Dark Tourism

The term Dark Tourism describes travel to places which are associated with tragedy, suffering or death.

Magnificent-Seven-London-Brompton-Cemetery-16-DRSome of the more notorious dark tourism sites worldwide include the Auschwitz concentration camp, or the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; but the practice can be as pedestrian as simply taking a stroll through a cemetery.

A lot of the articles on this website deal with the theme of dark tourism. I have visited some seriously dark places over the years – from prisons and so-called ‘haunted houses’ to former massacre sites – and usually, when writing about such places, I’ll try to give a sense of what it’s like to actually be there. The emotional textures and phenomenological effects can often be quite potent; while sometimes it’s equally fascinating just to observe the behaviour of other visitors.

In all of my dark tourism reports though, I aim to locate these experiences within the context of a site’s history. I typically avoid places that are ghoulish or grisly purely for the sake of thrills, but rather, if I’ve written about it on this site it’s because I believe it’s a story worth being told.

 

An Introduction to Dark Tourism

Dark tourism as a field of academic study was first defined in 1996; but as a leisure pursuit, this practice has been around for a good while longer [1].

Tomb of Confucius 30-DRHuman beings have a fascination with death. The awareness of our own mortality – or moreover, the fear of death – shapes both lives and cultures. Public executions in the Middle Ages were a popular social event, and even going back as far as the Roman Empire death was an entertainment commodity tailored for performance [2].

Academics have tried to pinpoint the nature of this interest in dark tourism, as well as analysing the social and moral repercussions. Dr Philip Stone, founder of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, has posited that “dark tourism represents immorality so that morality may be communicated” [3]. Meanwhile, Latin American academic Maximiliano E. Korstanje has suggested that dark tourism serves as a method for “domesticating death in a secularized world” [4].

For many, the concept of dark tourism is perceived to have a very morbid quality. In Germany this perspective on travel is sometimes referred to as ‘Gruseltourismus’ (or ‘shudder tourism’); the term ‘Thanatourism’ has also been coined (in reference to ‘Thanatos’, the Ancient Greeks’ daemonic personification of death), and denotes tourism which dwells solely on the macabre, and sites associated with particularly violent death.

Perhaps more dubious still are those destinations which cater specifically to this kind of death-fetishism. Some commentators have labelled dark tourism a kind of exploitation, whereby heightened emotional responses are marketed as a selling point. Difficult ethical questions sometimes arise.

Buddhist Hell Garden - 36-DRI saw locals selling somewhat tasteless souvenirs on the site of the massacre at the bridge over the River Kwai. It felt disrespectful; but these people clearly needed the money, and tourists were keeping the business afloat by buying their wares. Then there’s the dilemma of putting money into the hands of unethical regimes, as tourists are forced to do in order to visit, for example, North Korea.

Not all perspectives on dark tourism paint it as such a morbid affair however. It has been suggested that the process of grieving for strangers has a therapeutic effect, and moreover that the phenomenon raises awareness of sometimes hidden histories of human suffering and injustice [5].

That latter point really resonates with me. There are things I’ve learned, while travelling to dark tourism destinations, that I never previously had any idea about. I have heard from survivors what it was like to live through the Siege of Sarajevo… and just recently I learned that in WWII, Belarus lost a higher percentage of its citizens to Nazi massacres than any other country.

These facts are more than simply trivia. They define entire nations, and they form the relations that bind one nation to the next. As Carl Sagan once wrote, “You have to know the past to understand the present” – and for many people, these facts are more than history. They are still very much felt today.

 

Watchtower at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Watchtower at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

[1] Foley, M. and Lennon, J. (2000) “Dark Tourism (Tourism, Leisure & Recreation)”, Cengage Learning, Stamford.
[2] Stone, Dr P. (2013) “Deviance, Dark Tourism and ‘Dark Leisure’: Towards a (re)configuration of morality and the taboo in secular society”, Contemporary Perspectives in Leisure: Meanings, Motives and Lifelong Learning. Ed. S. Elkington and S. Gammon. Abington, Oxon: Routledge.
[3] Stone, Dr P. (2011) Presentation given at ‘Educational Travel – Expanding Horizons’, Tallinn University, Estonia.
[4] Korstanje, M. (2011) “Detaching the elementary forms of Dark Tourism”, Anatolia, an international Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Research. Vol 22 (3), pp. 424-427.
[5] Sharpley, R. and Stone, Dr P. (2009) “The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism”, Aspects of Tourism (Book 41), Channel View Publications, Bristol.

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