'Death-defying' or 'death-denying'? Scholars probe our holidays in hell

Institute will study the appeal of death-camp tours and kitsch tourist traps. Matthew Reisz reports

May 3, 2012

The preserved fetuses and chess-playing cadavers in Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds have made it the world's most popular touring exhibition. Although the World Trade Center's Twin Towers were a significant New York City tourist attraction, the numbers have been dwarfed by the vast tide of visitors - 9 million in 2010 - who have come to look at Ground Zero since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

The phenomenon of "dark tourism" is now the subject of serious academic analysis. Last week saw the official opening of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire. This is largely the brainchild of its executive director, Philip Stone, a senior lecturer in tourism who worked as a management consultant and general manager, largely within the tourist industry, before joining the academy in 2001.

He developed a particular interest in dark tourism - which he now defines as "the act of travel to sites of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre" - when he came across a student doing a dissertation on the topic.

His research interest has now developed into an institute whose "virtual ribbon" was cut last week as part of an annual symposium in which topics such as modern battlefield tours and "neglected dark legacies and accepted dark tourism" linked to the wartime German occupation of the Channel Islands were up for debate.

Dr Stone and associate director Richard Sharpley, professor of tourism and development at Uclan, now head a team of seven, plus four PhD students. An informal survey last December uncovered "64 people in the sector teaching dark tourism in some shape or form", whether in courses on history, sociology or tourist management.

Dr Stone's objective is to streamline study of the subject in an institute where research is firmly focused on "the tourist experience: what's pulling people to dark tourist sites, how they consume them...No one else has really got to grips with those issues."

He said that he was keen to address issues about the nature of contemporary society, which is sometimes seen as "death-denying", "death-defying" or even "death-deriding".

His own work has explored, for example, Ground Zero as "a contemporary mediating institution between the living and the dead".

More contentiously, Dr Stone has drawn up a spectrum of shades of dark tourism running from the London Dungeon to the Body Worlds exhibition, Ground Zero and Auschwitz-Birkenau, pointing out in one paper that the last two sites "are now part of a broader visitor economy and often 'packaged' and promoted with other mainstream tourist attractions".

Although it is easy to dismiss places such as the London Dungeon as sick, offensive or merely a form of kitsch titillation, Dr Stone draws on his research there to argue that "people are making psycho-social connections with their own lives. They look at past scenes of torture and come out saying they are grateful our society is more civilised or, on the contrary, that it would be a good thing if we treated paedophiles or terrorists as harshly as they treated criminals back then."

He added: "Something much more fundamental is going on than mere voyeurism and exploitation...many visitors are not as shallow as we often make out."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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