09 September 2012

Book review: The Dark Tourist (2010), by Dom Joly, ***

Sinister looking WW I artillery on Monte Grappa

'Dark tourism is the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme'

Ever since he can remember, Dom Joly has been fascinated by travel to odd places. In part this stems from a childhood spent in war-torn Lebanon, where instead of swapping marbles in the schoolyard, he had a shrapnel collection -- the schoolboy currency of Beirut. Dom's upbringing was interspersed with terrifying days and nights spent hunkered in the family basement under Syrian rocket attack or coming across a pile of severed heads from a sectarian execution in the pine forests near his home.

These early experiences left Dom with a profound loathing for the sanitized experiences of the modern day travel industry and a taste for the darkest of places. The more insalubrious the place, the more interesting is the journey and so we follow Dom as he skis in Iran on segregated slopes, picnics in the Syrian Desert with a trigger-happy government minder and fires rocket propelled grenades at live cows in Cambodia (he missed on purpose, he just couldn't do it).


The idea of "dark tourism" (tourism associated with places of war, catastrophe and violent death) is an interesting one. It might even be a useful one to the extent that it makes people aware of the tragedies of the world. There is even an English intitute dedicated to it.

This book does justice to this idea only in part. Some of the stories are interesting and perceptive, while the author keeps the tone of the book more on the light side, which is fine by me. Others are quite superficial, and don't really say much. Personal anecdotes are interesting if they help the reader infer more general conclusions about the place and the people involved. This is the case in this book, but only some of the time.

I also loathe his using the word "loathe" over and over and over again! :)

Some of his facts are wrong: he exaggerates the number of casualties of the Chernobyl accident, he gets the date of Ceaucescu's death wrong.

At times the writer, like many English travelers when they write about other countries, is a bit smug and quite condescending. I think there is nothing to be done about it, it's in their genes!

Finally, I don't think that, because you see McDonald or Starbucks, a previously "unspoilt" destination is now "ruined". Globalization increases choice. As an Italian I am happy to see pasta and pizza restaurants around the world. While I don't usually patronize them because I prefer to taste local fare, I don't think for a moment that they spoil anything. Does anyone think sushi should only be served in Japan?

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