Dark tourism explained: What, why and where

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(Last updated on: 16/11/2020)

Dark tourism is a type of tourism that has received increasing attention in recent years. TV shows, such as Chernobyl and The Dark Tourist, have introduced the concept of dark tourism to the minds of motives of many tourists around the world. But what is dark tourism? Is dark tourism ethical? How can you be a ‘good’ dark tourist?

In this post I will define the concept of dark tourism, explain why dark tourism is so popular and provide a few examples of dark tourism sites. I will also discuss the ethics of dark tourism, which are somewhat controversial.

Dark tourism

What is dark tourism?

Dark tourism, also known as black tourism, thanatourism or grief tourism, is tourism that is associated with death or tragedy.

The act of dark tourism is somewhat controversial, with some viewing it as an act of respect and others as unethical practice.

Popular dark tourism attractions include Auschwitz, Chernobyl and Ground Zero. Lesser known dark tourism attractions might include cemeteries, zombie-themed events or historical museums.

Dark tourism definitions

Dark Tourism started to gain academic attention in the early 90s, but it is only recently that it has sparked the interest of the media and the general public.

An early definition defined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, define dark tourism as “the representation of inhuman acts, and how these are interpreted for visitors”.

In a more recent publication, Kevin Fox Gotham defines dark tourism as “the circulation of people to places characterized by distress, atrocity, or sadness and pain. As a more specific component of dark tourism, “disaster tourism” denotes situations where the tourism product is generated within, and from, the aftermath of a major disaster or traumatic event”.

Dark tourism has become the subject of academic debate more and more in recent years, most notably for its critiques and assessment of associated impacts.

The dark tourism spectrum

Dark tourism encompasses many different ‘dark’ activities. These can range from visiting an attraction such as the London Dungeons, where people are seen laughing and joking (did you know it finishes with a height-restricted ride that imitates people being hung!?), to tourists racing to the scenes of a disaster to provide help and relief. Naturally these are two very different ends of the dark tourism spectrum.

To help us understand the dark tourism sector better, we can organise activities according to the dark tourism spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum (the darkest end) we have extreme or serious dark tourism activities. These are activities which often involve an educational element, such as learning about a Nuclear disaster or a ship wreck. 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.

On the other 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 romanticised 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.

Read also: Sustainable tourism explained: What, why and where

The question is, why is dark tourism so popular? Why do we choose to visit places of death and tragedy? What is it that attracts us to such sorrow?

For many, it is purely the possibility of being able to emotionally absorb oneself in a place of tragedy. It is important for people to engage and immerse themselves in past history and culture. By visiting dark tourism sites, we are able to give ourselves time to reflect on history.

Dark tourism has close ties with educational tourism. Particularly in cases of darkest/darker tourism. For many people, this is a dominant, if not their main, motivation for being a dark tourist. Whilst dark tourism may not be a happy leisure experience, many people enjoy the educational aspect that comes with it. I know that I have certainly enjoyed visiting famous cemeteries and learning more about WW2 during my travels to Berlin and Poland.

Visitors of dark tourism sites are of a wide socio-demographic group. Motivations stem from educational purposes, the desire to understand past affairs, etc. Whilst other motivations stem from the desire to experience something different or new.

Dark tourism documentary

I recently watched a series on Netflix called The Dark Tourist. In this show, journalist David Farrier focuses on dark tourism and tourist behaviour towards popular dark tourism sites that are historically associated with death and/or tragedy.

In each episode, David travels to a different dark tourism destination. Some of these sites I have visited before and others I have now added to my bucket list. If you’re interested in learning more about dark tourism attractions around the world then this is a great show to watch!

Here is the trailer.

If reading is more your thing, there are also a couple of really great books on dark tourism. Two of my favourites are Don’t Go There: From Chernobyl to North Korea—one man’s quest to lose himself and find everyone else in the world’s strangest places and The Dark Tourist: Sightseeing in the world’s most unlikely holiday destinations. Both books are comical repertoires of the authors’ adventures and mishaps when visiting dark tourism attractions around the world. This makes for some great like, leisurely reading over a glass of wine or a cup of tea!

Types of dark tourism

According to Stone (2006), there are seven main types of dark tourism sites.

Dark fun factories 

Fun factories 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 evolve 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. I visited several during my travels to Berlin that were focussed on the Holocaust. I visited exhibitions on the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia. I have been to exhibitions about the Vietnam War and many more.

dark tourism

Dark exhibitions are a good opportunity for tourists to learn about the dark histories or events of a destination in a respectful way.

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.

Dark resting places

There are some really interesting cemeteries that I have visited throughout the world. Whilst visiting a graveyard might not be at the top of every tourists list, you might be surprised at just how busy these places can be! Some famous cemeteries that I have visited include the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the Recoleta Cemetery in Argentina and Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow. Did you know the Taj Mahal is also a dark resting place? Yep, I’ve been there too.  

dark tourism

Dark shrines 

There are many shrines throughout the world which are popular tourist attractions, perhaps themes famous being the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Shrines are especially popular in Asian countries.

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 that I have visited was Vietnam, where I learned all about the Vietnam War. The D-Day Beaches in France were 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.

I think that Stone has missed out a key type of dark tourism in his list- disaster sites- so I will add this in below.

Dark disasters

Disaster sites, whether in the immediate aftermath or after some time has passed, are popular with dark tourists. A subset of dark tourism, disaster tourism has increased in popularity in recent years. The recent documentary on Chernobyl, which was ranked the most highly user rated TV series ever, has helped raise awareness of disaster tourism amongst the public and tourism to this area has since increased significantly. I have written a detailed post on this topic, you can click here to read it: Disaster tourism: What, why and where.

There are a variety of types of dark tourism that falls under the pillar of dark tourism, which include:

  • Holocaust tourism
  • Disaster tourism
  • Grave tourism
  • Cold war tourism
  • Nuclear tourism
  • Prison and persecution site tourism

Whilst each of these concepts are a type of tourism in their own right, they do share many similarities and are therefore classified together under the umbrella term of dark tourism.

Read also: A definition of volunteer tourism: What is it and where does it fit in the broad tourism industry?

The ethics of dark tourism

So, is it really ethical to visit sites of death and tragedy? Or to photograph those who continue to sorrow for all that is lost? Or to take a selfie in a site of sadness? Many people do indeed question the ethics of taking part in dark tourism.

Take the response to the recent influx of Instagram photos taken in Chernobyl, for instance. There has been outrage, as shown in this newspaper article, at so-called ‘influencers’ and their inappropriate photographs taken at the historical nuclear site, where people have dressed up as scientists or posed in their underwear.

Whilst I think that most of us would agree that this is not sustainable tourist behaviour, there are a range of views as to what is appropriate and what is not when taking part in dark tourism.

As a general guide, however, here is a list of some of the behaviours demonstrated by dark tourists, which have been deemed offensive or inappropriate:

  • Photographing people in moments of sorrow
  • Smiling and laughing around those experiencing hardship
  • Treating people as if they are museum exhibits
  • Making inappropriate remarks
  • Wearing disrespectful clothes
  • Using inappropriate language
  • Committing to disaster tourism for personal gain (e.g. personal satisfaction, to enhance CV etc)
  • Making money from others’ hardships
  • Talking loudly about unrelated issues
  • Showing general signs of disrespect

Dark tourism destinations

There are a wide range of disaster tourism destinations (more than one would have imagined!), many of which would be overlooked as a dark tourism destination.

Below I have listed a few examples of dark tourism destinations, all of which demonstrate the different types of dark tourism as listed above.

Dark tourism at Auschwitz

Following the largest and most deadly Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz was turned into a memorial after the end of WWII. Auschwitz has been deemed the very epitome of all dark tourism.

Today, the memorial site is estimated to have welcomed almost 50 million tourists over its time. The tourist numbers have, in fact, become so high in recent years that the government have limited how many tickets to the area can be sold to tourists each day. I was caught out by this on my trip there a couple of years ago so my tip is to book ahead!

Dark tourism at Chernobyl

dark tourism

Chernobyl has been regarded as one of the worst nuclear disasters in History and I learnt a lot about this when I watched the recent documentary that was shown on TV.

Chernobyl is a very popular destination for dark tourism, however unlike Auschwitz, this destination remains a hazard and is to date a dangerous site to visit due to the radiation levels still pertinent.

It is interesting to read in a recent article published this month that booking numbers have increased by 30% in the last 3 months following the recent tv series on the disaster.

Dark tourism at Hiroshima

Hiroshima preserves the memory of the worlds first nuclear attack. An atomic bomb at Hiroshima killed more people in one instant than any other killing in history.

Hiroshima continues to promote itself as a symbol of peace rather than that of a devastated city.

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.

Dark tourism at the 9/11 memorial

Following one of the worlds 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 years later the total figure rose to over 23 million.

Dark tourism at the Killing Fields

The Killing Fields are a collection of (more than 300) sites in Cambodia where over a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime.

This is a popular tourism attractions and often considered a ‘right of passage’ when backpacking around South East Asia. It is an educational and sorrowful site, highlighting an important time in Cambodia’s history.

One recent article has expressed the issues faced with the high volume of tourists visiting the Killing Fields. This is due to the number of tourists ‘leaving their mark’ and graffiting on prison walls.

dark tourism

Dark tourism at Bikini Atoll

Bikini Atoll is associated mainly with the nuclear testing programme that the United States of America conducted.

Unlike natural disasters, tourists could not flock to Bikini Atoll immediately after, and even to this day, Bikini Atoll remains an extremely hazardous place to visit despite the US granting its safety in 1997.

It is argued that disaster tourists are putting themselves at risk by travelling to Bikini Atoll. There is still a significant level of radiation in the area and the extent of the damage caused below sea level has not been determined.

This particular disaster is categorised as nuclear tourism under the umbrella of dark tourism.

Dark tourism in Berlin

Berlin was the capital of the socialist single party regime of the former GDR. Now it is referred to the as ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’.

Berlin is home to a number of Holocaust and WW2 exhibitions and is popular with educational tourists. I took a student group there a few years ago and I would definitely recommend it for anybody studying tourism or history.

dark tourism

Dark tourism at Robben Island

Robben Island can be observed as a form of Prison and persecution site tourism. In fact the prison has been recognised and preserved as a UNWTO World Heritage Site.

Prior to its conservation, the Island was a standing prison during the colonial wars, particularly dominante by successive colonial powers (Dutch and British).

Nowadays, the prison is a tourist site welcoming thousands of tourists each year. The tour guides are mostly ex-inmates, providing the tourist with an authentic account of what the prison was like when it was in operation as well as a much needed source of employment for the staff member.

dark tourism

We visited during our trip to South Africa and found it very interesting and educational. I learnt a lot about Nelson Mandela and the history of Apartheid.

Dark tourism in Rwanda

Rwanda is a small country in Central Africa and the place where one of the most tragic and largest genocides took place in 1994.

This is now a dark tourism site which is visited by many tourists each year.

Read also: Airbnb explained: What is it, how does it work and is it safe?

Dark tourism at Oradur Sur Glane

One of the most interesting and unusual dark tourism sites that I have visited is Oradur Sur Glane.

In 1944, 642 villagers were massacred in Oradur Sur Glane. Shortly after the war, General Charles de Gaulle declared Oradour should never be rebuilt and instead it should remain a stark memorial to Nazi cruelty. It is fascinating (and eerie) because everything remains untouched to this day.

Dark tourism in Pompeii

Have you ever watched the film Pompeii’?, If so then you will know exactly the history behind the city and what happened.

Pompeii has received an enormous amount of visitors and this may be the result of its publicity following its recent film. Before the film was released, Pompeii was attracted on average 2 million visitors annually, a number that remained very steady from 2002 onwards. However, following the release of the film, tourist numbers staggered upwards reaching over 3.5 million.

Dark tourism at Sedlec Ossuary

Another place that I have visited that was particularly memorable was the bone church known as Sedlec Ossuary.

We took a day trip from Prague to visit this unusual attraction, which was eerie and fascinating at the same time!

You can find out a bit more about the bone church in this video.

Dark tourism at the Island of the Dolls

South of Mexico City, Don Julian Santana begun to hang dolls from treess and buildings as a protection against evil spirits. Today, the Island is known as ‘Island of the Dolls’. Dubbed as the ‘scariest place in Mexico’, it has now become a popular attraction with thrill-seeking dark tourists.

However, it has come to recent attention that the Island has been duplicated to fool tourists into believing they are visiting the original Island.

Dark tourism: A conclusion

Dark tourism is an interesting concept that has reaped increased attention from both academics and the public in recent years. Whether you are visiting a cemetery, taking part in a zombie race or providing relief after a natural disaster, the opportunities to take part in dark tourism activities are far ranging.

It is fairly clear that there are a number of different types of tourism that all fall under the umbrella of dark tourism. And with the different types of dark tourism, comes a variety of different tourist motivations to visit.

However, despite the different motivations, there are still unresolved ethical concerns that need addressing. From inappropriate selfies to taking photos of people who are grieving, there are differing opinions on whether dark tourism is right or wrong.

If you would like to read a bit more about dark tourism, whether you are looking for some leisurely reading or an academic textbook, I have recommended some of my favourite books below.

Further reading


2 Comments
  1. Stuart Fahy

    Really well written article, Hayley. It’s obviously a popular subject at the minute, as you mention. Some of the places you talk about I’d not heard of before and sound intriguing. I’ve been interested in Chernobyl for a while, but I might wait until the curiosity dies down again before I go. I guess it’s personal for everyone what they consider ethical and what isn’t. What they’d be happy to see and another person wouldn’t go near.

    Reply
  2. mino

    i just found this site. its so great with helpful articles. tanks for sharing

    Reply

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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