39. Noga Collins-Kreiner, “Dark Tourism As/Is Pilgrimage”

by breavman99

dark tourism

My friend Matthew Anderson sent this brief research note my way as part of a batch of papers on pilgrimage he has found useful. It takes a look at a phenomenon I’d never heard of–dark tourism–and compares it to pilgrimage. Its author, Nora Collins-Kreiner, begins by noting that in the current century, pilgrimage is “metamorphosing to encompass secular pilgrimage in addition to its traditionally religious content” (1185). At the same time, tourism focused on death, disaster and horror, which has come to be known as “dark tourism” or “thanatourism,” “the act of travelling to and visiting sites of death, disaster, and the seemingly macabre,” is a growing form of travel (1185). Dark tourism is a new phenomenon, and there is little clarity or agreement about its terminology or definitions (1186). Collins-Kreiner’s goal is to assess whether dark tourism is something new, or “whether researchers are now simply observing the same phenomenon from new vantage points based on different theories” (1186). In addition, Collins-Kreiner sees “clear linkages” between pilgrimage and dark tourism, “from aspects related to supply and demand and site development to the nature of the phenomena themselves” (1186). Some of those linkages are theoretical, others empirical (1186). Nevertheless, both dark tourism and pilgrimage “emerge from the same milieu to include the sites of dramatic historic events that bear extra meaning” (1186). According to Collins-Kreiner, “pilgrimage is currently portrayed by the literature as a holistic phenomenon with religious and secular foundations that include sites that are ‘dark’ in character and that can emerge from both religious and secular contexts” (1186). The phrase “by the literature” is important, because in many respects Collins-Kreiner’s research note is a literature survey, and that fact, along with the way it broadens the definition of pilgrimage, is what makes it particularly interesting and useful.

Collins-Kreiner contends that both pilgrimage and dark tourism sites are social constructions which are marked as meaningful through social processes (1186). She clearly disagrees with any claim that such sites have any essential or inherent meaning. Moreover, the relationship between pilgrimage and tourism is not one of opposition: “it is common to view pilgrimage and pilgrims as one of the oldest forms of tourism and tourists,” she writes, a view that is even more pervasive among those who see religious pilgrimage as the forebear of dark tourism (1186-87). It doesn’t matter, then, if participants in either phenomenon do not see themselves as tourists; by traveling to sites that, for them, have meaning, they are tourists.

There many similarities between pilgrimage and dark tourism, Collins-Kreiner argues. The motives for visiting pilgrimage and dark tourism sites are similar; they include a desire for personal growth, empathy, an interest in spirituality, and “a quest for a strong sense of unity and involvement,” she writes (1187). Ritual processes exist in both phenomena, “as both religious and secular pilgrims and dark tourists often share the trait of searching for mystical, magical experiences which they describe as transformations, enlightenment, and life-changing and consciousness-altering events” (1187). In addition, participants often feel that words are inadequate to describe their experiences (1187). In both phenomena, as in other forms of tourism, participant experiences are not homogenous (1187).

In fact, pilgrimage and dark tourism are so similar that “[t]he current literature is experiencing increasing difficulty differentiating among religious pilgrims, secular pilgrims, dark tourists, heritage tourists . . . and even other kinds of travellers such as nature tourists seeking the mythical and magical” (1187). The word “pilgrimage,” she continues, is increasingly used “in broader secular contexts,” and as “the differences between tourism and traditional pilgrimage are fading,” the literature on them is paying closer attention to their similarities (1187).

Erik Cohen’s typology of tourism modes may be a useful way of examining the relationship between dark tourism and pilgrimage, Collins-Kreiner suggests. The experience of participants in both types of travel “can be regarded as modes of emotional desire and quest to visit meaningful sites that lie beyond the regular tourist experience” (1187). Indeed, “in the constantly expanding secular world with its countless number of individuals lacking any element of religion or faith, uncertainty appears to be causing many to seek out meaning, self-awareness, and identity at different sites” (1187).

Collins-Kreiner concludes that “the two ostensibly distinct categories of dark tourism and pilgrimage may actually be much more similar than they are different,” (1187-88), and that they may, in fact, be approached as a single phenomenon (1188). “[T]he time has come for contemporary rigid terminology–such as the identification of religious travellers as ‘pilgrims,’ vacationers as ‘tourists,’ and travellers interested in death as ‘dark tourists’–to shift somewhat to allow for broader interpretations,” she writes, a conclusion that is “consistent with previous calls to make more room for cultural, social, and political pluralism in tourism in general” (1188).

What surprises me about Collins-Kreiner’s research note is its frank acceptance of secular pilgrimage, and its suggestion that both secular and religious pilgrimage are simply two different forms of tourism. I wonder how common her approach–its erasure of the distinctions between pilgrimage and other forms of travel, including tourism–might be, or if her perspective on pilgrimage, as someone who studies tourism rather than pilgrimage, is different from the scholars I expect to encounter in Ireland in July. It makes me wonder whether pilgrimage is becoming an empty vessel into which one can pour one’s choice of content. In addition, as a literature review, the research note is invaluable for someone like me, who is new to the scholarship on pilgrimage. I discovered recent titles in her bibliography that I hadn’t known about before–E. Badone and S. Roseman’s 2004 anthology Intersecting Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage and Tourism, J. Digance’s 2003 article “Pilgrimage at Contested Sites,” and J.P. Margry’s 2008 collection Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries Into the Sacred–and they could turn out to be important as I continue to research pilgrimage and its relationship to my own walking practice.

Work Cited

Collins-Kreiner, Noga. “Dark Tourism As/Is Pilgrimage.” Current Issues in Tourism, vol. 19, no. 12, 2016, pp. 1185-1189. DOI: 10.1080/13683500.2015.1078299.