Tour Guides as Interpreters of Dark Tourism: A Case Study of Berlin, Germany

Leshem, Asaf (2021) Tour Guides as Interpreters of Dark Tourism: A Case Study of Berlin, Germany. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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In the current chapter of Berlin’s turbulent history, millions of tourists visit the city every year, engaging on the one hand in ‘regular’ tourist activities such as shopping and entertainment and, on the other hand, visiting sites and museums which offer opportunities to experience the ‘dark’ elements of the city’s history. To show and interpret these events, there are more than 30 museums and dozens of memorials representing what has collectively become known over the last two decades as Dark Tourism. In Berlin, the atrocities and tragedies of (mainly) the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall are also presented by several hundred tour guides and museum docents who provide their own interpretation to the tourists and, in doing so, potentially present a new angle on a story or influence tourists’ knowledge and views.

The aim of this study is to appraise critically the interpretive role of the tour guide in the dark tourism experience. More specifically, it seeks to analyse critically the nuances of tour guides’ interpretation, to identify where tour guides’ interpretation plays a mediating role in the dark tourism experience, to identify factors involved in tour guides’ interpretation and how they might influence tourists’ experience, and to identify and explore the parameters that influence tour guides to interpret events in one way or another. Thus, the research seeks to address a gap in the academic understanding of the role of the tour guide in the dark tourism experience, thereby contributing to the body of literature of dark tourism and tour guide research, and providing a unique insight to how events of atrocity and human tragedy are interpreted to visitors.

The research employs ethnographic data collection methods, including the observation of guides during tours, engaging in informal conversations with guides in various social situations, and conducting semi-structured individual and dyadic interviews. As a tour guide myself, I also employ auto-ethnographic writing methods to appraise myself in the same manner in which I appraise my colleagues. The research in this thesis analyses interpretation based on a three-level approach in which, respectively, words, anecdotes and narratives are explored. The research explores the natural way in which guides process the knowledge they have about their tourists with the aim of providing them with a suitable interpretation. The findings suggest that guides take into account elements such as group size, type of tour and knowledge of the tourists whilst at the same time maintaining the style of interpretation they want to give. Although guides aim to please their tourists in a manner comparable with other tourism categories, they at the same time thrive to maintain authenticity and responsibility in accordance with the sensitive nature of dark tourism. As a result, the research reveals that guides make exceptional choices in interpreting for the topic (e.g. the Second World War or the Cold War) rather than for the tourists. Thus, the research concludes that tour guide dark tourism interpretation is a dynamic and calculated culmination of guides driven parameters, tour dynamics and tourist motivations and expectations.

Further contributions are made by this research in identifying and appraising the various interpretation methods guides employ that influence the dark tourism experience. These include reinforcing positive or negative stereotypes, the use of counterfactual history and the use of watered-down versions while allowing for further debate. In addition, the research identifies and presents an introductory discussion on the accumulative psychological stress of guiding in dark tourism sites. Thus, this thesis provides a platform for further research into the tour guide interpretation of similar sites of war and genocide, or at sites of disaster and other types of dark tourism. Moreover, it contributes to theory by further advancing understanding of the mediating effect of dark tourism on the tourists and their experience.

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