Dark Tourism Ethics and Criticisms

by wheretheroadforks

There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding dark tourism. Some find it to be disrespectful, voyeuristic, or even unethical. This guide discusses dark tourism ethics and criticisms. We’ll outline a few of the main arguments for and against dark tourism as well as provide some examples.

Paris Catacombs
The Paris Catacombs

The question ‘is dark tourism ethical?’ is really a philosophical question. It’s not black and white. The answer comes down to your personal code of ethics, your culture, your upbringing, your past experience, and a number of other factors.

When deciding whether or not a particular site is ethical to visit, you may want to consider the nature of the site as well as its age, finances, design, and more. Sometimes the behavior of the operators and visitors comes into play as well. The answer will vary from person to person. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide.

What is Dark Tourism?

Dark tourism is a type of tourism that involves travel to a site where death, suffering, tragedy, disaster, or violence took place. This could include sites of natural disasters, genocides, assassinations, man-made disasters, etc. Museums and monuments that memorialize these places and events are also considered dark tourism sites. People visit these sites for historical reasons, educational purposes, to remember those who died, or simply out of morbid curiosity. Dark tourism is also known as black tourism or grief tourism.

A few of the most visited dark tourism sites in the world include Auschwitz concentration camp, the ruins of Pompeii, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Colosseum, Gettysburg battlefield, the 9/11 memorial, and the Catacombs of Paris.

Ferris wheel in the Pripyat Amusement Park near Chernobyl
Pripyat Amusement Park in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone

Ethical Concerns and Criticisms of Dark Tourism

The controversy of dark tourism sites stems from the subject matter. These are sites where fellow human beings suffered or died. Many dark tourism sites have a political element as well. These are touchy subjects.

Some find it unethical to visit these sites for tourism purposes. Some don’t see any issue with it. For others, it depends on the site. In this section, I outline a few of the main arguments for and against dark tourism. I’ll also share some examples of popular dark tourism sites and their common criticism about them.

1. Dark Tourism Exploits Human Suffering

The most common criticism of dark tourism is that it exploits human suffering. Operators can exploit these sites to make money or simply to provide entertainment. This disrespects the victims of the event. This type of behavior may be unethical.

There is an element of truth to this claim. Dark tourism sites are some of the biggest tourist destinations on the planet. They attract millions of visitors per year and generate millions of dollars in revenue per year. For example, Pompeii draws around 2.5 million visitors per year. Entry costs 11 Euros. As you can see, dark tourism is big business there.

Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background
The ruins of Pompeii

In addition, many dark tourism sites have gift shops, restaurants, cafes, guides, and hotels that bring in even more money. Many sites receive donations and government grants. The idea of an individual or business profiting off of other people’s suffering or death does feel a bit problematic.

When deciding whether or not a dark tourism site exploits the victims, it’s important to consider where the money goes. In most cases, the money that dark tourism brings in goes toward maintenance, restoration, preservation, education, and various cultural programs. In this case, there probably isn’t much ethical concern, if any.

Without dark tourism, many sites would fall into disrepair, be demolished, and eventually disappear. If we lose dark tourism sites, we will also lose their history. For example, if it weren’t for tourism, the Anne Frank House may not exist. Tourism to the museum pays for the maintenance of the site.

Of course, some dark tourism sites operate as for-profit businesses. This may be considered exploitation and may be unethical. For example, a business offering slum tours of the favelas of Brazil or Kibera in Nairobi is operating strictly for profit. In this case, the business owners are essentially profiting off of the poverty and suffering of others.

If a person, organization, or government is getting rich off operating a dark tourism business, it may very well be unethical for those operating the business. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unethical for you to visit. Having said that, you may want to re-consider if you don’t support where your money is going.

Another issue is that some dark tourism sites are designed to entertain rather than to educate. This can come off as disrespectful toward the victims and could be considered exploitation. Some consider these types of sites to be unethical as well.

A good example of this is the firing range at the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. Here, you can fire a live round from a variety of Vietnam War era guns including the AK 47 or M16. This has nothing to do with dark tourism. It is strictly entertainment. Whether or not this is unethical is up to you to decide. Most dark tourism sites educate rather than entertain.

Personally, I don’t see a problem with integrating some fun or entertainment into some types of dark tourism sites. It really depends on the nature of the site. We don’t need to act depressed or somber at every dark tourist site in order to be respectful. Some dark tourism sites are naturally lighter than others due to the nature or age of the event.

2. Dark Tourism Sites Can Spread Misinformation

Another common criticism of dark tourism sites is the spread of misinformation. Some sites are presented with a bias. This is often done for political purposes. Countries present information in a way that makes them look like either the good guys or the victim. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. This type of misinformation is common in war or atrocity related sites.

For example, if you visit the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, you’ll learn about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. If you visit the National Vietnam War Museum in Texas, you’ll learn about the Vietnam War from the American perspective. You’ll get different information at each museum. Neither is necessarily right or wrong. That comes down to perspective. The information is just presented with different biases. It’s interesting how two sides can tell the story completely differently without either one really being wrong.

Sometimes sites simply omit information. For example, the museum at Perm-36 Gulag focuses on the labor the prisoners performed and how they helped the Russian economy rather than the way the country treated them in the prison. Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco gets similar criticism. The tour focuses on the security of the prison rather than the prisoners themselves. They leave out the bad part of history.

Alcatraz Prison Island
Alcatraz Prison

Some dark tourism sites water down or whitewash part of history. This may be done to make the site more appealing or palatable to the average visitor. In my experience, this is common at war-related sites. They tend to focus more on honoring the soldiers. They may downplay or leave out the horrors of war.

In some cases, the opposite is done. The site operators or tour guides may make up or exaggerate facts for dramatic effect. Some tourists want to hear gory details and that’s what they get.

If you’re visiting a dark tourism site for historical or educational purposes, try to seek some information about the site from an outside source. You may find that some information was altered or left out. At the very least, you’ll learn more about the site and maybe get a different perspective.

3. Some Visitors have the Wrong Intention

For some, whether or not dark tourism is ethical comes down to the visitor’s intention. Why are you visiting? Are you traveling to a particular site to learn about the history of an event or to honor the victims? Or are you visiting out of morbid curiosity or just to say that you’ve been there?

The argument is that it is ethical to visit a dark tourism site for some reasons but unethical to visit for other reasons. Some claim that it is ethical to visit for purposes such as gaining a deeper understanding or to pay respects to the victims. At the same time, it may be unethical to visit a dark tourism site for taking a photo, checking off a box on your bucket list, showing off, or just for entertainment.

Personally, I think the intent is irrelevant and the only thing that matters is the visitor’s behavior. To tell someone that they’re visiting a site for the ‘wrong reasons’ is like accusing them of a thought crime. It is not unethical to have an unethical thought because thinking something unethical does not create any harm. Additionally, a person who is visiting for the ‘wrong reasons’ isn’t affecting anyone else’s experience as long as they are behaving appropriately.

There is nothing wrong with visiting a dark tourism site because you are fascinated by death and suffering or just to check it off of your bucket list. You just need to remain respectful toward the victims and the site itself. Chances are, a dark tourist with ‘bad intent’ will gain a deeper understanding of a site during their visit, even if they were there for the ‘wrong reasons.’

4. Inappropriate Conduct at Dark Tourism Sites

I think most people would agree that behaving inappropriately at a place where others have suffered or died is disrespectful and possibly unethical. Exactly which behaviors are inappropriate depends on a number of factors including the age of the site, the nature of the event that the site commemorates, and the culture of the country where the site is located.

Many dark tourist sites have signs requesting that people behave respectfully. For example, they may ask that you keep your voice down. Operators sometimes prohibit photography. Some dark tourist sites also have a dress code. They may request that you wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt or they may simply ban inappropriate clothing like bathing suits. Some dark tourist sites have signs requesting that you not eat or drink outside of the cafe or restaurant. You wouldn’t want to make a mess. Ofttimes smoking and drinking alcohol are prohibited as well. Of course, you should never cause damage to the site, vandalize, create graffiti, walk where you’re not supposed to, or steal anything either.

Some behaviors aren’t necessarily against the rules but may still be inappropriate. For example, joking around, laughing, and smiling can come off as disrespectful. Talking on your phone would also be rude. Additionally, you shouldn’t talk negatively about the victims of the tragedy or disaster that the site commemorates. To avoid offending anyone or causing any disrespect, it’s best to stay somber and quiet while visiting a dark tourism sites.

5. The Selfie Problem

Selfies have become pretty controversial at dark tourism sites. The argument is that taking a selfie where others have suffered or died is insensitive, disrespectful, and maybe even unethical. This has become such a problem that people get called out or shamed on social media for taking or sharing dark tourism selfies. It’s become a real travel faux pas.

Still, when visiting any dark tourist site, you’re sure to see people walking around with their selfie sticks and smiling for the camera. People take selfies at the gates of Auschwitz, in front of abandoned buildings near the Chernobyl disaster zone, at the killing fields in Cambodia, and every other dark tourism site. After a major disaster, it’s not uncommon to see people taking photos in front of the destruction. For example, after the Grenfell Tower burned down in London, people were showing up to take selfies in front of the burned out building.

Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland
Auschwitz

Interestingly, selfies are perfectly acceptable at some dark tourism sites. For example, nobody cares if you take a selfie at the Taj Mahal (which is a tomb), the ruins of Pompeii, or the Colosseum.

So when is it okay and when is it not okay to take a selfie? Or is it always okay to take a selfie?

I’m kind of conflicted about this point. Personally, I don’t take selfies at dark tourist sites because I find them a bit tacky and insensitive. There is also a certain stigma to these photos. I wouldn’t want to share them even if I took them. In fact, I take very few photos, if any, when visiting a dark tourism site.

Having said that, I think it’s fine if somebody wants to snap a selfie. As long as they aren’t holding up the tour, getting in everyone’s way, or posing in a disrespectful manner, they aren’t bothering anybody. In my mind, the selfie controversy comes down to personal choice. Telling someone that they can’t take a selfie is just too controlling for my taste. Also, taking selfies isn’t against the rules unless you’re in an area where photos are prohibited. It’s also pretty judgmental to shame someone for something as simple as taking a selfie.

If someone wants to take an insensitive smiling selfie in front of Chernobyl, that’s their decision. After all, it’s their vacation. They probably spent thousands of dollars and a great deal of their time to get there. As long as they don’t break any rules or bother any other visitors, they can do what they want.

Even if someone smiles while taking a photo at a dark tourism site, they’re not necessarily being disrespectful. After all, it is second nature to smile for a photo. It would be weird to frown.

To read another perspective on the selfie problem, check out this article.

A Note About Taking Photos at Dark Tourism Sites

Sometimes, simply taking photos at a dark tourism site is a bit controversial. For example, at sites where there are human remains on display, people like to take pictures of bones. This could come off as disrespectful to the dead. A couple of dark tourism sites where you’ll find human remains on display include the Killing Field of Choeung Ek in Cambodia and the Gisenyi Memorial site in Rwanda. In some cases, it is acceptable to take photos of human remains. For example in the Paris Catacombs and Seldec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, accept photography.

Taking photos while touring a slum is also controversial because it is an invasion of privacy. It’s also simply insensitive of the poverty and suffering of others. Of course, in these situations, it isn’t illegal to take pictures. It is just frowned upon and may be considered disrespectful.

Many visitors also like to have a photo of themselves taken to remember the day and to prove they’ve been to a particular site. This may be controversial for the same reasons as selfies. That’s up to you to decide.

6. Too Soon: Does the Age of the Dark Tourism Site Matter?

Oftentimes, sites where a tragedy or disaster more recently occurred are considered more controversial than ancient sites. Probably because there may still be people living who survived the event that the site commemorates. Some people may have family members who suffered or died in the event.

For example, nobody finds vising Pompeii unethical because the event occurred nearly 2000 years ago. All of the descendants of the dead passed on long ago. The entire Roman civilization has ended. At this point, Pompeii is an ancient historical site. At the same time, Many would consider visiting New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina to be unethical because people were suffering. Many lost their homes or died. They are both natural disaster sites. Yet one fine to visit and the other is controversial. The same is true of war zones. Dark tourism to a Syrian war zone is controversial but visiting the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg is perfectly acceptable.

Is there such thing as too soon in dark tourism? After how much time has passed is it acceptable to visit the site of a tragedy or disaster?

Some argue that it’s only ethical to visit a dark tourism site after all who were involved have passed on. Others see no issue in visiting a site immediately after or even during a dark event. There is no hard rule. If there is tourism infrastructure, you can assume that enough time has passed that it is okay to visit.

In my mind, the sooner tourists start visiting a new dark tourism site, the better. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, tourists bring in money. This greatly helps communities and countries rebuild.

For example, after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, affected countries welcomed tourists back surprisingly back soon after. Tourism money greatly helped countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India to rebuild after the catastrophic event. Tourism money also helps with research and preservation. Without tourists, many dark tourist sites would slowly decay and fade away.

Additionally, the sooner we start visiting a site after a dark event, the more we can learn about it. If we wait for decades after an event to start visiting, we may lose information surrounding the event to time. People also forget and the event loses significance.

For example, Auschwitz opened for remembrance as early as 1947, just 2 years after the war ended. Tourists started visiting the site in larger numbers in the 50s. In the decades since, millions of people have learned about the horrors of the holocaust. If the site wasn’t opened until today, a great deal of information, as well as many learning opportunities, would have been lost.

7. Dark Tourism Can Support the Wrong People

When you visit a dark tourist site, you spend money. You might pay an entrance fee, hire a guide, stay in a hotel, eat in restaurants, etc. Over the course of your trip, you could inject thousands of dollars into a country’s economy. You may want to consider where that money goes and what causes it supports before visiting a dark tourism site.

Some argue that it is unethical to visit countries that are ruled by totalitarian regimes like China, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. When you spend money in these places, you are funding a repressive government that may not have the best interest of its citizens or the rest of the world in mind.

In some cases, you could indirectly fund an evil government that violates human rights. Do you want your tourism dollars funding genocide, torture, slavery, political imprisonment, forced labor, war, or any number of other evil actions?

The most common example of this in dark tourism is North Korea. Pretty much every dark tourist has this strange place on their bucket list. The country has a dark history of war, famine, and communism. North Korea essentially cut itself off from the rest of the world. A mysterious dynasty ruled the country since its birth in 1948. The country also has the unique political ideology of juche. All of this appeals to dark tourists.

Pyongyang, North Korea
Pyongyang, North Korea

In this example, it probably doesn’t matter because tourism in North Korea makes up such an insignificant part of the economy that it doesn’t really make a difference. Still, it’s worth considering what you’re supporting when planning a trip.

The problem is that a visit to North Korea helps to fund a dangerous nuclear program, massive military, and repressive leaders who live lavish lifestyles while regular citizens live in poverty. The tours offered are simply propaganda. Is it ethical to visit such a place? It’s hard to say.

Of course, this example is a matter of perspective. It depends on your political beliefs. If you are a communist, you may not want to support capitalist countries with your tourism money.

Dark tourism can also support good causes. When you visit a dark tourism site, most of the money you spend goes toward maintenance, renovation, and various educational projects. These places aren’t swimming in money. For example, the Anne Frank house depends on revenue from tourism to keep the museum open. They do not receive federal funding. Without tourists, we could lose this historic sight.

Some poor regions can also benefit greatly from dark tourism. For example, Cambodia and Rwanda both experienced devastating genocides in the not so recent past. Tourists visit these places, stay in hotels, eat in local restaurants, and spend their money in the local economy. This helps regular citizens who may still be suffering from the effects of past events. Tourism in both of these poor countries makes up a significant part of the economy.

8. Desecration of the Site

Some dark tourism critics argue that welcoming millions of visitors and building tourism infrastructure like gift shops, restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, restrooms, etc. desecrates the sites of human suffering and death. This disrespects the victims of disaster or tragedy.

There is probably some truth to this. Building tourism infrastructure certainly changes the site. Whether or not this is really desecration is up for debate. In many cases, it comes down to the way the site was designed and preserved.

When designing a dark tourism site, expert historians, engineers, and scientists try to preserve these sites the best they can to keep them as original as possible. The most important artifacts are often moved into museums where they can be carefully preserved.

For example, the Anne Frank House was completely renovated when the museum was built. They kept the secret annex mostly original. Artifacts were preserved in the attached museum. This doesn’t feel like desecration to me.

Besides, it would be unrealistic to expect that everything be kept original. Some changes are needed to make dark tourism sites accessible to tourists.

Welcoming millions of visitors to a dark tourism site definitely does cause wear and tear. There will be some badly behaved visitors. Some people may steal artifacts, visit areas they are not supposed to, write graffiti, and vandalize the site. For example, Justin Bieber caused some controversy when he wrote an inappropriate message in the guest book of the Anne Frank House.

This is unethical behavior on the part of the badly behaved visitors. There are rules in place to prevent visitors from causing damage or disrespecting the sites. Personally, I don’t think a few bad apples should ruin dark tourism for everyone.

9. Voyeurism

Some dark tourism critics claim that visiting a place where a disaster or traumatic event occurred is voyeuristic. This makes it morally questionable. The argument is that it is wrong to visit a site to view suffering or destruction.

Whether or not dark tourism is perceived as voyeuristic depends on a number of factors. For example, some consider viewing natural disasters less problematic than viewing a man-made disaster. The amount of time that has passed since the incident is also important. Many find it unethical to visit an area where a disaster is still ongoing while visiting the site of a past disaster that the country has moved beyond is acceptable.

Perhaps the best and most controversial example of voyeuristic dark tourism is slum tourism. This involves visiting slums or impoverished neighborhoods to see how poor people live. The dark aspect is that these people may not have access to clean water, enough food, electricity, healthcare, education, etc. Oftentimes companies offer guided tours through these slums. Local guides show tourists around the neighborhoods and explain how the locals live. A few popular slum tourism destinations include Dharavi in Mumbai, Kibera in Nairobi, the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and Skid Row in Los Angeles.

Kibera, Nairobi
Kibera Slum, Nairobi

One of the most controversial examples of voyeuristic dark tourism is visiting the Suicide Forest (Aokigahara) in Japan. Dark tourists sometimes travel here to see if they can spot a body. For example, Youtuber Logan Paul filmed a video of a recently deceased man in the forest. As you can imagine, this resulted in a major controversy.

Another example of voyeuristic dark tourism is visiting the site of a major man-made or natural disaster. For example, people traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit to view the destruction first hand. This created some outrage at the time. Other examples of voyeuristic disaster tourism include visiting towns near the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone, ground zero after 9/11, the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Mount St. Helens after the volcanic eruption, etc.

Yet another example of voyeuristic dark tourism is visiting the holy city of Varanasi, India to view the cremation ceremonies that take place on the banks of the Ganges River. Dark tourists hire guides to walk them through the cremation sites and explain the process. This is controversial because it basically turns someone’s funeral into a tourist attraction.

the Ganges River, Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India

Is viewing destroyed, impoverished, or tragic places for tourism purposes unethical?

Personally, I feel conflicted about this point. On the one hand, I see how some might find it distasteful or problematic to watch others suffer. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that visiting these destinations is unethical. Simply viewing a site doesn’t cause any harm or change the situation. Visiting these places doesn’t break any laws. After all, all of the sites are public places in cities or neighborhoods. No one’s privacy is being invaded.

Also, it is human nature to be curious. After all, we all rubberneck when driving by an auto accident. There is nothing unethical about it. It is a natural reaction.

I think visiting these potentially voyeuristic sites comes down to behavior. Walking through a slum or disaster site and pointing a camera at poor or suffering people is clearly problematic. Pretending to help by volunteering may also be harmful. Taking a tour and educating yourself about the situation is different. There is nothing wrong with observing a site to learn more about it.

There are also benefits to visiting these voyeuristic dark tourism destinations. First, tourism brings in money that can greatly help a community recover from a disaster. For example, tourists stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, purchase souvenirs, go on tours, and more. This money goes directly into the local economy and helps people who may be suffering.

In the case of slum tourism, many slum tourism companies employ people who live or lived in the slum. They may also operate as non-profits that give money back to the community. Of course, this depends on the agency. Some are just in it to make money. Regardless, tourists purchase food, drinks, and souvenirs from the local shops. This helps the residents directly. Some tourists also make charitable contributions or volunteer.

Dark tourism also educates. By visiting a poor or disaster stricken region, tourists can learn about the causes of the issue and its effects on the people living there. One of the greatest lessons this can teach is empathy. Watching a disaster unfold on the news doesn’t have the impact of seeing it with your own eyes. Meeting a survivor gives an entirely different perspective. In many ways, voyeuristic forms of dark tourism do more good than bad.

One interesting argument against tourism to these voyeuristic disaster sites is that it removes the incentive to rebuild areas that have been destroyed. After rebuilding an area, tourism dries up. Tour operators have no incentive to help improve the situation. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of this happening so I’m not sure that I buy this argument.

10. Dark Tourism Can Be Dangerous

Another common criticism of dark tourism is that it can be dangerous. You could cause health problems for yourself down the road. You could get injured or killed when visiting some dark tourism sites that are located in dangerous countries.

In some cases, this is true. For example, when visiting the site of a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima, you may expose yourself to harmful radiation. If the dark tourism destination is located in a country with a high rate of violent crime, you risk becoming a victim. Dark tourism to a war zone like much of Syria is dangerous for obvious reasons. Some countries have bad air quality that could affect your respiratory health. There is political risk of visiting some countries. For example, North Korea has imprisoned visitors for seemingly no reason. When visiting the site of a recent disaster like an earthquake or volcanic eruption, you could expose yourself to contaminants or harmful chemicals or particulates that were have been stirred up during the disaster. There are certainly risks to visiting some dark tourism destinations.

Everyone has a different tolerance for risk. Some people don’t feel safe leaving their neighborhood while others will literally travel to a war zone for tourism purposes. You’ll have to consider what risks you’re willing to accept when planning to visit a dark tourism destination that is considered dangerous.

To reduce any risk of injury while visiting a dangerous dark tourism destination, you can hire a local guide. They can keep you safe and help you navigate any dangerous areas. You could also visit on a group tour. There is safety in numbers. Simply planning your trip out and preparing well also greatly reduces any risks. In particularly dangerous destinations, you can hire private security.

Of course, the majority of dark tourism destinations are perfectly safe. Museums, monuments, and memorials are designed for tourism purposes. Many dark tourism sites see millions of visitors per year. Some sites that could be dangerous require a guide. Overall, dark tourism is a perfectly safe form of tourism.

The Colosseum, Rome
The Colosseum

Final Thoughts about the Ethics of Dark Tourism

The question “is dark tourism ethical?” is pretty philosophical. There isn’t a black and white answer. Whether or not you consider dark tourism ethical depends on a number of factors including your culture, morals, past experience, upbringing, and more.

Some travelers find dark tourism to be disrespectful, voyeuristic, exploiting, or simply inappropriate. Others don’t see any issue with it at all or simply don’t care. For some, the nature of the site, its age, its finances, and the intention and behavior of the visitors all come into play. Hopefully, this guide has helped you make an educated decision of your own as to whether or not dark tourism is right for your next trip.

One important thing to remember is that visiting places where death or suffering occurred has been popular for as long as tourism has existed. Dark tourism is not a new phenomenon. For example, tourists visited the battlefield of Gettysburg shortly after the battle ended in 1863. Tourists have been visiting Pompeii since the 1800s as well. Gladiator battles started in the Colosseum in 80 AD. Some consider this an early form of dark tourism.

It is only natural for humans to be interested in these dark types of places. Most of us have a natural fascination with morbid things. There is nothing wrong with satisfying that morbid curiosity as long as we do it in a respectful manner without causing unnecessary destruction or harm. At the same time, we can learn about history, culture, and ourselves.

For more info and a list of some of the most popular sites, check out my complete guide to dark tourism.

How do you feel about the ethics of dark tourism? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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