A Traveler's Guide to Dark Tourism


Exploring the World's Dark & Unusual Travel Destinations

Welcome to Dark Tourists

Dark tourism has become ever-more popular for those looking for alternative types of travel. However, the whole idea of dark tourism can stoke criticism and controversy. Should destinations connected to some of history’s most devasting events be turned into tourist attractions?

The question is a complicated one, however, to assume that the entire notion of dark tourism is exploitative would be to miss a very important point.

For many of us, visiting such destinations brings us a little closer to comprehending the sheer horror of what took place. It is often a powerful, personal reaction where the lessons of history’s teachings become vivid and hard-hitting. And it is through this, that together we have a better chance of ensuring such atrocities do not happen again.

Here at DarkTourists.com we provide insight into what it means to travel this way. We explore the ethics of dark tourism, and the simple do’s and don’ts when visiting places with complicated pasts. The ethos of dark tourism should always be to educate and inform.

Our aim is to highlight some of the world’s most significant dark tourism travel destinations. From assassinations and murder sites to locations of untold man-made devastation. We explore the battle relics of world wars, the remnants of corrupt regimes and haunting places of genocide.

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What is Dark Tourism?

pripyat-dark tourist featured

Essentially, dark tourism is the term given to a type of tourism that involves traveling to a site associated with death and tragedy.

Very often we visit these places due to their historical significance. As we mentioned above, a lot can be learned from actually visiting a location where sinister events took place.

However, there will always be those that travel through morbid curiosity and a fascination with the macabre.

There are countless locations that can be described as dark tourist sites. A browse through this website will demonstrate that.

However, places connected with history’s darkest moments come in many forms. There’s the entire abandoned city of Pripyat that can be visited in connection with the Chernobyl disaster.

Or the site of Captain Cook’s murder commemorated with a 27-foot-high obelisk in Hawaii.

Auschwitz is a carefully maintained tourist destination with exhibits and audio tours. A visit to Highgate Cemetry in London will bring you to the site of Alexander Litvinenko’s lead-lined coffin, you can do this during the opening hours of the cemetery alone.

All would fall under the umbrella of dark tourism because of the history associated with each site.

A History of Dark Tourism

Paris Catacombs

Dark tourism was first coined in 1996, by Lennon and Foley; two scholars at Glasgow Caledonian University, (they were exploring the touristic fascination with sites associated with assassinations).

The label may be relatively new, but the idea of visiting places associated with death is very old. Consider what the Romans liked to do during their days off. ‘Tourists’ would travel for days to watch Gladiators fight each other to the death in grand battles at the Colosseum.

Public executions were considered a family day out during Victorian times. Visitors could buy refreshments and those living so close that their windows and balconies offered views of the hanging, could charge admission.

In fact, a whole industry would surround an execution. Tourists keen for a memento of the day would buy printed pictures and transcripts detailing the crimes of the condemned.

The site of Jack the Ripper’s murders became tourist spots even as he prowled the streets of Whitechapel. You can buy walking tours during a visit to London to this day.

The Catacombs beneath Paris were a desirable concert location for wealthy 19th Century Parisians. They could enjoy the refined aural pleasures of Mozart while sat beside the bones and skulls pressed into the walls.

Dark tourism is not always associated with death. Asylums during the 18th century would open their doors to the paying public as a source of extra revenue. Tourists would take walking tours around these squalid institutions to gawp at the afflicted.

And while we cannot get into the minds of ‘Dark Tourists’ from times past, it does seem apparent that an innate fascination for the macabre was an overriding factor in the popularity of it all. It was treated as entertainment.

So where does that leave us today? How do we reconcile ourselves with the ethical questions surrounding dark tourism in 2019?

The Ethics of Dark Tourism Today?

auschwitz-entrance

There will always be ethical concerns where the site of a tragedy has been repurposed for financial gain.

Some dark tourist sites struggle to strike a balance between education and entertainment and as a result, the horrors of the past can appear to be glorified.

Context is an important issue here. A dark tourism location needs to think carefully about how it represents its story and the artifacts that go along with it.

The best sites clearly explain their past and the events that took place. When done sensitively in a coherent manner the impact on the visitor will be a poignant one; they will appreciate the fact that the site was a place where great suffering took place.

If on the other hand, a site presents an almost random collection of macabre artifacts, with little in the way of a meaningful narrative, the result is often a much more ethically ambiguous experience.

Without context, the dark tourism site is unlikely to educate or inform and will become just a vehicle of dark glorification of the location and whatever is on display.

All of this aside, the ethical questions surrounding dark tourism will continue to remain subjective. There will be some that see the notion as a particularly sinister form of entertainment that should be left well alone, (and others that will visit sites for exactly the same reason).

And then there are those much like the writers of this website. We see dark tourism and its relevant travel destinations as a chance to learn; to come face to face with the horrors of our collective pasts and to pay our respects to those that suffered.

Dark Tourism – The Scholarly Perspective

thanatourism academic dark tourism

The nature of dark tourism and its increasing popularity has gained the interest of scholars in recent years.

In fact, there is an entire institute dedicated to Dark Tourism, based at the University of Central Lancashire, England,

Aptly named the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR); it has become known as one of the world’s leading academic centers for dark tourism scholarship, research, and teaching.

The importance of the institute in the development of ethical dark tourism cannot be understated. (In academic literature, Dark tourism is also referred to as ‘thanatourism’ from the Greek word thanatos, meaning death, or grief).

With its continuing work as a center of research and consultation for the appropriate management, interpretation, and promotion of dark tourism sites and attractions, the iDTR has created an internationally recognized body of work that helps to understand dark tourism from an ethical and social scientific perspective.

Head here, for a list of recent interviews with the executive director of iDTR, Dr. Philip Stone.

The scholarly interest in dark tourism doesn’t stop there of course. There are myriad research papers written from all manner of intellectual perspectives; tourism management, social-historical and cultural, to name but a few.

And then there is general commentary within academic literature that takes a somewhat more critical look at thanatourism.

All of the above has its place in furthering our understanding of why it is important to recognize the growing popularity of dark tourism, and how it can be done in an ethically minded manner.

The Dark Tourism Spectrum

Grytviken_WhalingBoats_NOAA
Image: Lieutenant Philip Hall, NOAA Corps / Public domain

Dark tourism locations cross a range of “darkness”. What I mean by this is that the level of tragedy associated with different places and the context in which it is represented does vary.

You could think of this range as the dark tourism spectrum.

To place this in a practical context; a visit to the London Dungeons (which could be considered a dark tourist activity), where actors are involved with the tour and children are allowed, is very different to a trip to Auschwitz.

They are on opposite ends of the dark tourism spectrum. The chart below demonstrates the concept further.

A-dark-tourism-spectrum
Image: [Stone 2006]. Institute for Dark Tourism Research, University of Central Lancashire.
On the darkest end of the spectrum are serious dark tourism activities.

They normally involve visiting a location where the tragedy took place. Visitors are educated about the attached history and should be mindfully respectful throughout.

The killing fields in Cambodia, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and the Gulag Museum in Siberia would all fall into this end of the spectrum.

On the lightest end, history is presented in a more commercial manner. Visitors can still be educated during this type of dark activity, however, they are also expected to be entertained.

A London Jack the Ripper tour or a visit to an Irish castle that is supposed to be haunted would fall into this category.

Ultimately, a “light” dark tourism activity is designed for the visitor to have fun as well as to learn.

Types of Dark Tourism

Image: Flickr/It’s No Game (CC BY 2.0)

Understanding the dark tourism spectrum also helps highlight the fact that there is a range of dark tourist activities available.

Let’s take a look at some of them now.

Conflict Sites & Battle Grounds

Sites that have witnessed conflict in terms of civil or all-out war often become dark tourism destinations once peace has been restored, and a suitable amount of time has been passed.

You only need to look at the popularity of the battlefields of the 1st and 2nd World War in France, or the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam to understand what I mean by this.

A somewhat amoral type of dark tourism exists where people visit areas that are still experiencing conflict. The Syrian-Israeli border is a good example.

From a safe distance, high above a valley in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, tourists can look down and witness the devastation of the war, as well as watch some of the bloodlettings take place in real-time.

Museums and Exhibitions

There are countless dark exhibitions throughout the world. The pages of this website are full of them. Within Europe and Central and South America, you have a wide choice of museums that focus on the tyranny of communism.

There has been no shortage of despots in the East either. Whatever the regime, there will be a dark tourism activity somewhere that will help you learn more.

There are also museums dedicated to the nature of death, torture, and the plague, to name but a few.

Castles and Dungeons

Visiting old castles and dungeons is a great dark tourism activity. Many are now open to the public and by their very nature, they have a dark and bloody past.

The way the history of these locations is represented varies widely, (from the Disneyfied nature of a London Dungeon tour to the authentic no-frills visit to Leap Castle in Ireland), however, they do make for an interesting trip.

For those that like a supernatural undercurrent to their dark tourist experience, many castles cater to this too. There are very few locations that do not have a good ghost story attached to them.

Cemeteries, Tombs & Catacombs

Cemeteries as a dark tourism activity are becoming more and more popular. Even a moderate fan of The Doors wouldn’t pass on a visit to the Père Lachaise Cemetery while in Paris, to see Jim Morrison’s grave.

Checking out the final resting places of the famous (or infamous) fascinates many people.

Beyond individual gravesites, you have the bleak but often ostentatious beauty of a large cemetery with grand tombs. This becomes a draw for many. The Recoleta Cemetery in Argentina and the Victorian splendor of Highgate in London falls into this category.

Finally, there are catacombs and ossuaries throughout the world. These are crammed with skulls and when open to the public, prove extremely popular.

Disasters Sites

Disaster sites are increasingly becoming more accessible to the dark tourist. Chernobyl is probably the best example of this. The popularity of the recent HBO series has seen tourists flock to the site of the nuclear disaster that took place in 1986.

Hiroshima, Fukushima, Pompei, and Ground Zero are all disaster sites that see thousands, if not millions of visitors each year. Many of them do not even realize they are having a dark tourism experience while they are there.

Areas of Genocide

Auschwitz, the Killing Fields, and the Rwanda Memorial are all popular tourist locations. They are also areas of genocide.

The history of these places is beyond tragic, but it is important that we learn what happened, in order to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

Therefore, it is also important that these areas of remembrance exist. It is a solemn experience to visit them, but also a necessary one.

Dark Tourism as an Umbrella Term

Eltz castle featured

It is also helpful to see Dark Tourism as an umbrella term for different types of tourist experiences that venture into macabre areas.

The following are all seen as tourism classifications in their own right.

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

The Do’s and Don’ts of Dark Tourism

graves dark tourist sites

So how should one act when visiting a dark tourist site? Number one answer to that is “respectfully”. And that certainly means you should not pose for a selfie with a shit-eating grin plastered across your face.

(The officials at Auschwitz have faced this issue recently with the growing number of tourists taking smiling, social-media snaps while standing on the infamous train-tracks).

Following the advice below will help you act appropriately while visiting and learning about the world’s darkest history.

What not to do when visiting a Dark Tourist site

Japan-Hiroshima Memorial

We’ll start with the don’ts as some of these irk me greatly. Unfortunately, I think I have seen an example of at least one of the following every time I have ever visited a dark tourist location, (unless I have managed to do a private tour).

Take Selfies

I’ll start with the big one; taking selfies or snaps of your grinning friends and family. It is far from respectful. If your number one reason for being at the site is to show off the fact you have been there to your Instagram following, well then you have totally missed the point.

In fact, I don’t want to talk to you anymore, go find another website.

Making Jokes (Even under your breath)

Dark tourist sites have to be taken seriously. Not only should you be respectful to the memory of what happened (and the people it happened too), you should also be conscientious of the people that are visiting the site.

Joking and general larking about is unacceptable. Even chuckling quietly in your small group can potentially upset others around you. You have no idea of the circumstances that bring them there.

Taking a “small” memento

It is also unacceptable to take a memento from the dark tourist site. While it may seem harmless enough to take a stone, a flower or some other small item from the location, it is still fundamentally wrong.

Just imagine if every visitor felt the same way and took a little piece home with them. These locations need to be treated with respect and left intact.

Litter or graffiti

Leaving your trash around and not clearing up after yourself, or etching your initials into the underside of a bench just to make your mark at a famous location is moronic.

I realize I am starting to sound a little preachy in this section, however, it is because I have seen such behavior all too often and it is one of the many reasons “dark tourists” end up getting a bad wrap.

Leaving your shit behind just reeks of disrespect and demonstrates that you simply do not care.

What you should do when visiting a Dark Tourist Site

new-york-ground zero

Now that we’ve got that bad stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the things you can do to be a contentious dark tourist.

Learn as much as you can about the history of the location

Take some time to read up on the location before, during and after you are there. Learning some of the history before you go will generally make for a more interesting visit as the information you will have already learned will become ever-more poignant by being there.

That being said, some people prefer to go in blind. And that is absolutely fine. However, a good dark tourist location will have lots of explanatory material (written and audio guides etc) where information can be gleaned as you make your way around the site.

Often time, I leave a location and become an avid reader on the site afterward. For me personally, the history is significantly more powerful after I have made the trip and experienced the dark tourist location for myself.

Join a guided tour or utilize an audio tour

This is a continuation of the above point and is all about learning as much as you can. If reading plaques as you walk around a site isn’t your thing, see if the site offers guided tours.

Today’s technology also means audio tours are available on some of the smallest and most remote locations.

Even if it means you need to pay extra, the money will often be going towards running the site so it is for a good cause.

Act respectfully as you walk around

This basically means don’t do any of the points we listed in the “What not to do” section. No jokes, selfies, or removing items from the location. Be aware of your surroundings and others that are visiting.

Whether the sad or tragic event that happened at the location is from the distant past or the loss is more recent, you should act in a manner that shows respect to the physical location and the memories of those that may have suffered there.

Tell others about your experience

If you found a dark tourist site interesting and/or moving, tell others about it once you return home. This is important type of tourism and we must work together to remove some of the stigma associated with it. There is a lot to be gained from people visiting these locations and learning more about the history associated with them.