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Sensitive interpretation of dark tourism sites and political context

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    Dark tourism attraction can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the political ideology. The heritage of human cruelty and atrocity could be an educational tool but at the same time a powerful instrument for the transfer of political and social messages, which can lead to the growth of conflicts of different interest groups (Sharpley, 2009). The ‘universal heritage’ (Ashworth & Hartmann, 2005, as citied in Sharpley, 2009, p. 151), or the one with which all stakeholders can equally be identified, is probably impossible to achieve, which is especially the case with heritage that has to do with the tragedies, wars and genocides. E.g., it is unrealistic to expect that the perception of a certain tragic historical event is going to be the same between victims and perpetrators of genocide, or that at the site of the battlefield the same attention will be given to the victor and the defeated (Sharpley, 2009). According to Hartmann (2014), in many places there is a reenactment of memorial events connected to war conflicts. Dark attraction provides an opportunity to redefine or re-write the history, as well as to provide one-sided and politically motivated interpretations of events. Thus, heritage interpretation could be influenced by 'collective amnesia'  (Timothy and Bond, 2003, as citied in Sharpley, 2009, p. 163).

    One of the biggest challenges for dark heritage interpreters is balancing the relationship between education and entertainment. Presentations must take into account the sensitivities of different types of visitors, more than with other types of heritage. E.g., it is very sensitive to make a presentation of war to the veterans who have come to evoke memories or those who are part of the nation that was "bad" in the war (Baldwen & Sharpley, 2009). Places of cruelty and genocide sites often cause feelings of regret to the victims and resentment towards the perpetrators. Such places some people perceive as a function of its national identity, as it causes them a sense of pride in belonging to one side and not the other (Sharpley, 2009).

    To illustrate the above claims, an example of the typical dark tourist attraction in Serbia is specified.

    Skull Tower is located in Nis, the regional center and the third largest city in Serbia. In 1809, a battle between Serbian rebels and the Turks (Ottomans) took place and ended with the loss of many lives on both sides. After the battle, Turkish commander decided to raise the tower of heads of dead Serbian soldiers. There were 952 skulls erected into the Skull Tower, positioned on the road to Istanbul, with a height of about 4 meters. To date, only 54 remain (Tourism Organization of Nis, n.d.). It is now one of the most famous monuments in Serbia and important tourist attraction for the city. In the same time, it has a political connotation and promotes the ideology of Serbian struggle for freedom, while the Turks are presented as the ‘bad guys’.



    Image 1. The Skull Tower in Nis. Source:




    Baldwin, F. & Sharpley, R. (2009) Battlefield Tourism: Bringing organized violence back to life. In: Sharpley, R. & Stone, P. (eds.) The Darker Side of Travel: The theory and practice of dark tourism. Tonawanda, NY: Channel View Publications. 186-206.

    Hartmann, R. (2014) Dark tourism, thanatourism, and dissonance in heritage tourism management: new directions in contemporary tourism research. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 9 (2), 166-182.

    Sharpley, R. (2009) Dark Tourism and Political Ideology: Towards a Governance Model. In: Sharpley, R. & Stone, P. (eds.) The Darker Side of Travel: The theory and practice of dark tourism. Tonawanda, NY: Channel View Publications. 145-163.

    Tourism Organization of Nis. (n.d.) The Skull Tower. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 20th November 2014].


    Author: Vladimir Sustersic

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    Comments (3)

    Viewing 3 of 3 comments: view all
    Thank you Vladimir for this interesting article. I really like that you explain dark tourism as a balance of entertainment and education (like maybe all heritage sites?!) but also the sensitivity which is more important in this case, I guess.
    Concerning the Skull Tower in Nis, what do the "Turks" think about that place? Is there anything known, like they stole some skulls, they vandalize there or do they accept that place and leave it alone? Or even travel there themselves?
    Posted 20:21, 25 Nov 2014
    Thank you, Eva, for your comment.

    Skull Tower was built as a kind of warning to future potential rebels, so the Turks had no reason to destroy it. It was placed near the main road, so it would be visible to everyone. There are even records of some French writer who was passing by in 19th century. The weather quite contributed to the destruction of the tower, and it is believed that a large number of families of dead Serbian rebels were stealing the skulls to properly bury them. It was not until the late 19th century, when Nis again became a part of Serbia, that the tower was roofed over and become protected as a cultural monument.

    Turkish ambassador visited the site on the 200th anniversary of the battle and have even contributed financially to the place of that battle, so the contemporary conflict does not exist but, as I mentioned above, there is a strong political context and national symbolism attached to the interpretation of this site. And it is becoming popular attraction for backpackers, especially those traveling from Serbia to Bulgaria, because the city is on the way.

    Posted 03:41, 29 Nov 2014
    Very interesting, thank you for the detailed explanaition Vladimir. It is really good that both sides overcome the conflict and agree on the conservation of this tower as a symbol.
    Posted 15:51, 29 Nov 2014
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