What is dark tourism?
Dark tourism refers to travel to places that are historically associated with death, tragedy, or some kind suffering. It is about visiting places where some of the darkest events of human history have unfolded (Sampson, 2019). It involves visiting sites such as battlefields, memorials, abandoned prisons, or locations of natural or man-made disasters.
Dark tourism is a complex and multi-faceted concept, encompassing a range of experiences and motivations. For some, it is a way to engage with history on a deeper, and more personal level. For others, it is about acknowledging the fragility of life.
History of dark tourism
Dark tourism is not something new; however, it is a relatively new area of academic study and research. According to George Town University (2014) the term ‘dark tourism’ was first coined by professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley of Glasgow Caledonian University in 1996. The authors have developed the concept to describe the growing interest in visiting sites associated with disasters, and depravity.
It can be argued that the history of dark tourism is as old as human civilisation itself. Since time immemorial, people have been drawn to sites of disasters, whether out of curiosity, or the need to bear witness to the horrors of the past. However, it is only in the last few decades that this trend has been recognised and studied as a distinct form of tourism.
In ancient times, Roman citizens would gather in the Colosseum to watch gladiatorial combats, a form of entertainment that involved violence. In the Middle Ages, public executions were common spectacles, drawing large crowds. Even the tradition of visiting cemeteries or memorials can be seen as a form of dark tourism.
Characteristics of dark tourism
This type of tourism is characterised by its focus on disaster and tragedy. It involves visiting sites where terrible events have taken place, and where the echoes of past horrors still resonate. However, it is not just about the places themselves, but also about the stories they tell and the emotions they evoke.
One of the key characteristics of dark tourism is the desire to confront the darker aspects of human history. This can be a way to acknowledge and remember the victims of these tragedies, to learn from the past, or to reflect on the fragility of life.
Another characteristic is the educational value. Dark tourism sites often provide valuable insights into historical events, societal issues, or human behavior. They can serve as powerful reminders of the consequences of actions, the horrors of war, or the destructive power of nature.
Types of dark tourism
Academic researchers are of the view that dark tourism can be categorised into War/Battlefield Tourism, Disaster Tourism, Prison Tourism, Cemetery Tourism, Ghost Tourism etc. There are many examples around the world that may fall into each of these categories.
Examples/destinations of dark tourism
There are countless examples of dark tourism around the world, each with its own unique history and significance. Here are a few notable ones:
This concentration and extermination camp in Poland is one of the most visited dark tourism sites in the world. The site serves as a poignant reminder of the horrors of genocide during the World War 2.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The sites of the world’s first atomic bombings are now home to peace parks and memorials, attracting millions of visitors each year. They remind the American bombing raids on the Japanese cities causing deaths and immense sufferings of humans, infrastructure, and the environment (BBC, 2022).
This is the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster which is now a popular tourist destination. Visitors can explore the abandoned city of Pripyat and learn about the tragic event and its aftermath.
This former prison in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a symbol of the struggle against apartheid.
Advantages of dark tourism
Despite its grim subject matter, this type of tourism has several benefits. It can provide valuable educational experiences, promote historical awareness, and foster empathy and understanding.
Sites associated with this type of tourism often serve as important historical and educational resources. They allow visitors to learn about past events and societal issues in a deeper, more meaningful way than they might from a textbook. They provide a tangible connection to history, making it feel more real and immediate.
Human empathy and understanding
Dark tourism can also foster empathy and understanding. By confronting the horrors of the past, visitors may gain a new perspective on human suffering and the consequences of certain actions. This can lead to a greater appreciation for peace and human rights.
Finally, this type of tourism can also have economic benefits. It can bring revenue to areas that might otherwise struggle to attract tourists, contributing to local economies and supporting conservation and preservation efforts.
Disadvantages of dark tourism
Entertainment with tragedies?
There is a fine line between learning from the past and indulging in sullen curiosity. Some critics argue that dark tourism can cross into voyeurism, turning tragedy into entertainment. This can be particularly problematic when visitors behave inappropriately, taking selfies at memorials or making light of serious events.
Exploitation of tragedy
Dark tourism can also lead to the commercialisation and exploitation of tragedy. Some sites charge high entrance fees, sell souvenirs, or offer ‘experience tours’, which can be seen as profiting from suffering.
Distressing for victims and their families
Furthermore, dark tourism can be upsetting for the victims and their families. Seeing their personal tragedies turned into tourist attractions can be deeply distressing and disrespectful.
Ethical implications of dark tourism
The ethical implications of dark tourism are complex and multifaceted. On one hand, it is important to remember and learn from the past, and dark sightseeing attractions can play a vital role in this. On the other hand, there is a risk of trivialising or exploiting tragedy, causing distress to victims and their families.
One of the key ethical questions in this type of tourism is how to balance the need for education and remembrance with respect for the victims. This involves careful management of the sites, appropriate behavior from visitors, and sensitivity in the interpretation and presentation of the events.
Another ethical issue is the commercialization of tragedy. While revenue from tourism can support the preservation and maintenance of the sites, it is crucial that this does not cross into exploitation. Profiting from suffering is clearly unethical, and operators must ensure that their practices are respectful and responsible.
How to responsibly engage in this type of tourism?
Engaging in this type of tourism responsibly involves a few key principles: respect, empathy, and education. Here are some tips that the reader should find useful:
Visitors must always remember that they are visiting a site of tragedy or suffering. They must behave appropriately, keep noise levels down, and avoid taking inappropriate photos or selfies.
Learning before the visit
Visitors should learn about the history and significance of the site before they visit. This should help them appreciate the site in a deeper, more meaningful way.
Supporting local communities
If possible, visitors should support local businesses and communities when visiting dark tourism sites. This can help mitigate the negative impacts of tourism and contribute to local economies.
Visitors should take the time to reflect on their experience and the lessons they have learned. Dark tourism is not just about sightseeing only, but also about understanding and remembering the past.
Concluding: What is dark tourism?
Dark tourism is a complex and controversial phenomenon. It is a way to confront the darker aspects of human history, to learn from the past, and to pay respects to those who suffered. But it also raises ethical questions about the appropriateness of turning sites of tragedy into tourist attractions.
Despite the controversy, it is clear that this type of tourism has a significant role to play in education, remembrance, and understanding. It allows us to bear witness to the horrors of the past, to reflect on the fragility of life, and to appreciate the value of peace and human rights.
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Last update: 17 August 2023
BBC (2020) Hiroshima and Nagasaki, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-53648572 (accessed 21 June 2023)
George Town University (2014) Developing dark tourism, available at: https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/humw-011-wdb38/2014/05/05/developing-dark-tourism-by-will-blommer/ (accessed 20 June 2023)
Sampson, H. (2019) Dark tourism explained, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/travel/dark-tourism-explainer/ (accessed 20 June 2023)
Author: M Rahman
M Rahman writes extensively online and offline with an emphasis on business management, marketing, and tourism. He is a lecturer in Management and Marketing. He holds an MSc in Tourism & Hospitality from the University of Sunderland. Also, graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University with a BA in Business & Management Studies and completed a DTLLS (Diploma in Teaching in the Life-Long Learning Sector) from London South Bank University.