Travel to sites perceived to hold historic significance is an increasingly common practice, and constitutes a key element in the contemporary construction of collective memory. Landscapes provide a backdrop to all human life, and whilst logically these landscapes have no memory of their own, scholars of culture and anthropology have demonstrated clear evidence that people from many cultures perceive them to function as archives of human history and experience (see Schama 1995). This tendency grants place a privileged commemorative function (Dixon Hunt 2001), and explains, to some extent, a motivation demonstrable in many cultures, to erect monuments and memorials to record both triumph and loss. It may also go some way to explaining the motivations behind travelling to sites of memory; the act of travel to a place can be seen to stand in for something we cannot do, which is to travel back into the past itself. As collective memory is frequently determined and shaped by present agendas and pre-occupations (political, cultural and social), the degree to which particular events are commemorated in the public arena varies considerably and evolves over time, and this has a direct effect on the sites included in the itineraries of travellers. Numbers of tourists to prominent sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and the battlefields of the First World War in France and Belgium grow in number, even as, or perhaps because, the events they commemorate recede further into the past.
This form of travel is a complex practice, with no definite or fixed point of origin. However, that human beings draw on place in mnemonic terms can be traced at least as far back as Ancient Greece, when orators used the landscape as a way of recalling rhetorical speeches (Yates 2001). Throughout history, artists and writers have frequently expressed the way in which place can conjure memories for individuals. In the early 20th century, when Maurice Halbwachs (1925) introduced the notion of collective memory, he did so in part by noting the way in which groups of people are constantly involved in a process of “implacement”; collectives are partly constituted by collaborative experiences of place, thus rendering it a key component of collective memory. Whilst the relationship between memory and place is thus firmly established, in order to comprehend the practice of memory tourism – of travelling in order to engage with a particular past in some way, it is necessary to take into account the broader significance of place for the construction of personal and group identity in cultural, regional and national terms.
Important work on the role heritage institutions and commemorative landscapes play in mediating processes of individual and collective memory and identity has provided a useful platform for research on related tourist experience (Lowenthal 1985; Samuel 1994; Young 1994). In line with the increase in travel to sites of memory (from memorials and museums to entire cities), this has been a subject of increasing interest with scholars across the social sciences and humanities. There is considerable diversity of focus within this field, although tourism to sites related to the Nazi Holocaust has arguably received the most substantial attention (in line with much other work on memory and commemoration in recent decades). Tourism to post-genocide Cambodia and Rwanda are also the subject of increasing scrutiny, and albeit to a lesser extent, to former Yugoslavia and Armenia. However, substantial works on sites of internment, suffering or injustice in, for example, Latin America (Bilbija & Payne 2011), South Africa (Coombes 2003) and Northern Ireland (Dawson 2007), have also appeared in recent years, as have contributions on battlefield and war tourism (Ryan 2007; Butler & Suntikul 2013), and commentary on tourist activity related to terrorist attacks has also increased since 9/11 (Sturken 2007). The varying motivations people have for undertaking this form of travel, a subject that related scholarship has grappled with extensively, are complex and varied, and may include (but are not limited to) notions of duty commensurate with pilgrimage, the vicarious desire to experience past lives, or simply an attempt to achieve a fuller comprehension of historical events.
Work on memory and tourism overlaps considerably with scholarship on “Dark Tourism” (Foley & Lennon 2000), a subject area which originated in tourism and heritage studies (Ashworth & Graham 2005; Sharpley & Stone 2009; Logan & Reeves 2009) and includes visits to sites of death, suffering, disaster and violence (although it should be noted that not all types of “dark tourism” or associated scholarship is directly concerned with either memory or commemoration). Categorizing those who travel to visit sites of memory as tourists has prompted a significant contribution to scholarly understanding; nonetheless, it brings with it certain limitations. The “tourist” category carries a range of assumptions and implications, most notably that visitors can be seen merely to “consume” place and indeed the past itself. The tourist is thus rarely perceived to share motivations one might more usually associate with a traveller, such as the desire to broaden the mind or discover and engage directly with other cultures. Furthermore, given the “dark” nature of many of the histories concerned, such as genocide, slavery, and Apartheid, many commentators have restricted their remit to questioning the morality of “consumption” in such contexts. Such debates are clearly essential, particularly given phenomena such as the inclusion of sites of memory (notably Auschwitz-Birkenau) on so-called “stag” weekends.
Nonetheless, the “dark tourist” arguably risks becoming a somewhat homogenous and de-individualised figure in this discourse, as possible motivations involving duty or desire for historical comprehension do not fit clearly into the bracket of “consumption” (despite the fact that scholars of consumption increasingly view it as a process that involves individual production rather than straightforward passivity). As Marita Sturken (2011, 283) has suggested, the contemporary tourist may in fact be self-conscious about the negative implications of this practice and seek to adjust their perspectives and behaviour accordingly. Furthermore some commentators have usefully broken down related associated binary oppositions, for example between pilgrimage (generally associated with reverence) and the holiday (as a form of leisure) (see Keil 2005), and the increasing disciplinary diversity of work of on memory and tourism has generated the use of a broader range of approaches, as well as methodological tools. This can be seen in contributions from literary studies, gender studies, politics and historiography.
Beyond the question of motivation, work on memory and travel this area both in “dark tourism” studies and more generally is frequently concerned with the extent to which visitors to memorials and museum encounter “authentic” objects and landscapes which are perceived to enable a “real” sense of connection with a particular past. For example, the use of objects in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has generated a clear set of concerns: whether it constitutes, for example, a “double violation” to display hair forcibly removed from victims (Liss 1998, 82); that the presentation of some objects renders them elegant or even beautiful (Gourevitch 1993, 59) or creates an environment akin to a theme park (Luke 2002, 54); that, in fact the display of authentic objects results in the generation of awe or wonder which in ethically inadequate in this context. The same questions can be applied to the sites of former concentration camps. Natural erosion and growth presents a managerial and financial challenge to the authorities in charge of such spaces, and in some cases the Nazis attempts to destroy evidence makes it either difficult or impossible to determine or recreate an “authentic” landscape. Clearly the issue of authenticity raises questions about how victims (and perpetrators) are represented, as well as with what visitors to such sites will take away. The latter is also a germane issue to the inclusion of visits to sites of memory in pedagogical contexts, another area which is frequently discussed in scholarship on this topic. Because increased historical knowledge of catastrophe, prejudice and war may be an important tool for the prevention of future injustice, the “lessons” visitors take away with them are subject to intense scrutiny, although they are often difficult to fully comprehend or assess.
Issues of motivation and experience aside, it remains to be noted that tourism is clearly also a significant factor in local, national and global economies. It may interfere with the lives of those who are the subject of the tourist gaze, but it also secures income for many and in some instances provokes communities to preserve aspects of their culture and history which may otherwise have been forgotten. Furthermore, whilst memory tourism – and, as suggested here, the scholarly discourse surrounding this practice – is broad and diverse in scope, it should be noted that the past can limit, as well as inspire, travel. Whilst the legacy of violent conflict, for example, may compel people to visit some locations, new violent conflicts – themselves shaped by collective memories – deter tourists, for obvious reasons. The Association of Tourist Agencies suggests that conflict in Gaza at the height of summer 2014, for example, will result in 20% of employees in the Israel tourism industry being laid off (Peretz-Zilberman 2014). Nonetheless, industry leaders are positive about the resurgence of tourist activity when the conflict is resolved, in the main due to the country’s large number of key sites of memory for people of several religious faiths. The current violence and destruction in this region reminds us that new sites of memory are created all the time; correspondingly, like all forms of memory work, the practice of tourism will continue to evolve according to the dictates of the present.