On different trips to Germany, for instance, I visited the concentration camps at Dachau and Sachsenhausen. In New York, I stopped to pay my respects at the 9/11 memorial before I flew home. In Vienna, our walking tour started at the site of a cellar where hundreds of people were killed in an Allied air raid in 1945.
Even here in Scotland, in the midst of the Caithness wilderness, I purposefully walked to the remains of a village left abandoned during the Highland clearances.
While “habit” is certainly an abrasive term to use in this context, I’m left scratching my head for one that feels in some way appropriate. I’m not alone in this morose fixation, you see. There are millions of us.
First coined in the 1990s by Professor John Lennon, “dark tourism” has increasingly become a consideration when planning holidays. So it has been with sites associated with human traumas like the Holocaust for decades.
Each year, the ranks of Holocaust survivors dwindle and with their passing, our living links to the past are severed. The compelling testimonies of the horrors they witnessed will eventually begin to diminish in our consciousness without the reinforcement of their physical beings and voices.
In light of this, the impetus is on us to make sure the lessons of the worst crime in human history remain at the fore – and perhaps one of the only means to do that is through tourism.
But how we go about encouraging people to visit these macabre locales raises all manner of ethical questions. After all, advertising a visit to Auschwitz is hardly comparable to booking a holiday to Disney World.
Having made the trip to Auschwitz when I was on a city break to Krakow during my student days, I can vouch for how odd and irreverent it can feel joining a raucous bar crawl one night only to be stood aghast beside the railway sidings at Auschwitz-Birkenau the following day.
And yet it truly left an indelible impression on me to stand in rooms piled high with hair, shoes, spectacles, pots and pans, and suitcases still bearing the names of their owners scrawled in chalk.
Of course, memorials like Auschwitz are preserved and maintained specifically to be visited. The highest number of annual visitors to the camp was recorded in 2014 when more than 1.5 million people from around the world crossed the threshold of the Arbeit Macht Frei gateway.
Places synonymous with suffering are tourist hotspots because they give us a tangible entry point into trying to understand horrific events that are beyond the realms of imagination for those who did not endure it.
And yet, as with any tourist destination, the onus is on how to attract a steady flow of visitors. What’s needed is an ethical framework to commodify these sites for today’s “selfie generation” with sensitivity.
As horrendous as it may sound, does social media, for example, have play a role to play at the former death camps?
Perhaps the coverage of events such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visiting the Stutthof concentration camp is the kind of subtle driver needed to publicise these sites’ importance?
While our morbid fascination with death fuels our compulsion to visit such harrowing places, it is of the utmost importance that we perpetuate the warnings of history for generations to come by any means.