I can’t say I love visiting death sites as that would be encouraging war and suffering. However I do make a point of visiting places where many have perished in the conflicts human beings inflict on each other on my journeys, because I want to see and learn, and to remind myself and others around me that the cost of war doesn’t stop at tax payers’ dollars.
Death sites such as German concentration camps and the Killing Fields in Cambodia are visited by thousands of tourists each year, and the memorabilia of these deaths are worth quite a bit of tourism money.
There are people who think it irresponsible and disrespectful for us to turn up and treat tragic events as a form of tourist attraction; what is branded as ‘black tourism’ has had its critics, mostly from tourists themselves who come from conflicted areas.
It was only a month ago that we were in Phnom Penh, walking through the Killing Fields where the Khmer Rogue regime killed an estimated of 1.5 million people. On the way there, we passed a tuk tuk where its passenger, a lone German traveler was having an argument with her driver:
“No, you don’t understand” she said passionately “I do not want to visit the Killing Fields. We have such things in Germany, it is very sad, but I do not want to see it here.”
“But…” the driver was extremely confused “it is Cambodian history. You wanted to learn about Cambodian history and it is here.”
“No. I am not visiting the Killing Fields. You can turn around back to my hotel now.”
In a way, I can understand her rage. On my previous trips I visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany, as well as the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where close to 2 million were killed at that camp alone.
It isn’t a sight that was easy to take in, and the discarded clothing, piles of personal items and the conditions of the camps have brought me to tears each time. For those who live in Germany, to be constantly reminded of such horrors and slaughter that has happened in your own country is already extremely stressful, and having to visit other people’s horrors may not be any tourists’ idea of holiday.
However, from Cambodia’s point of view, it is a slice of history that they have witnessed and wanted to share their story with the world. Intrigued with how tour guides feel about ‘showing off’ their Genocide Museum with foreign visitors, I asked our guide Thom whether he agreed with this whole black tourism concept.
“I think it’s important for us to remember history. If it’s good history, we continue to learn from it. If it’s bad history, we have to learn never to repeat it,” Thom said, as he ushered us into one of the class rooms that was used as a prison.
I wince at the picture of a mutilated body that was taken in this exact room to display the cruelty of Khmer Rouge towards their prisoners hung on the wall, and asked him further – doesn’t he feel upset about having so many tourists trotting on the lawns where people have died, and buying souvenirs that have images of such events?
“Yes and no,” Thom said “some tourists are not respectful and sometimes smile and laugh in these places. That’s when I get upset; however most people understand it’s a place where people have died and behave well. I am a tour guide because I want to tell the stories, I want people to know these things happened, and we should learn from it.”
Perhaps it’s a good thing, although studies of recent history as well as a quick flick through the nightly news show that the world hasn’t learned a thing from any of these tragic stories.
I spent most of my trip just thinking about this, and about Syria, Israel and other warring nations where conflict is a daily occurrence and think, just when will the world ‘learn from it’?
What do you think? Does this kind of tourism help a country and it’s people in any way?