‘Dark tourism’ sites added to Unesco’s World Heritage list

People walk near the former Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz
Auschwitz Birkenau was recognisd by Unesco as site of historical importance for human rights violations back in 1979 - NurPhoto/Getty

Dozens of new locations have been added to Unesco’s ever-expanding list of World Heritage Sites, including an infamous detention centre in Buenos Aires, four memorials of the Rwandan Genocide, and a host of First World War cemeteries.

The trio joined the likes of the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge and Machu Picchu at Unesco’s 45th convention in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

While these are not the first moves by Unesco to recognise the historical importance of sites of human rights violations – Auschwitz Birkenau was inscribed back in 1979, at the third session – they perhaps indicate a belated acceptance that so-called “dark tourism” has a role to play in cultural sightseeing.

This week’s new World Heritage Sites
This week’s new World Heritage Sites

I used to see the Argentinian site on an almost daily basis. A handsome, colonnaded building, located in the leafy residential suburb of Núñez, it was known simply as ESMA – which, in Spanish, stands for Higher School of Naval Mechanics. When I lived in Buenos Aires, between 1991-2001, it was still fulfilling that role.

But less than a decade earlier, part of the building had functioned as the Argentine Navy’s principal secret detention centre during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983.

According to Unesco’s official text: “As part of a national strategy to destroy armed and nonviolent opposition to the military regime, the Officers’ Quarters building at ESMA (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada) was used for holding captive opponents who had been abducted in Buenos Aires and interrogating, torturing and eventually killing them.”

ESMA (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada) Argentina
A handsome, colonnaded building in the leafy residential suburb of Núñez is home to one of Argentina's darkest sites, ESMA - AFP/Getty

As many as 30,000 people are estimated to have been ‘disappeared’ – many of them later murdered – during the period in question, which is also known as the Dirty War. Around 600 clandestine detention and torture centres were used, including police stations and prisons.

The official 1984 report on the atrocities perpetrated by the military regime, Never Again (Nunca Más), states that detainees were tortured and kept captive in inhumane conditions. Some were injected with sedatives and thrown alive into the sea. A Belfast-built Skyvan PA-51 cargo plane used in these “death flights” was recently discovered and repatriated by the government to be put on display at the museum.

ESMA (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada) Argentina
A Skyvan PA-51 cargo plane was recently discovered and repatriated by the government to be put on display at the museum - AFP/Getty

As some of the women who disappeared at ESMA were pregnant, their babies were born in captivity, separated from their mothers at birth, and appropriated by military families and acquaintances. In 1977, the human rights organisation Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was created to determine the identities and final destinies of the desaparecidos (disappeared). In the same year, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo began a campaign to find the children stolen and illegally adopted.

A three-year recovery process was initiated in 2004 to transform the ESMA premises into a “space for memory” and for the promotion and defence of human rights. On May 19, 2015, after years of debates and consensus-reaching, it was finally opened to the public. Visitors can see holding cells, officers’ dormitories and torture chambers, and read some of the 700 testimonies gathered from witnesses, in printed form and on short films.

People have always flocked to visit sites associated with death, most notably on religious pilgrimages to shrines and churches and during archaeologically-themed rummages around ancient ruins where tombs and mummies have been found. Necropolises like Père Lachaise in Paris and the same city’s catacombs – which hold the remains of more than six million people – are extremely popular “attractions”.

Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris
Necropolises like Père Lachaise in Paris are surprising visitor attractions - Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty

Dark tourism, which encompasses all forms of gruesome and grim voyeurism – however earnest or otherwise the voyeur claims to be – has been around at least since the mid-1990s. According to John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, the academics credited with coining the term, it’s a phenomenon that encompasses the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites. Some have called it “thanatourism” after the Greek word for “death” (thanatos). Places like Ground Zero in New York, Chernobyl and the Nazi death camps have seen ever-increasing numbers of visitors in recent years.

Why we like to see such places on holiday intrigues tourist boards as well as social scientists. Researchers have made cases for a wide range of motivations, including educational interest, self-discovery, identity, contemplation, homage, good old curiosity, the search for novelty, and a bid for authenticity or originality – something to brag about when a neighbour has finished talking about their cruise.

Seven dark tourism wonders
Seven dark tourism wonders

For governments, it can be a bit trickier. They have to weigh up how much time has passed and how sensitive the subject is politically. Would Saudi Arabia, or Turkey for that matter, want tourists snapping selfies outside the former nation’s consulate in Istanbul? What about the Yorkshire Ripper’s routes around the north of England?

The news of Unesco’s recognition has been broadly welcomed in Argentina. Outgoing president Alberto Fernández thanked UNESCO for designating ESMA as a heritage site. “The Navy School of Mechanics conveyed the absolute worst aspects of state-sponsored terrorism,” he said. “Memory must be kept alive.”

But the announcement could spark debate in neighbouring countries. The former ESMA was the first such memorial site to be proposed to Unesco by the four Mercosur nations (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay). While it doesn’t slip neatly into the world heritage definition of a place “to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy”, it’s of obvious cultural and historical value.

A steel bedframe in a torture and genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A Cambodian genocidal centre is being considered for the Unesco list - Universal Images/Getty

Dozens of similar locations may now be put forward for consideration. On September 11, Chileans marked the 50th anniversary of the bloody coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and installed a military junta led by general Augusto Pinochet. The National Stadium in Santiago, where at least 7,000 people were imprisoned, and 41 people killed – including the legendary folk singer Víctor Jara – has been called an “amphitheatre of repression”. Far from being turned into a memorial, however, in November it will host the Pan American Games.

Elsewhere, a Cambodian genocidal centre languishes on the “tentative list” and, perhaps most surprisingly, the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields – an established memorial ground and regular feature of organised tours – aren’t listed as a World Heritage Site. Perhaps it’s time for Unesco to further expand its repertoire of difficult, dark places?