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 devastating 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?
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.
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
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 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?
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
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.
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
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.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
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.
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.
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
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
7 Most Visited Dark Tourist Sites Around the World
There are many dark tourism destinations around the world. As I have already stated, the best of them allow the visitor to explore, commemorate, and understand the tragedies that took place, in a sensitive and enlightening manner.
Under these circumstances, it is no small wonder dark tourism spots are becoming increasingly popular. The following 7 destinations are some of the most visited Dark Tourism spots in the world.
1. Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
Location: Near Krakow, Poland
Auschwitz hardly needs an introduction. As the largest German Nazi concentration camp of WW2, it is also by far the most infamous.
As the most efficient extermination center ever devised, Auschwitz has become a global symbol of terror and genocide. More than 1.1million men, women, and children lost their lives at the camp.
Over 2 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2019, a figure so high that one can’t help feeling optimistic. Essentially, the memorial and museum is a vital tool for education. By making people aware of the true horrors that took place there, it aims to prevent such atrocities from happening again.
As the museum explains:
“There is no way to understand postwar Europe and the world without an in-depth confrontation between our idea of mankind and the remains of Auschwitz.”
Details: Admission to the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial is free. However, you should still reserve a ticket as demand is so high, and there is a limited amount of visitors allowed each day.
The site is open daily from 7.30 am all year round, (excluding Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day). Not suitable for children younger than 14.
Location: Pripyat, Ukraine
Chernobyl (and the neighboring town of Pripyat) has seen a massive surge in visitors since the release of the popular HBO television series.
It has been a mecca for dark tourists for many years, (I first visited in 2007 and tours have been available long before that), the abandoned buildings within the exclusion zone providing amazing photo opportunities at every turn.
The ghost town that is Pripyat came about because of the world’s worst nuclear accident. On April 25-26th 1986, Chernobyl nuclear reactor 4 malfunctioned during a (not so routine) safety check.
The resulting explosion spewed radioactive debris into the air that quickly spread across Europe. Pripyat, a town built to accommodate the reactor staff and their families, had to be evacuated. No one has been allowed to live there ever since.
Scientists estimate it will take up to 20,000 years before the exclusion zone can safely be habitable again.
That hasn’t stopped a burgeoning tourist industry from taking off mind you. There are countless organized tours of the town available, with tens of thousands of people visiting the site every year.
Details: Chernobyl tours are open year-round with one-day and multi-day trips available. You can also opt for larger group tours or organize a private guide (the latter is definitely recommended).
Rules are strict to keep you safe from radiation poisoning, so do as your guide instructs. The rapid beeping of the Geiger counter will definitely raise your heart rate.
3. National 9/11 Memorial and Museum
Location: New York, USA
More than 10 million people have visited the 9/11 memorial museum since it opened.
This moving tribute of remembrance and honor to the 2,977 people killed during the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, has become a must-see location for any visitor in New York.
Twin reflecting pools have been built in the foundations of where the Twin Towers once stood. Etched into bronze panels along the edges of each pool are the names of every single victim.
It is a poignant, emotionally loaded spot. Despite being in the middle of the business district of Manhatten, there is an air of somber calm here as visitors walk around the pools, inwardly paying their respects.
The museum is packed with information on the building and life of the Twin Towers, as well, of course, the tragedy of its destruction.
Details: The 9/11 Memorial is free every day from 7.30 am to 9 pm. Museum tickets can be bought online (up to 6 months in advance) as well as at the entrance.
4. Murambi Genocide Memorial
Location: Near Murambi, Southern Rwanda
Of all the global memorials dedicated to victims of mass murder and genocide, Murambi’s is arguably the most hard-hitting.
This is not so much due to the events that took place, (which were clearly horrific), it is the presence of the corpses of over 800 victims that have been exhumed from the local killing fields.
Preserved in lime their bodies did not fully decompose. They now form part of the memorial and have been out on display.
They are the victims of a brutal killing spree conducted by Interahamwe militia and soldiers in 1994. This, along with many other massacres during the Rwanda civil war, was in support of the genocide endorsed by the government.
It is estimated that between 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, with approximately 70% of the country’s Tutsi population (men, women, and children) murdered.
The memorial is positioned on a picturesque hill with bucolic countryside reaching out in all directions.
Details: The memorial is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. (except on Umuganda Saturdays). Entrance is free and includes an accompanying audio guide.
5. The Ruins of Pompeii
Location: Pompeii, Italy
Mount Vesuvius’s volcanic eruption wiped out the Roman city of Pompeii in 79AD.
Almost two millennia later, the site is a very popular (dark) tourist destination with over 2.5 million making the trip every year.
The devastation of the eruption and the resulting preservation of bodies from the ash, make this an extraordinary place to visit.
The whole site is a monument to the final minutes of Pompeii as the eruption spread through the city.
Details: Pompeii is open daily from 9 am, (except for New Year’s Day, May 1st and Christmas Day). Tickets can be purchased in advance online or at the entrance on the day you visit.
The standard entrance fee is €18.90. However, prices for EU citizens aged 18-24 is €6, Children cost only €3.
6. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime are responsible for the genocide that took place in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
Turning on their own people, the regime rounded up and murdered approximately 1.5 million people during Pol Pot’s radical push towards Communism.
To fulfill its goals of achieving a socialist agrarian republic, the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and forced Cambodians to relocate to labor camps in the countryside.
Here forced labor and mass executions were rampant. A former school was transformed into the infamous Security Prison 21 (it is now Tuol Sleng Museum). Here, 20,000 people were sent for questioning. Only seven adults survived.
10 miles southwest of Phnom Penh were the Killing Fields where prisoners were taken to be executed. In order to save bullets, pickaxes were often used. The bodies were then dumped in mass graves close by.
In 1980 the remains of 8,895 people were exhumed from the site. The skulls are now on display inside the memorial based at the Killing Fields. Many of them show evidence of the brutal manner in which the victim died.
Details: The killing Fields are open daily from 7.30 am to 5.30 pm. The entrance fee is $6 including an audio tour.
7. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Location: Hiroshima, Japan
On August 6th, 1945 an atomic bomb detonated above the city of Hiroshima. It helped bring an end to WW2, but the cost to life was horrific.
Innocent men, women, and children were murdered in the blast. It was a moment that would change the course of history, and shape the world towards a battle for nuclear armament that exists to this day.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum houses permanent exhibitions that include artifacts from the explosion, items belonging to victims, and testimonials from those who managed to survived.
Details: Open daily (excluding 30 and 31st of December). The entrance fee is 200 yen.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Dark Tourism
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
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).
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
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.