Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Playing it safe - Dark tourism for gawkers

Gawped? What's as gripping as porn? What peeks curiosity? Apart from human anatomy that boils down to boobs, butts and other fetishes, what else could make us go wide-eyed? Natural disasters, trauma, torture, tribulations. Porn and pain don't necessarily inspire the same emotions. But they do more or less incite the same reactions - stop and stare. Why else were we all glued to the live telecast of the World Trade Centre crashing down on 9/11? Whey else did folks in Tamil Nadu watch replays of Karunanidhi being dragged out by cops on Sun TV? Why do Holocaust documentaries still have an avid audience who cringe at the monstrosity of the genocide yet watch it right through till the finish? Why do we crowd around an accident site? There's a morbid side to us that wants to be purged off its vile interest. Maybe. But when this translates itself into propagation of that dark vile side even though unintentionally, then it's no more purgation. It's a fetish. It might not be recognized to be so because of various aspects of sanctity, righteousness and political correctness couching it. But it exists in dark tourism.

The evils must be publicized, a record must live as a lesson in empathy but visiting a site where lives were lost or meeting people who are in the thick of depravity and creating a tourist industry around it will eventually drown out the essence of what happened there or is happening there. Dark tourism brings crowds to places, narrates the atrocities/misery stripped of any emotion. It points out to the onlooker. And in pointing out lies a distance. And what needs to be conveyed could be lost out in traversing that distance.

A place like Auschwitz stands to lose out on its history and the need to educate people on equality and empathy in the long run. One, because it's a place of tribute to the spirits of the survivors and those who were incarcerated in there. Tribute over the years will turn itself into sanctity and when that happens, the genocide will be a myth. When the survivors are gone, what will people know Auschwitz for? The reality of what happened stands to be lost over the years when they're gone. This could be a site just like the Colosseum where gladiators lost their lives. Or it could be like Kurukshetra, the land of dharma, when in fact it was a battlefield where thousands of lives were lost.

What Kurukshetra is known today is as a spot where Lord Krishna (above right) expounded the Baghavad Geetha to an Arjuna with cold feet. But what about Draupadi's (left) story of pain on losing her sons? What about Kunti's (below) story on how she lost a 100 sons and relatives in one battle? Those aren't the stories that are popular. The one's that make it into every household are the ones of heroism and worship. The carnage is nowhere in focus. The relevance of the genocide is nowhere to be seen. An entire clan was wiped out. Yet it's known as a fight for justice.

Auschwitz, Cambodia and other sites of genocide are treading the line of myth and heroism on one side and reality and human pain on the other. Worse, it stands to numb the impact of its history on the future. It will just turn out to be a spot like Jallianwala Bagh where people go for a stroll with a vague story of cornered Indians being shot to death by the British, streaming past their minds. It does not convey the impact it had, it does not evoke any empathy for that part of history. It's just a tourist spot on an itinerary.

Dark tourism doesn't extend just to the past. It also feeds off the present. Apparently there are packages where you can visit child soldiers in Sierra Leone . So as long as people are interested in the trauma of a child soldier, the tourism sector will boom. And that's ethical? There's an article in the Guardian that focuses on slum tourism in Delhi. Foreigners come, take a peek at the kids high on whiteners, sleeping in rat-infested nooks & crannies, get their fill of 'third-world India' and leave. Apparently the money raised goes to a local charity that rehabilitates these children. Then why are they still out in the open on subways and pavements? Does it honestly promise them a better life? Does this sort of tourism entice anyone from the audience to do anything about the situation? Does it jerk the government into embarrassment? Nope. Dark tourism refuses to take a stance. Dark tourism is devoid of humanity.

A new spin must be given to these places. Take for instance, Epic Arts Cafe in Cambodia. It promotes Cambodian culture with music, poetry, theatre and local art. While your chomping on cakes and have a story told the people there, it becomes a personal experience as opposed to that of a gawker with a tour guide trailing you along marked pathways. It's only with active interaction can the nuances of what happened surface. Only then will people know the importance of what happened and a message of empathy be passed on. History was never kept alive by text books as much as art and literature that captured way more than numbers or dates. This has got to be way more interesting and a way of knowing what the people feel and their history than staring at skulls racked up at Choeung Ek. The money generated by this initiative goes to the disabled community to whom it provides employment . There is a point to this sort of tourism. It helps. It's not stagnant. It's not retired to photo albums of folks who'd probably flip through it when they grow nostalgic for any other reason but for the lives lost.

Similarly, Step Up Travel promotes microfinance tourism. Instead of child soldiers it takes you to people striving to make a difference. Locals who are struggling to get away from poverty and the war. It promises a more personal experience, where you get to meet the people affected by an ongoing situation but who are the real one's fighting it. It does not focus on the victimised. It focuses on those striving to be victorious. That's a positive spin. And that's socially responsible tourism.

Dark tourism the onlooker at bay from fully understanding as to what went on there. It works exactly like a house of horrors. It moves from one object to another and gives such an overdose of the morbid that the minute one steps out, they want to get it out of their system and it becomes a memory. Dark tourism is not proactive nor productive.

Tourism to tsunami-hit spots does nothing for the people affected there. One needs to go a step ahead. What does the mayor of a Sicilian town, Salemi, hit by an earthquake do? He sells land and and tipsy homes @ one euro to persons who have the capacity to restore them with the native architectural traits and local labour within two years on the scenic spot with history. Now that's sheer genious! With celebrities like Peter Gabriel and Anna Wintour lapping it up, it could become something like the Mayfair - "best address in London" walk that treks past homes of the rich and famous. Dhanushkodi (above) could do with something like that.

Well, the bad guys do have a charm of their own. Especially the mafia in slick suits. But Palermo (below) refuses to buckle to tourists who come looking for the excitement in a mob driven town. Instead, we have Addiopizzo, an NGO that asks to support non-pizzo or non-bribe initiatives. Visitors are asked patronize shops and restaurants and activities that don't pay protection money to the mafia. It supports clean tourism.

It seems like there are three types of tourists. One, who does the tried and tested, absolutely cliched tour guide plan. Two, the one who wants a taste of the unknown and exciting. Three, the one who wants to 'experience' a place no matter if it's a commercial tourist spot or something out of line. And the third kind of tourist is the one who is most likely to be the socially responsible traveler. And there are several of them around. The tourism industry by itself needs to grow a spine. Instead of doling out boring pamphlets and done-to-death faff, it needs to offer an experience. And maybe tourism like any self-respecting industry sector promises to do, should promote change and growth for the better too.

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