World War I, Remembrance Sunday, and the beginnings of ‘dark tourism’

Today marks Remembrance Sunday, a day when the UK and the Commonwealth commemorates the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts.

One hundred years ago today, millions of soldiers laid down their weapons and the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month marked the end of the World War I.

Growing up in Austria, a country from ‘the other side of the conflict’, it was interesting for me to learn about remembrance activities in the UK. Predominantly countries on the winning side of the Great War observe this day.  And as the years have passed, other conflicts and wars were included in the commemoration activities, partially so that remembrance remains relevant to a larger population.

From a tourism perspective, Remembrance Sunday and activities surrounding it are of interest in what we could consider part of dark tourism, more specifically memorial tourism. Dark tourism involves travel to locations motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death (Seaton in Henderson, 2000). This type of tourism has its roots in the early 20th century with most people referring to the sinking of the Titanic as a starting point. For obvious reasons though, people were not able to travel to the actual disaster site.

The time period following World War I is considered the beginning of dark tourism, in this case memorial tourism. Soldiers who survived the war travelled back to fields of battle to commemorate lost friends and remember them, family members of fallen soldiers travelled to battle sites or foreign cemeteries in order to gain some understanding, closure and teach the younger generations about war. Another reason was travelling in search of military lessons, aiming to understand victories or losses. Not the sights were important per se, it was about recapturing the meaning of war. Tourism became a force for remembrance.

Since then, dark tourism in general and memorial tourism more specifically have played a big part in learning from the past and educating younger generations not to repeat the mistakes that were made before. In some circumstances, the sites of war have become part of the development of a nation’s distinctiveness. For example, the importance of Gallipoli is so ingrained in New Zealand’s national identity that many young New Zealanders will make sure to travel to the site at least once during their OE (overseas experience).

One hundred years after the event, the memorials of World War I remain relevant as tourism sites but more so as sites of remembrance and sombre reflection.