Jan 12, 2018 in Exploratory

Dark Tourism in Ieper (Belgium)

The globalization of tourism business, development of a tourist product, its differentiation, leadership on costs, occurrence of new technologies, distribution of tourist trade marks through the management contracts, association of tourist trade marks in the international tourism markets due to a franchise or involved hotel enterprises, and also vertical integration which the tourist enterprises have in the hospitality industry - all these processes proceeding today have changed the dynamics and have accelerated the rates of the development of the world tourist industry.

The tourism industry is represented now to the consumer as more difficult one because a tour and a control system are exposed to changes, being replaced with the new concepts or products. Today, it is much more difficult to win the new clients than to keep old ones for the reason of the dynamic processes proceeding in the hospitality industry. Thus, this essay explores the development of the town of Ieper in Belgium through its dark tourism and dark tourism aspects.

The overwhelming majority of the world travelers are the representatives of a middle and large-scale business. These categories of tourists form a set of the requirements for a modern hotel. Tourists are different people. The tourists of the first category are people for whom household conveniences have no crucial importance (they are in minority). The others do not imagine the rest without comfortable conditions of residing. The third category requires a wide spectrum of services and convenience. According to the statistics, the overwhelming majority of the world travelers are the representatives of a middle class appreciating conveniences and comfort. Moreover, business tourism actively developing all over the world is a segment for the representatives of the middle and large business; their requirements to comfortable conditions of residing are 10 times higher than those of the average traveler. Thus, these three categories of tourists form a new group of tourists - dark tourists.

Dark tourism is a phenomenon where people travel to the sites, where well-known battles, terrible events in human history and general atrocities have occurred. Dark tourism is a branch of tourism that has of late begun to raise interest in the academic world. This kind of travel has been around since it has been possible to travel to such destinations.

Dark tourism becomes more and more popular. In fact, this fashionable tendency is only a new form of expression of a human nature. Dark tourists compose a special segment of travelers; they make very specific routes - visit places connected with sufferings and deaths. The most interesting objects of dark tourists include different castles, well-known city cemeteries, various burials, prisons, places of bloody battles, etc. Concentration camps of the era of the World War II are especially popular among dark tourists.

The Institute of Dark Tourism Research defines “dark tourism” as follows: 

Dark tourism - often referred to as “thanatourism” in the academic literature - is the act of travel to sites, attractions and exhibitions of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre. Dark tourism is a broad ranging and often-contentious consumer activity that can provoke debate about how death and the dead are packaged up and consumed within the modern visitor economy (UCLAN, 2013). 

Yanni Utah is considered to be an official founder and the committed follower of dark tourism. This Englishman showed a particular interest in the movies filled with horrible scenes about Dracula and Frankenstein in his childhood. Being an adult, Yanni realized that his childish love to all terrible things is displayed in a particular interest to the places with the “dark” past - to the concentration camp of Dachau, and also death fields in Cambodia.

Since then such tours are called “shock tours” and are rather popular for the tourists from all over the world. Besides, if Yanni does not have any opportunity to visit a horrible place with a shadowy past, he enjoys peace walks on old local cemeteries. Utah founded the community of dark tourism’ fans in Facebook and defended a thesis on dark tourism. Utah is not lonely in his hobbies. There are more and more fans of this extraordinary type of tourism, wishing to visit places of big accidents and mass burials.

It is impossible to tell that it is an absolutely new type of tourism. Dark tourism has been a part of any tour for many years. At all times people showed a keen interest in death questions. The medieval executions composed a favorite entertainment for people during a witch-hunt era. The gladiatorial fights, in which people fought to death among themselves or with wild animals, gathered a huge audience, or, for example, an opportunity to observe the battles of the Civil War in the USA from safe distance was considered to be an entertainment for elite.

It is possible to speak even of the history of dark tourism. In the Middle Ages people made pilgrimage to the graves of great martyrs. The motives of “dark tourists” are mysterious and various. It is an exciting moment of a meeting with death during lifetime for some people; the others pursue religious aims and consider a “dark tour” as a pilgrimage and a tribute to the memory; another category of people considers it as a manifestation of mere curiosity. People always sought for visiting places where mass battles or crimes were held. They understand it as a touch to eternal.

Modern society treats bad news with a great interest. People of different age watch the development of an emergency situation in a real time with ecstasy. Later they replay the videos of tragic events on the Internet several times. The documentary scenes, shot on a scene of hidden supervision by cameras break all records by the number of viewings.

There are several reasons why individuals may travel to such destinations. The main reason is educational purposes; people, who learned about certain historical happenings and find them of interest, may want to see it first hand to get a feel of what it was actually like to be there. Another reason has a commemorative element to it, where people, who previously served in the Second World War, for example, may wish to revisit the sight as it may hold some sentimental value to them. An additional reason is for people, who may have ancestral ties with the destination and wish to pay tribute of some form or another. Lastly, humans are generally bloodthirsty even if they do not like to admit it; this can be seen on a highway, for example, if there has been an accident, traffic will grind to a halt because people want to see what has happened.

Dark tourism is a version of the main tourism, which seems to be its component, but in pure form represents the passion to visit the places connected with sufferings, pain, torture of people, and, certainly, death. Dark tourism includes a visit of the places spoiled by a war, epidemic, act of terrorism, natural disaster. The following places are the most popular among dark tourists: Pripyat, near the notorious fourth power unit filled in with lead; the place of crash of two twin skyscrapers in September, 2011 as a result of a perfect act of terrorism with the use of plane; the region of the hurricane Katrina, which has been carried on the territories of New Orleans, and 1900 inhabitants died; Nazi concentration camps: in Auschwitz - Birkenau, which was visited by nearly one and a half million people in 2011; Choyeng Ek in Cambodia where 17.000 people, who endured tortures, were executed; the regions of Thailand, destroyed by a tsunami in 2004, carried away the lives of more than 230 thousand people; the place of earthquake in Japan, which killed 16 thousand people, etc. There is the huge necropolis which was a town cemetery once in Paris underground, about 6 million Parisians are buried in its catacombs. The visit of Père Lachaise is included into the obligatory program of tourists, visiting Paris.

Many countries have commercialized these locations and turned them into tourist destinations. In major Dark Tourism destinations there are museums displaying artifacts. In some they have reenactments of famous battles that illustrate what happened. An interesting characteristic of Dark Tourism is that due to the violent nature of today’s world there are more and more places that become “dark destinations”. A good example of this is Ground Zero in New York - the site, where the twin towers once stood. In 2002, 3.6 million people visited Ground Zero and this number rose to 9 million by 2011.

The well-known Third Battle of Ieper took place in the town of Ieper in Belgium in 1917 and was one of the most horrific battles of the First World War. This is the site where 275000 British and 200000 German soldiers died during the four months the battle lasted.

The town of Ieper and its surrounding area in Belgium are the major centre for the World War One battlefields/cemeteries, etc, and attract many international visitors for educational and other dark tourism reasons. Indeed, its whole tourism industry is built around them.

Ieper is the city located in the northwest of Belgium, in the province the Western Flanders, near the border with France. It was mentioned in the 8th century for the first time. Ieper was one of the richest cities of the medieval Europe with the population of 80 thousand inhabitants. In the 12th-14th centuries it challenged the rank of the main center cloth shop in Flanders from Bruges and Ghent. A long siege by the British during the Hundred Years’ War (1383) undermined its well-being. Ieper was the arena of the hardened battles during the World War I as a result of which it was almost wiped out. The name of the city reminds today about a terrible gas, which ruined million people - yperite. The old city was almost completely destroyed during the WorldWarI. However, its most considerable constructions were restored subsequently. 

Ypres is the silent witness of theGreat Waror World War I. 
During the entire war period, from 1914 up to 1918, Ypres was the scene of some of the most important battles in the First World War, later referred to as the Great War (City of Peace, 2013). 

Ieper is the city of magnificent monuments and sights. The main sights of the city of Ieper include the Cloth Hall, the St. Martin’s magnificent cathedral (it is built during the period from the 13th to the 15th century), etc. In general, Ieper is a very interesting ancient town for all types of tourists, but especially for dark tourists.

The first place among them is taken by an outstanding monument of the Gothic civil architecture - the Cloth Hall (1304). The Cloth Hall has enormous sizes. The facade of the Cloth Hall is stretched on 125 meters. The height of tower is more than 70 meters. There is a Carillion consisting of 49 bells, which can be visited. There are multi-colored fabric kittens in various poses on the walls of a tower and malls. There is a strange tradition in Ieper: every year cats are dropped from the tower during so-called “cat’s parade”. It was connected with witch-hunt. This barbarous tradition stopped at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1955, it was revived; however, toy cats are used instead of alive ones.

Ships could come directly to the Cloth Hall for wool unloading in the Middle Ages. Nowadays a small river Ieperlee flows underground. The RenaissanceTown hall (Stadhuis) adjoins the eastern part of the Cloth Hall. Owning to the sales of fabrics, Ieper became one of the leading trading centers such as Gent, Brugge and Antwerp in Belgium.  

The Cloth Hall, together with fifty more similar constructions of Belgium and France, was included into the list of the world cultural heritage of the UNESCO. The building as a whole belongs to the national cultural asset of Belgium. The Cloth Hall was built for a hundred years, from 1200 to the 1304. A traditional gothic style was chosen to be an architectural one. This majestic construction was urged to show the richness of the city which made fortune on cloth trade.

Throughout the whole history of existence, up to the beginning of the 20th century, the Cloth Hall in Ieper endured a mass of sieges, destructions and wars. The building was carefully restored after each of them. However, no medieval wars can be compared to the destructive power of the weapon of the 20th century.

During the World War I Ieper appeared in the epicenter of the bloody battles. The town was almost completely destroyed during long bombings. The Cloth Hall was also much damaged. However, persistent Belgians did not give up and carefully restored the town and the main sight. They managed to finish restoration by 1967 when a solemn opening ceremony of the Cloth Hall was held.

In the new and latest time it is the first case of the elimination (and the subsequent restoration) of the European city because of military actions. A great number of tourists come to Ieper to visit fields of battles, monuments of the lost soldiers, and the restored medieval buildings. Once in three years there is a fancy-dress Festival of Cats in Ieper, in memory of the terrible tradition which existed up to the beginning of the 19th century: to drop live cats from a city tower. The dropping of toy cats from a tower becomes an apogee of a holiday.

The town of Ieper is associated with killing mustard gas yperite - the very first weapons of mass destruction used by the Germans against the allies during World War I. The majority of pictures of the town represent the infinite cemeteries and rows of the soldiers’ graves, which were killed near Ieper. 

Ypres, City of Peace, maintains a connection with the First World War because it matters to those who want to discuss conflict and peace throughout the world. As a city, and as a region, Ypres has a long tradition of understanding as to what war is about. Perhaps ‘understanding’ is not the correct word to use, but Ypres knows the feeling of war and the city’s experiences allow it to sense the presence of conflict, as well as its absence. The long-lasting effects of conflict have become part of those who live here, as well as part of those who happen to visit (In Flanders Fields Museum, p. 3).  

In the Middle Ages Ieper was one of the most important manufactory centers of Flanders, which was the center of the production of fabrics. It led to the wealthy population, whose money was also spent on architecture. A beautiful city, probably, could become the same tourist pearl as, for example, Ghent and Bruges if not war. In 1918, a few half-ruined walls among a huge heap of fragments remained from Ieper, which appeared in a funnel of a military tornado (there was a front line, passing through the town). After all, neither numerous sieges of the town by the enemies - the kings of France and the duke Parma, nor the religious wars storming in the European territory in those days caused such damage to the town.

The town was most of all destroyed in the years of the First World War. Ieper was one of the largest towns of Belgium in the 13th century. In 1914-1918 the town was almost completely destroyed, but subsequently was carefully restored practically according to the initial plans. There is the Memorial Museum, which contains documentary materials about the World War I. The construction of an early Gothic St. Martin Cathedral (St. Maartenskerk) was begun in 1221. The tower was completed in 1434, and the cathedral was completely finished at the beginning of the 16th century. There is the tomb of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), the bishop of Ieper and the founder of Jansenism - religious and social current in the Reformation, gained a considerable distribution in France and the Netherlands.

In the 18th century Ieper was one of the richest medieval cities and applied for a rank of the main center fabrics shop in Flanders; in 1914, it appeared to the west of a front line. The Ieper ledge in the British lines of defense became the arena of three large battles during which the chemical weapon including gas was used in 1915 for the first time in the history. As well as the whole center of the town, the Saint Martin’s Cathedral was restored before the World War II, and the materials of a former cathedral were used for reconstruction. In a cathedral there is a tomb of a local bishop Cornelius Jansen. There is a Celtic cross behind the cathedral on a solar lawn. It is devoted to the Irish people, who died there. There are also the remains of a monastery of the 15th century and a lot of memorable signs to the soldiers of the World War I.

The Triumphal Arch at the entrance to the town was opened in 1927. The names of 54 thousand victims of the World War I were beaten out in these sites. This arch called Menin Gates is devoted to the British people, killed in the World War I on the battle fields near Ieper. There are the names of missing soldiers (54.896 soldiers from Great Britain and colonies) on the curved marble arches. There are a lot of red flowers and wreaths everywhere. People from all over the world come there to honor the memory of heroes. Every evening at 8 p.m. the firemen of Ieper play a sad melody in honor of the killed heroes. 

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to all the overseas British and Commonwealth forces who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. The Menin Gate commemorates 54,896 officers and men killed in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 (The Great War, 2009). 

The battles, held in this area, are called “The First Battle at Ieper” and “The Second Battle at Ieper” in a military history. John Keegan in the book “The First World War” wrote that the first battle at Ieper finished a maneuverable fight on the Western front in 1914. Both parties suffered heavy losses during the combat operations. The French army was the most considerable. About 510 000 soldiers and officers were lost, killed, wounded and taken as prisoners for four months of heavy fighting. In 1914, the male population of France totaled 20 million people, including 10 million people liable for military service. There were also losses of the German army. Germans lost 241 000 soldiers and officers, 99 000 out of them at the age of twenty - twenty four. The Belgian army lost 30 000 soldiers and officers killed. The English army lost 80 000 people killed, wounded and taken as prisoners (Keegan, 2000). 

For our purpose, however, what the soldiers did or did not read is irrelevant. For, if soldiers did not learn to fight their battles from reading books, neither is it likely that military historians learned to write their books from watching battles. Battles are extremely confusing; and confronted with the need to make sense of something he does not understand, even the cleverest, indeed preeminently the cleverest man, realizing his need for a language and metaphor he does not possess, will turn to look at what someone else has already made of a similar set of events as a guide for his own pen (Keegan, 2000). 

Moreover, there are a lot of other interesting places for dark tourists. Flanders Fields Museum opens a lot of interesting and, at the same time, awful events of the World War I. It focuses on different walks of war, namely the Chronological Walk, the Thematic Walk, the Iconic People Walk and the Reflective Walk. 

Stefan Zweig wrote about the destroyed Ypres in his “Berliner Tageblatt”: 

Ypres was deprived from its most famous artworks. Therefore, no one, as some did before, shall again take pilgrimage to this remote city to admire the wonderful Cloth Hall, which was there in its greatness, massive and powerful. (Unger, 2005). 

In conclusion, I would like to say that a dark tourism becomes more and more desired by the world tourists. More and more people are ready to spend money and to receive powers from the places of tragedies. Dark tourism places include regions of floods, earthquakes, burials, accidents and other world catastrophes. It is more interesting for dark tourists to pass thousands of kilometers not to refresh and have a rest but to sorrow and meditate on the philosophical problems of human existence.

It is necessary to notice that people were always attracted by the tragedy. They need it for understanding the possible outcomes of imprudence, human factor and simply ridiculous accidents. They need it to understand that a human life is not immortal.

The fans of dark tourism increase each year: the travelers of this type go to the places of mass death of people, accidents or cemeteries and fields of mass burials. In London the tour devoted to Jack the Ripper is in a great demand, as well as a tour in the wake of the destructions after the hurricane Katrina and from the New York Manhattan to the memorial “Ground Zero” devoted to victims of attacks on September, 11.

In Rwanda, tourists go to the memorial center in Kigali, which was erected in memory of the genocide victims. In Poland, tourists go to the museum of the former concentration camp Auschwitz, in France - to “the settlement of martyrs”, where in June, 1944 the German army killed several hundreds of people, and other places of mass deaths of people. The town of Ieper in Belgium is not an exception. Any place of tragedy automatically turns into tourist object. There is nothing surprising that someone tries to earn on such inclinations of people.

What underlies dark tourism? Is there an interest to death or consciousness spoiled by TV, striving for more awful and more terrible? After all, there is a desire to peep what will be “there”, and attempt, sometimes unconscious, to find answers to the main issues of life and death.

Society has not decided how to treat dark tourism yet. Do we have to criticize the people visiting the regions of Thailand, which were devastated by a terrible tsunami in 2004? Do we have to reproach them with cynicism and a lack of sensitivity, or, on the contrary, to welcome and encourage such contribution to tourism and to the recovery of the district and victims of the natural disaster?

Everybody has his own answer and own attitude to all tendencies of a modern world; however, the only one thing is clear – there is a phenomenon “dark tourism” and we, people, have nothing to do except to accept this tendency.   

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