The Allure of Dark Tourism


Usually, when you think of tourists you think of people on your home turf coming to enjoy the fruits of your land. They’d check out the sites and learn about the history of the land and its people. They’d partake in a deep dive into the history of the people that came before and their way of life at that point many years ago. Has it ever occurred to you that while there are people who come for the sites of your land, yes, it can be for the sites that are less glamorous and more heart tugging – but not in a cheerful way. I present to you Dark Tourism, which has been defined as “tourism that is associated with death or tragedy.” Also known as black tourism or thanatourism, it has long been defined by Michael Foley and John Lennon as, “the representation of inhuman acts, and how these are interpreted for visitors”. Through the eyes of Kevin Fox Gatham, it is the “circulation of people to places characterized by distress, atrocity, or sadness and pain.” For the wandering mind, the question of what attracts one to these sites is begging to be explored.  Shall we? 


From both the public’s eye and an educational perspective, an insane amount of interest has been generated in the name of Dark Tourism. Somewhat a controversial thing, it’s viewed in two lights: respectful and unethical. Examples of this type of tourism are cemeteries, historical museums, and zombie-themed events. Directly associated with grief and heavily subscribed to death and tragedy, Dark Tourism is a popular tourism type with two different ends on its spectrum. You see, “On one end of the spectrum, activities tend to be of a more commercial nature. A Jack the Ripper-themed funfair ride or a comical play based around the Black Plague are effectively romanticized versions of dark events or times in history. The intention is for the tourist to have fun and enjoy themselves, rather than to be educated about said historical reference. On the other end of the spectrum (the darkest end), we have extreme or serious dark tourism activities. These are activities that often involve an educational element, such as learning about a Nuclear disaster or a shipwreck. Activities on this end of the scale are associated with an authentic experience, whereby the tourist visits an actual historical site or speaks with people who were involved. Examples might include visiting the Berlin Wall or Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields in Cambodia,” and this is according to the website named the Tourism Teacher


What is it about these grief-driven sites that cause us as a human collective to be frequent flyers? Turns out that for the people who visit these sites “it is purely the possibility of being able to emotionally absorb oneself in a place of tragedy.” There’s an importance that lies in people engaging and immersing themselves in past history and culture, and reflecting on history is made easy by visiting said sites. Speaking of history, Dark Tourism ties in quite nicely with Educational Tourism. Now, for many people, this is a dominant, if not their main, motivation for being a dark tourist. While dark tourism may not be a happy, leisure-filled experience, many people enjoy the educational aspect that comes with it. There’s an urge to understand the past and what activities and occurrences it held. 


Interestingly, there are seven types of Dark Tourism sites worldwide. As quoted from Tourism Teacher, the first up is Dark Fun Factories which “are essentially play centres. Whilst these are usually associated with children, they can also be aimed at adults. There are, for example, escape rooms which revolve around a dark theme, zombie chases, or theatrical activities that all take place in dark fun factories.” Dark Exhibitions, “There are many different dark exhibitions throughout the world. In Berlin, there was focus on the Holocaust. There were exhibitions on the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia, exhibitions about the Vietnam War, and many more. Dark exhibitions are a good opportunity for tourists to learn about the dark histories or events of a destination in a respectful way.” Then there are Dark Dungeons, “Many destinations open their historical dungeons for public viewing. These may be in their original state or they may have been altered for tours. The London Dungeons, for example, have become rather ‘Disneyfied’, in the way that they encompass live actors, sensory activities and rides.” In the mix are: Dark Resting Places, “Whilst visiting a graveyard might not be at the top of every tourist’s list, you might be surprised at just how busy these places can be! Some famous cemeteries are the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the Recoleta Cemetery in Argentina, the Taj Mahal and Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow.” Dark Conflict Sites, “Sites of conflict often become dark tourism sites once peace has been restored and a reasonable period of time has passed. One of the most interesting conflict sites was located in Vietnam, there I learned all about the Vietnam War. The D-Day Beaches in France are also very interesting.”  Dark Camps of Genocide, “There are several areas of genocide which are popular with tourists. Whilst this is obviously a sad history, many people choose to visit sites such as Auschwitz or Karaganda, Kazakhstan to learn more about the history.” Dark disasters, “Disaster sites, whether in the immediate aftermath or after some time has passed, are popular with dark tourists.” 


Destinations that are magnets of Dark Tourism include: Auschwitz, which is the epitome of dark tourism, is home to a World War II memorial that has in its existence seen an estimated 50 million tourists. Chernobyl, titled one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, although a popular destination it remains to this date a hazard. Hiroshima, home of the world’s first nuclear attack, To be noted, is that in 2016, the number of visitors reached over 12 million. Over 11 million were domestic tourists, 323,000 were students on school trips, and 1,176,000 were international visitors. The 9/11 Memorial, “Following one of the world’s worst terrorist attacks, the 9/11 memorial site is one of the world’s top dark tourism attractions and is one of the most visited sites of any kind. Within the first 2 years of the memorial opening, over 10 million visitors arrived and a couple of years later the total figure rose to over 23 million.” The Killing Fields is a collection of (more than 300) sites in Cambodia where over a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime. Other sites include Bikini Atoll, Berlin,  Robben Island, Rwanda, Oradur Sur Glane, Pompeii, Sedlec Ossuary, and the Island of the Dolls. 

Now, one thing is clear, under the umbrella that hosts Dark Tourism, you can find Disaster Tourism and vice versa.  With the various types of dark tourism sites, therein lies the motivation and the reason for travel. However, even with a lack of Dark Tourism etiquette such as taking inappropriate photos inclusive of selfies at the site, these dark sites remain magnets for folks. So much so, TV shows showcasing Dark Tourism such as The Dark Tourist can be found on Netflix, and the Chernobyl documentary which was ranked high on user ratings and can be found on Amazon Prime.


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