As has been widely reported across the press, a couple of months the Bristolian street artist, prankster and social commentator Banksy opened Dismaland – a surreal, ironic, dark reimagining of a theme park.
Located in the disused and dishevelled Tropicana amusement park, in the seaside village of Weston Super Mare, Dismaland’s brochure described it as containing “adult themes, distressing imagery, extended use of strobe lighting, smoke effects and swearing. The following items are strictly prohibited: knives, spraycans, illegal drugs, and lawyers from the Walt Disney corporation.”
This week, after just two months of opening, the park is shutting, and with it leaving several huge signposts for what tourism might achieve with some courage and ingenuity.
Too much of tourism avoids confronting its visitors with anything that they fear might unsettle them while on holiday. Beyond a towel card in the bathroom, there’s little chance most tourists will encounter anything connected to the social or environmental challenges facing their destination. Wherever they are will be presented to them as an idealised brochure image or picture postcard.
Of course there are exceptions – venues such as Johannesburg’s remarkable Apartheid Museum, or winner of this year’s WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Reality Tours, with its work in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai. And of course the Banksy brand name brought the guests in. But they didn’t come to be mollycoddled. They came knowing that much of what they saw was going to be uncomfortable. The brochure made it clear: “Are you looking for an alternative to the soulless sugar-coated banality of the average family day out? Or just somewhere cheaper. Then this is the place for you—a chaotic new world where you can escape from mindless escapism. Instead of a burger stall, we have a museum. In place of a gift shop we have a library, well, we have a gift shop as well.”
Secondly, Dismaland wasn’t located in Brighton, Lyme Regis, Whitstable or any of the other popular (aka overcrowded) seaside resorts. It was in Weston Super Mare, which has seen better days – like so many other seaside towns in the UK that lost the appeal once cheap flights sent us all packing to Sunny Southern Spain. But more than 150,000 people visited Dismaland this summer, increasing tourism to the area by 20 percent. All over the world, the backlash against tourism continuing to funnel more and more people to the same old places such as Barcelona and Venice is growing. The more innovative approach would be to draw them somewhere else where locals would welcome them in.
In a final masterstroke, Dismaland left its most powerful message until after it had closed. According to the artist, the set is now to be dismantled and reborn in Calais, where all the timber and re-useable fixtures will be repurposed as shelter for the hundreds of refugees camped there.
Support for Refugees. Adopting a Circular Economy approach. Shifting tourists away from overcrowded hotspots. Driving local regeneration. Presenting a challenging social commentary. Oh, and only charging a £3 entry fee.
Dismaland may be gone from Weston Super Mare after just 2 months. But I hope its legacy hangs around for a lot longer.