Is Dark Tourism Immoral?


Over the weekend I came across an IAmA post on Reddit authored by a man (u/Zombie46) who had recently returned from a leisure vacation to North Korea.  Obvious questions came to my mind immediately.  “Why the hell would anyone want to visit North Korea?” was the question that I muttered most often.  I could not fathom why anyone would want to visit an autocratic, prison camp infested land of despair and oppression.  Truthfully, after reading the author’s responses I’m still not sure why anyone would spend good money on a visit to the DPRK, but many readers brought up a far more interesting criticism.

[paraphrasing] “How does it feel to directly contribute to an oppressive regime?”

It’s a fair criticism, one that I am embarrassed did not come to my mind immediately.  The author had some well reasoned rebuttals and he was not too proud to admit that he remains conflicted over the visit.  

The visit to North Korea was heavily curated and Zombie46 did not interact with any North Koreans who were not connected with the tour agency.  In fact, the visit was a decidedly un-North Korean experience.

“The food was… mediocre. There always was plenty and usually we got rice or something with eggs that was good and lots of vegetables. There was also meat but usually extremely fatty and I didn’t really like that. They put so much on our tables that we never were able to finish which is a terrible thing in a country where people are starving. But of course they wanted to make the impression that they have plenty of food.”

The idea of a tour company attempting to impress falsehoods upon a tourist is nothing unusual.  I’m sure the HoHo bus driver in Paris has plenty of “fascinating” tales he tells every time he drives a load of tourists past the Conciergerie, but should those tourists ever visit the museum inside they will find a dull exhibit and be about $10 poorer.  Forgive me though, if I object to the idea that “food” should be considered an acceptable North Korean tourist trap.

The account of Zombie46’s visit to the DPRK is fascinating and I urge you all to read it.  I am quite certain that I will never visit North Korea, and this declaration is not causing any sleepless nights I assure you, but reading about someone else’s visit was an experience all its own.   Nonetheless, the question of morality remains a valid potential criticism of anyone who willingly pays money to visit a horrendously oppressive nation.

The guise of North Korean abundance is a laughable attempt to fool any tourist. other than perhaps Dennis Rodman, and entirely expected by a regime as delusional as the one led by Kim Jong-un.  The utter unbelievability of DPRK propaganda is what I believe excuses the moral ambiguity of North Korean tourism.  In other words, any tourist with half a brain is going to understand that everything they are experiencing is a carefully controlled, altered reality.

The transparent nature of the propaganda is what puts the power of understanding back in the hands of the tourists.  When asked if the North Korean people were happy, Zombie46 responded bluntly.

“No, they don’t seem happy. Of course, they have their happy moments with family or at events but generally, no.”

The regime is unlikely to earn any meaningful income from the fringe tourism industry, even if it does gain popularity in the years to come, but what about more acceptable tourist destinations with questionable human rights issues?

China is definitely on a short list of countries I would like to visit while living in Asia.  Should I consider the country’s numerous human rights violations and its tacit support of the North Korean regime before booking my flight?  Current figures put China’s annual tourism revenue at around 2% of its annual GDP but economic analysts expect that figure to rise by the end of the decade.  Given these figures, it appears one would have a strong case to abstain from visiting China should one’s morals interfere.

If we look at “dark tourism” from a strictly economic perspective it’s going to be tough to come up with a loophole to excuse our moral hypocrisy.  The best argument in favor of tourism to places like China, and by proxy North Korea, is to consider the value of cultural exchange.

Consider the alternative, a North Korea completely devoid of outside visitation of any kind.  Who benefits the most from this alternative?  The citizens would likely see little change to their daily lives as they are forbidden to interact with foreigners as is.  The regime would lose tourism revenue but it would not have to worry about receiving bad reviews on TripAdvisor or weathering the critical reports of tourists once they return home.  The pool of potential North Korean tourists are spared the experience of actually having to visit North Korea – by far the biggest benefit.

Tourism breeds storytelling – it’s an inherent byproduct of putting all of your shit into a suitcase and traipsing across a strange city.  People who choose to visit North Korea will undoubtedly return with stories of the transparent manipulation and oppressive environment.  The stories of life in North Korea are what will ultimately lead to global awareness and the condemnation of the regime.  Increased political pressure on China brought about by the increased awareness of the plight of North Koreans could force China’s hand into action.  The alternative to a peaceful geopolitical solution is war, and that is not going to happen as long as China is a silent partner of the regime.

Tourism in North Korea might be a short lived experiment; a failed attempt at a painfully transparent legitimacy campaign from the regime, but why not take advantage while the opportunity is available?  Kim Jong-un and his merry band of sycophants are unlikely to benefit from a few thousand gawking Westerners visiting Pyongyang.  Conversely, the rest of the world will get an opportunity to hear first hand accounts of what happens to a nation when a family of murderous demagogues is given ultimate authority.      


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