Dark tourism is a loose label given to any sort of tourism that involves visiting places where some of the darkest events of human history have unfolded. These dark events are usually associated with death caused by a natural or man-made disaster, an atrocity, or what can also be called ‘difficult heritage’. Although this phenomenon isn’t considered new by many scholars, the term ‘dark tourism’ only entered the scholarly lexicon in 1996 when two academics in Glasgow (Lennon and Foley) applied it while looking at sites associated with the assassination of JFK.

While dark tourism evolved around places associated with the horrors of war, slavery and murder, it also includes travel to dangerous political hotspots.

Also Read: Explore Dark Tourism With 8 Of These Sites From Across The World

How Is It An Old Phenomenon?

This phenomenon that involves travelling or experiencing sites that are connected to death and the macabre is not new. J. John Lennon, a professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University, in Scotland who coined the term ‘dark tourism’ with his colleague Foley in 1996 says, “There’s evidence that dark tourism goes back to the Battle of Waterloo where people watched from their carriages the battle taking place.” Sharpley and Stone in their 2009 paper titled ‘The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism’ have noted that since people began travelling, they have been drawn to—for still partially unknown reasons—“towards sites, attractions or events that are somehow linked to negative historical events where death, violence, suffering or disaster played a major role”.

Is It Similar To Voyeurism?

‘Voyeurism’ is defined by Merriam Webster as, “the practice of taking pleasure in observing something private, sordid, or scandalous.” As dark tourism sites allow one to experience the disaster, catastrophe, and pain, to witness the most horrible human events, but removed from it from a point of safety, this type of tourism is often considered akin to voyeurism. However, Peter Hohenhaus, the founder of the website dark-tourism.com, believes most dark tourists are primarily motivated by a desire to improve their understanding of contemporary history, and therefore they cannot fairly be described as voyeuristic.

Are Dark Tourism Destinations Gaining Popularity Today?

As a travel trend, dark tourism has gained significant momentum over the last few years. Even the Tourism Society has emphasised that the field of dark tourism has grown into becoming a thrilling and important topic for the tourism industry. With the broader rise in off-the-beaten-track tourism, dark tourism has also become widespread and diverse, as it goes beyond the territory of popular guidebooks and TripAdvisor rankings. In fact, the demand is rising among the more intrepid tourists who want to venture to the fallout zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as North Korea and Rwanda. 

artisan vodka
Pripyat, Chernobyl

While there aren’t official statistics on how many people participate in dark tourism every year or whether that number is on the rise, the Vienna-based website dark-tourism.com includes almost 900 dark tourism sites in 112 countries. According to this online travel guide, the tourism in Auschwitz, Poland has risen dramatically over the years and has now passed the 1.7 million per annum mark, while Ground Zero in New York, the 9/11 memorial, recorded 4.5 million visitors in its first year of operations alone.

Even Chernobyl in Ukraine, infamous for the 1986 nuclear accident, considered the worst in human history, has seen visitor numbers increase almost sixfold since 2012, according to Hohenhaus. Today, Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat, offer an insight into what life was like in the Soviet era, as well as a glimpse of what a post-apocalyptic world might look like.

Pop Culture Helping Popularity

Dark tourism
Official Poster of the HBO Mini- Series (Source: IMDb)

Dark tourism has become more popular with popular culture fuelling more visits to some well-known sites. The Netflix series ‘Dark Tourist’ which was released in 2018, has definitely contributed to this popularity. Similarly, the acclaimed HBO show ‘Chernobyl’ has further fueled people’s interest in Pripyat and Chernobyl. According to various travel companies that bring people to this area, there was a visitor increase of 30 to 40 per cent. In fact, Ukraine’s president has since declared its intention to make the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone an official tourist spot, despite lingering radiation.

What Are The Motivations Of Dark Tourists?

Being one of the most essential elements of tourism, motivation is one of the most important drivers for tourism demand, and simultaneously the most complicated component. Without motivation, there is no demand. To understand dark tourism and dark tourists, motivation becomes a central question. It might be easy to explain the meaning of dark tourism, but it’s trickier to define the “why”.

Why visit musty catacombs in Paris, when the grandeur of Louvre is just a stone’s throw away? What is the allure behind vacationing around death and disaster? One of the commonly reported motives seems to be learning about past events, a curiosity that drives interest in such sites. 

According to Dr Ria Dunkley’s paper ‘The Thanatourist: a Fascination With Death and Depravity?’ there might be several motivations that precipitate visits to dark tourism sites. One of them, she suggests, is the quest for contemplation and introspection, which may prompt visits to cemeteries and grave-sites. Another would be the need to see evidence of a particularly tragic event such as Ground Zero or Auschwitz. 

Oswiecim, Poland - June 28, 2015: Barbed wire fence and brick buildings (so called blocks) in Auschwitz I

It is challenging to state what exactly drives tourists to dark places where the tragedy had happened. According to Philip Stone, the executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire in England, the reason behind the devotion towards the places that are, as Lennon puts it, “synonymous with the darkest periods of human history”, is our cultural fascination with the darker side of history. Stone believes that when we go to these sites, we don’t see strangers, but often see ourselves and perhaps what we might do in those circumstances. White and Frew in their 2013 paper titled ‘Dark Tourism and Place  Identity, Managing and interpreting dark places’, argue that some people like to satisfy their curiosity and fascination with the dark tourism concept in a socially adequate setting that also allows them to build their own reflection of mortality. 

However, Gregory J. Ashworth’s 2004 paper ‘Tourism and the heritage of atrocity: Managing the heritage of South African apartheid for entertainment’, introduced four different arguments to understand the motivations behind dark tourism. 

a) The first argument deals with people’s curiosity, which is one of the major drivers of human beings. Tourists are fascinated by the unusual, unknown and unique, which leads to the conclusion that at least part of the curiosity for dark tourism attractions comes from the same motivations that lead people to acknowledge and remember the exceptional and unusual. 

b) The second argument by Ashworth brings in ‘identity’. Dark tourism visits can also be a search for a better understanding of personal, regional or national identity. Often related to heritage tourism or roots tourism, (since a great number of dark tourism attractions date back several years) these dark tourism sites have a considerable historical significance other than just being popular for a tragic event itself. The tourists look for their past, trying to understand themselves, their history and try to find a piece of past life. Ashworth calls it self understanding and self-identity. He claims that since “much history has been unpleasant for many, it is not surprising that such a search almost inescapably reveals past atrocity with which the searcher can identify…”. 

c) Thirdly, Ashworth highlights how horror can be fascinating to some people. He relents and states that this argument might appear less acceptable since it suggests that some people are attracted by horrific incidents. While the fact that people are entertained by the suffering and tragedy of others may seem revolting to many, it is observed that these feelings of enchantment and fear by voyeuristic contact with tragedy is not only a predominant product of many tourist attractions but is also present in literary work, folktales, art and lately seen in film and television screenings as well. Hence, the relation between tourism and a dark attraction can be just as entertaining for the tourist as the mentioned media.

d) The fourth and last argument by Ashworth deals with ‘empathy’. It relies upon the ability of tourists to identify with the horrific stories of a place of great suffering.

Auschwitz, Poland – April 16, 2015: International Holocaust Remembrance Day . Annually people from the all the world meets on the March of the Living in german Concentration Camp in Auschwitz Birkenau. Poland

However, it is still unclear what this newfound empathy is supposed to bring forth. What are tourists going to do with that insight?

Ethics And Morality

Few would argue that it is immoral to benefit from others’ calamities, no matter how far removed these incidents may be from our present time or place. As Hohenhaus has mentioned earlier, these dark experiences are primarily motivated by a desire to improve their understanding of contemporary history, but what if having those experiences mean intruding on nations and people who simply can’t travel away from their struggles? Taking the example of tourism in North Korea, while the past decade has opened up North Korea to tourism, allowing citizens from most countries to visit. It is also observed that due to the strict dictatorship, no average North Korean interacts with tourists. The registered guided tours which are compulsory by the way, are well-scripted, allowing engagement with the regime and not the people. Moreover, tourism legitimises the regime while enriching it at the same time. Therefore, the question that emerges here is whether it is ethical to promote a repressive regime that is repeatedly cited for human rights violations. This question is germane not just to North Korea but to all tourist locations that have questionable human rights records, from China to Hungary.

Aokigahara yamanashi japan, dark tourism

Dark tourism can be easily made into a market, specifically for the personalization of global tragedy as it often engages with nations and peoples at their most vulnerable. Additionally, dark tourism destinations would then run the risk of turning sites of very real pain into backdrops for Western introspection and one that any tourist is likely to find inspirational. Who wouldn’t want to return home with this newly discovered lust for life? However, it bears questioning, how one arrives at such an inspiration—and how many lives were lost to make it happen. For example, while visiting the haunted forest-Aokigahara in Japan which is Japan’s most prevalent suicide site, the presenter of the series ‘Dark Tourist’,  journalist David Farrier claims, he’s happier than ever to be alive.

How Should The Intent Of The Visit Be Clear?

If, as an ethical dark tourist, we visit a site without exploiting locals or disrespecting victims, it stops us taking anything for granted. Especially at places of human suffering from disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, or from fascist regimes that are no longer in existence such as the killing fields of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We still aren’t clear if they are free from ethical constraints. Dark tourism at its best is thought-provoking and educational, but there have also been disturbing examples of disrespect— In 2018, in Japan’s ‘haunted forest’ Aokigahara, YouTuber Logan Paul filmed a dead body in the forest, which was met with worldwide outrage.

Similarly, in episode one of ‘Dark Tourist’, David Farrier visits Medellín, the Colombian city controlled by drug lord Pablo Escobar. Narco tourism which involves visiting sites connected to the drugs trade have organised ‘narco fantasy’ tours that are disrespectful to the families of Escobar’s victims.

La Catedral: Inside The Luxurious Prison Colombia Allowed Pablo Escobar To Make For Himself, Dark tourism

When places of death and torture are respected from the perspective of valuing the sanctity of life, and not seen as a source of thrill resulting from a voyeuristic need, then these behaviours, will not occur. The attitude and intent of the visitor determine the presence of dark tourism. While visiting Auschwitz is not questionable, snapping a smiling selfie there would be of some concern.

Drawing Boundaries And Being A Responsible Tourist

According to J Lennon, a tourism professor at Glasgow Caledonian University, “These are important sites that tell us a lot about what it is to be human”. He says, “They’re important places for us to reflect on and try to better understand the evil that we’re capable of”. In some cases, communities or entire countries endow such sites of horrific histories with symbolic significance. Their stories of battles and disasters can also be stories of heroism. Even the different stories of slavery can become stories of human progress. One such example from dark tourism in India is the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. It used to be a three-storeyed colonial prison that is today a dedicated National Memorial that showcases the saga of the heroic freedom struggle.
When Pompeii, a dark tourist site long before the phrase was coined, found itself on the Grand Tour of young European nobility in the 18th century, dozens of tourists scratched their names into its excavated walls. Now we leave our mark in different ways, but where should we draw boundaries while visiting these sites? Therefore, to be a responsible ethical tourist, one needs to be better informed about atrocities like racial and ethnic cleansing. People need to be respectful and aware of their actions at these sites. With respect, we should also maintain how the artefacts or places—especially at the sites of death and martyrdom—can be observed. They  aren’t supposed to be tampered with. If we follow such simple rules in future while visiting the dark tourism destinations, we can definitely become ethical and responsible tourists.

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