodian and international students.
“Our main objective is to promote memory, justice and reconciliation,” says centre director Dr Ly Sok-Kheang. “We believe this can be done through dialogue and education. Anlong Veng can be developed into an important historical and educational tourist site.”
Tsunami orphanage visits
In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka, orphanages mushroomed across the country. This sparked a series of volunteer programmes, where for hefty fees well-wishing visitors can spend time helping in the institutions, a practice that has been slammed by many international organisations.
James Sutherland, of NGO Friends International, which is behind the Don’t Create More Orphans campaign, says many orphanages fail to provide acceptable childcare, and many children still have living parents. Paying to visit orphanages encourages parents to keep their kids in the system.
Orphanage tourism is not endemic to Sri Lanka and remains rife across the region. Unicef Myanmar recently echoed concerns about the mounting number of orphanages – with many offered as part of a tour by local operators – as Myanmar shakes off the shackles of its recent past and gears up to welcome a wave of visitors. Unicef claims only 22 per cent of children in care have lost both parents.
“Visiting orphanages is supporting a flawed system that is unnecessarily separating children from their families and causing them trauma,” says Sutherland.
Post-earthquake tourism played a major role in helping Nepal get back on its feet after the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April 2015, which killed almost 9,000 people. With many ancient structures destroyed, an artisan revival swept across the country, with tours taking in visits to villages rich in handicraft traditions, such as wood and stone carving.
Nepalese tour operator Royal Mountain Travel spent two years developing and training locals in a network of nine community homestays in earthquake hit areas. Another two are set to open by the end of the year. It has also created a 17-day earthquake recovery programme, which takes in five days at Nuwakot, a badly hit village about 70km from Kathmandu.
Another project in the historic village – a former royal retreat that is home to ancient temples, houses and buildings that were destroyed – aims to transform the destination into a heritage town to attract more tourists, while rebuilding homes for the many who still live in aid tents.
Abhinaya Shrestha, chief operating officer at Rural Heritage, which is spearheading the project, says, “This helps communities directly with income, helps rebuild the town sensitively rather than using concrete, for example, and provides employment through the rebuilding process.”
Cu Chi tunnels: Vietnam
Daily, hundreds flock to Cu Chi, the underground network of tunnels that stretch 250km from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City and served Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam war. The site is often visited by Vietnamese students on educational trips, but it is also a major tourist attraction, swamped with people exploring the narrow underground networks.
Not far from the tunnels, which an estimated 45,000 are believed to have died defending, sits a shooting range where visitors can fire an AK-47 – the Viet Cong’s weapon of choice – or an M60 machine gun, and even a grenade launcher. “Firing these weapons and this gung-ho attitude is not responsible tourism or being sensitive to Vietnam’s history in any way,” says Socheata Pheng, of Asian Discovery Travel.