The company that organized this trip has existed for years. Its owner is a former New York Times reporter who was even interviewed by the Atlantic for a 2014 article about the rise of ‘dark tourism’. This kind of tourism is hardly original, even for Greece; the only thing different this time was the collaboration with the Guardian.
The distance that separates the ‘ruin tourist’ from the ruined person is vast. The whole thing is reminiscent of the human zoos where colonists displayed ‘savages’ at Victorian-era trade fairs. They would take people from their native lands and tour them around Paris, London and New York, arranging little dioramas with actual people inside, whom they would make to playact their everyday lives—an act more savage than the tour advertised by the Guardian.
Examples of the phenomenon known as ‘dark tourism’ abound and never fail to shock. Recently, a (small) segment of public opinion was astonished at the news that, in the Golan Heights, which made for a theater of an especially bloody phase of the war in Syria, a 54-year-old former Israeli army officer was organizing excursions for tourists who wanted to watch the war. Tourist groups still carrying souvenir bags—full of chocolate and wine, to be specific—would show up day after day, with cameras and binoculars, in the hopes of glimpsing smoke and battle.
This is a thriving tourism industry, with profits surpassing $260 billion a year. The cost per customer tends to be about what we saw (£2,500) in the case of the Guardian-partnered tour: $2,500-6,000, for trips lasting from five days to two weeks. The tours travel to parts of Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden’s hideout, and reach as far as our own Balkan neighborhood. The list, of course, is endless. Philip Stone of the Dark Tourism Institute explains that disaster-voyeurism is not restricted to dark tourism, and disarmingly insists that “You and I are probably dark tourists when we visit Ground Zero” in New York.
Back when the Aganaktismenoi, Greece’s version of the Spanish Indignados, were occupying Syntagma Square, I met with a New York Times journalist who was writing about the Greek crisis. As we walked toward her hotel, a luxury hotel in Plaka—where members of the Troika were also staying at the time—she apologized to me for the fact that my country was in crisis while she was staying in a luxury hotel to write about us. What surprised me was that she had the sensitivity to apologize for this, but I think that when that kind of thing shocks it means that we have lost sight of the original and fundamental source of astonishment: the bigger scandal is inequality itself.
The scandal is that, at the very moment that some people are eating cherries, others are being slaughtered and blown up. This is a divide that can no amount of sensitivity can ever bridge. There is a big difference between someone who has the dignity to ask forgiveness for being a voyeur of human suffering and someone who sees that suffering as an opportunity to profit. But the scandal itself is a single one: human misfortune.
The ‘young king’ of Oscar Wilde’s eponymous story has the misfortune of being visited in his sleep by guilt over the fact that his rubies are dyed with blood, and that some people are forever drinking wine made from grapes stomped by the poor. He transforms into an angel—it is, after all, a fairytale. Without wanting to deny or nullify the vulgarity of the Guardian’s proposal, I do often feel that I am a part of this very scandal. Ι feel awe before people who have been uprooted, who have lamented family members whose deaths they witnessed. I feel awe before people who have become wretched. And I think of something Yannis Kiourtsakis once said, for a different reason: The fact that I live as I do, and others otherwise, is an inexplicable metaphysical scandal. Political inequality and violence can be explained. But why life casts one person here and another in hell cannot be.
This kind of tourism might be infuriating, but I fear that we’re barking up the wrong tree. The seed of the scandal is inequality and misfortune. The fact that carefree travelers are capable of apathy in the face of such conditions is, unfortunately, unavoidable. Whether tourists of suffering will be moved to compassion; whether they will seek to undertake political action, I do not know, nor can these things ever be determined beforehand. The thing is that the activist and the journalist are not actually wretched; they are simply (one hopes) on the side of the wretched.The fact that they are being paid, and not doing the paying, is no guarantee of ethical superiority.
However we describe it; whatever sort of people we are—whether compassionate or cunning—we watch dramas unfold on the news while we sit there soaking our feet, as Kostis Papagiorgis used to say.
When I titled this piece “Tourism among the Ruins,” I immediately thought: how is it even possible for us in Greece to speak of ruins? There are cities that bombs have transformed into rubble heaps. Human misfortunate is bottomless. Even our compassion, then, often leaves me with a sense of provocation. I say this without underestimating or doubting the motives of those who selflessly give help to their fellow human beings. But I always come back to one expression and one expression alone: thousands of lashes don’t seem like many when they land on someone else’s ass. None of us truly understands the misfortunes of others—neither the cynics nor the compassionate among us. I therefore sometimes feel that there is no point moralizing in the face of indifference. If anything has a point (and I repeat: if), then it is the political struggle against violence and injustice.