What’s Dark Tourism? And Why Is It So Popular?

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When most people think of travel, they think of posing in front of the world’s most stunning sights or relaxing on a tropical island. They probably don’t think about visiting places where some of the world’s biggest tragedies and horrors took place—unless you’re talking about dark tourism. 

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Dark tourism isn’t a new concept, though it recently gained popularity after the launch of the Netflix series with the same name. In the documentary series, journalist David Farrier visits some of the most unusual and macabre tourism places around the globe. From a nuclear blast site in Kazakhstan to JFK’s assassination site, nothing is off-limits.

With all of this excitement both for and against dark tourism, what is it exactly? Is it a shining example of death positive or yet another way to commercialize human suffering? In this guide, we’re pulling back the curtain on dark tourism to understand why it’s so alluring. 

What is Dark Tourism? 

In simple terms, dark tourism is the opposite of “traditional” tourism. Instead of visiting inspiring, classic sites, travelers take great care to visit places where some of the darkest events in human history took place. This includes anything from natural disasters to war and assassination. 

Origin

While most people have only just familiarized themselves with the term “dark tourism,” this is no way a new phenomenon. The term was coined in 1996 at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. Researchers have found evidence of dark tourism going back throughout history.

For example, during the Battle of Waterloo in the 19th century, regular civilians lined up along the sides of the battle with their carriages to watch everything taking place. While this sounds particularly grotesque, it doesn’t end there. Researchers also compare today’s modern fascination with dark tourism to public executions and hangings in the Middle Ages. Crowds would form to watch those put to death take their final breaths. 

In ancient Rome, spectators came from all over to watch gladiators fight to the death. Bloody sports and spectacles of human mortality were very common up until modern times. Today, as a society, people still have an urge to peak into these dark curiosities. 

Popular dark tourism sites

You might be surprised at some of the most popular dark tourism sites. Many of them are classic destinations, though they harbor a dark past. Some, on the other hand, might send even the most experienced traveler running for the hills (or the airport). 

  • Colosseum (Italy): The Colosseum was a gory battlefield for hundreds of years. While it’s an architectural wonder, it also has a deadly history. 
  • Auschwitz (Poland): Visiting any concentration camp from the Nazi era is a humbling experience, but especially the notorious Auschwitz. 
  • Ground Zero (USA): Ground Zero is the site where the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. While there is a memorial and museum in place now, this is an undeniably eerie location. 
  • Killing Fields (Cambodia): The Killing Fields in Cambodia were where some of the worst genocides in human history took place, and you can still see the remnants of blood today. 
  • Chernobyl (Ukraine): Possibly one of the most well-known dark tourism sites, Chernobyl is where the 1986 nuclear reactor accident took place. The grounds are still dangerously radioactive, but you can still take a guided tour. 
  • Hiroshima Museum (Japan): Travelers and locals alike visit the site of the Hiroshima bombings to see artifacts from the explosion that killed so many. 
  • Murambi Memorial (Rwanda): Visitors can see the original clothing of the Murambi Genocide victims hanging in this countryside memorial. 
  • Alcatraz Penitentiary (USA): Possibly one of the most well-known prisons in the world, Alcatraz allows visitors to glimpse into the hard life of inmates incarcerated on this island. 
  • Pompeii (Italy): When Mount Vesuvius erupted, it wiped out the entire Roman city of Pompeii. This was in 79 AD, and the archaeological site is still a popular place for people to visit. 

Does this list surprise you? Dark tourism is very much intertwined with mainstream travel, though some are willing to go farther off the beaten path. 

Why is Dark Tourism Popular?

In many ways, dark tourism is not much different from watching a horror film or going through a haunted house. Humans are naturally curious creatures, and death is the great unknown. These close encounters with some of the worst tragedies offer a rush of adrenaline from a “safe” distance. It’s a way to walk in the footsteps of history, even when that history isn’t pretty. 

Humans are naturally interested in death. We will all die at some point, and death all over the world has come to mean different things. Most people visit these sites not to poke fun or take Instagram photos. They want to encounter death up close, to peer into what it might have been like for the victims of these places and events. 

There is a lot of philosophy behind this phenomenon. Coming to terms with something so grim as genocide or tragedy isn’t easy. By visiting these dark tourism destinations, visitors have an opportunity to learn from this experience and pay their respects. 

Criticisms of Dark Tourism

While many have argued for the advantages of dark tourism (they see them as educational, intriguing, and so on), others have a lot of criticisms. There is no clear answer. 

The main question is whether this is an opportunity to learn something about death, tragedies, and real-life examples of rituals from around the world? Or is this a way for privileged Westerners to explore some of the biggest catastrophes of the world so they can feel better about themselves?

Dark tourism often doesn’t account for other cultures and belief systems. It can either intentionally or unintentionally paint things as “sinister” that might otherwise just be a cultural misunderstanding. For instance, finding a grave in another part of the world might cause a dark tourist to draw untrue conclusions. 

Ultimately, there’s something unappealing about the commercialization of tragedy. The Netflix series does a fair job of exploring some of these money-fueled tourist “attractions.” Things like war reenactments, assassination narratives, and actors pretending to be a part of drug cartels are just a bit too close to reality for comfort.

It’s left up to the individual traveler to determine their own boundaries between thrill-seeking, education, and being respectful of cultures and tragedies. There will never be a clear answer for what’s “right” or “wrong” in the debate around dark tourism. For some, boundaries will be overstepped. For others, it might be an enriching educational experience. 

Dark Tourism Etiquette

If you do plan to take on some dark tourism of your own, it’s important to consider the proper etiquette. Much of the debate around whether this is a worthwhile practice stems from those who pay little attention to the consequences of their actions, no matter how small they may seem. 

Because travel should always be about respecting other cultures and ideas, here are the most important things to remember about dark tourism etiquette:

  • Respect graves: Most dark tourism sites have some form of memorial or grave. This is something that should always be treated with respect. Never touch graves, sit against tombstones, or otherwise disrupt the monuments.
  • Avoid cliches: A lot of cultures around the world have been warped by Hollywood portrayals. Always familiarize yourself with the history of the places you visit and don’t buy into stereotypes of false beliefs. 
  • Put the camera away: When visiting heritage sites, treat them with respect. Don’t take unnecessary photos or selfies. Though these tragedies might have happened long ago, remember to honor those who died by being mindful of your photography. 
  • Follow the rules: While some dark tourism sites are open to the general public, always read any posted rules. There might be things that are off-limits or not allowed, and you don’t want to overstep these boundaries. 
  • Emotions: A lot of people have strong emotional reactions to visiting these dark tourism places. This is very understandable, but it might be a reason to rethink your trip. If you’re worried you’ll be upset or challenged by visiting something, it’s best to stay away. 
  • Tourism companies: A lot of tourism companies offer guided tours to some dangerous sites, but that doesn’t mean you should go. Always do your research to make sure these companies operate safely and ethically.
  • Intent: Finally, remember your intent behind your visit. Are you hoping to learn from these events and gain deeper respect, or is it just something to check off your travel list?

There are no stopping people from visiting some of the darkest places on the planet, and there is a strong argument for why dark tourism is important. However, it’s always essential that you’re mindful of your behavior, so you treat these places with the respect they deserve.  

The Darker Side of Travel

Travel isn’t always about relaxation and getting away from the hustle and bustle. Sometimes it’s a way to challenge yourself and broaden your mind. For many, this includes an element of dark tourism. Not only does visiting these macabre sites give visitors a thrill, but they’re also a way to pay respects to a darker past. 

That being said, dark tourism requires travelers to tread carefully. This is not a simple issue, and it requires a lot of consideration. Before you head off on your next travel venture, give some thought to the history of the place and what your visit might mean. 


Sources

  1. “Did gladiators always fight to the death?” History Stories. 1 September 2018. History.com
  2. Madden, Duncan. “Dark Tourism: Are These The World’s Most Macabre Tourist Attractions?” Forbes. 25 September 2019. Forbes.com
  3. Sampson, Hannah. “Dark tourism, explained.” Washington Post. 13 November 2019. WashingtonPost.com.
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