Are Sky Burials the Future of Tourism?

There are tourists who, with cameras and commentary, crash Tibetan sky burials, a ritual where vultures consume the flesh of the dead. 

Vultures of Tibet

Some tourists don’t like to lie under an umbrella, relaxing to the sound of waves lapping at the shore. Some tourists like to watch corpses being eaten by vultures. Dark, you say? Not inherently. The ritual is a practice of Vajrayana Buddhism. In a traditional Tibetan sky burial, flesh is offered as an act of generosity to birds so that the person’s soul may ascend to heaven. But there is a grotesque tourist trend of watching these sacred acts for the privilege of a cool Facebook post.

National Geographic posted today an excerpt from Vultures of Tibet, a short film that explores this topic, on its YouTube account. The practice is nothing new: A year ago, the Chinese government sought again to ban these burials as tourist sites — this is legislative stuff that apparently doesn’t stick. Over the years, there have been gaps in this protection. But now Tibetans are allowed to regulate sky burials, yet some tour guides and adventure junkies don’t give a good goddamn and continue to return.

One monk tells NatGeo in the video that “the local officials are taking advantage of this demand.” People who are shooed off by another monk, clad in red, are laughing, saying they want their money back after not being able to get a view at the funeral. The monk also blames the internet — the dark imagery it offers as well as how it gets the word out to the world that these ancient affairs still take place.

It leaves you wondering if this is, in fact, the future of tourism? Are we so jaded and destroyed inside that watching a bird fly off with a slab of human flesh is something Instagram-worthy? It’d be nice to think that these tourists want to be a part of the sacred act or truly experience the limits of their human empathy, but watch the clip, and you’ll get why that isn’t necessarily the case. The other day, NPR did a segment on political tourism, where people go to watch the primaries in New Hampshire. This also seems like a very odd way to spend your summer vacation.

Extreme, death, and dark tourism are real things. People go to Chernobyl in the Ukraine, like, for vacation. Motherboard notes that there is a travel journal out of Tokyo called Dark Tourism and the first issue includes a bit about visiting a leprosy sanatorium. The article takes a thorough look at why people go on these horrendous missions.

The film’s director Russell O. Bush sees it as “a metaphor for modernization” and an issue of media ethics. “We’re not necessarily entitled to take any image in the world and create our own understanding of it,” he says of the folks putzing about waiting on the most photogenic vulture.

There’s no finding an answer on any of this, but if the monk’s right, and the internet really is the problem, then we’re all screwed and likely to end up checking out hot spots of the Rwandan genocide next Spring Break.

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