Is dark tourism bad? Is it sick? Is it morally wrong? No!
Let's make one thing clear right from the start: dark tourism is a GOOD thing!!!
It is NOT some sort of morally dubious voyeuristic rubber-necking with the goal of deriving some sick thrill from other people's misery. It is often portrayed as such in the media, but that is largely an uninformed assumption with little grounding in reality (as the academic study of dark tourism has repeatedly demonstrated). There is perhaps a minority of travellers of that dubious type but that's not the sort of travelling that this website supports (see also ethical issues).
By far the majority of dark tourists, however, are not simply rubber-necking voyeurs (and I speak from years of experience and countless encounters with other travellers of a similar mindset as my own). Instead, most of dark tourism is in fact educational travel by its very nature – largely part of what is known in the trade as “heritage tourism”. It's just that the heritage in question is not grand castles and cathedrals but the vestiges of the darker sides of human history, in particular contemporary history.
Not all people are only interested in the “golden olden days” or the unadulterated beauty of nature (where that still can be found), but instead want to engage with current or recent reality, warts and all. In that sense, dark tourism is also much more honest than, say, the escapism offered by a beach holiday resort. Dark tourism deals with parts of the reality of the human condition, and the scars it has left on civilization's record. For some unexplained reason these are things that “traditional”, “mainstream” tourism rather aims to mask or gloss over.
Dark tourism, on the other hand, is much more of a mind-broadening exercise. In the process it acknowledges the ambivalence of being both appalled and at the same time fascinated by the darker sides of reality. To pick a personal example: politically I am against nuclear energy, or nuclear weapons, but as a topic I am deeply fascinated by their existence and what they mean to our world. I want to see the associated sites rather than close my eyes and pretend they don't exist. I find them thrilling, yes. But that does not mean endorsing continued nuclear energy – let alone the use of nuclear weapons. This is not a contradiction. It is just real. You don't have to be for something in order to be interested in it. The same is true of so-called “genocide tourism” - it's not about “revelling” in such horrors – far from it: it's about trying to understand, no matter how near impossible that may ultimately be. And I think that's better than just blotting these things out. It's part of our world's reality. Why should it be morally better to ignore all this?
It is sometimes claimed that while it is OK to be interested in such dark topics, travelling to the actual sites is not. I beg to differ. Much more so than mere study, i.e. reading and other such “remote” activities, actually being in a place of historical significance (dark or otherwise) can really heighten the awareness of the (hi)story in question. Using one's own senses – eyes, ears and nose in particular – adds something to the experience that no amount of abstract knowledge and/or imagination can ever achieve. That's the magic of travelling with open eyes and an open mind. And that's what dark tourism ultimately consists of.
By the way, when talking of “dark tourists” it has to be noted that there isn't really such a category in an either-or sense, no 100% only dark traveller. Instead, most dark tourists are just regular, open-minded heritage tourists who are interested enough in getting a whole picture of a place so that they are willing to take in the dark bits as well. But not just the dark bits. In fact, much visitation of dark tourism sites takes place “by chance” as it were – as a result of “stumbling across” some such site whilst travelling around a country. In that sense it is an addition, not an alternative, to “normal” tourism. Only a few places listed here are clearly just dark destinations in their own right and the main purpose of a journey. Sites like Chernobyl, Auschwitz or Pearl Harbor are exceptions – everybody knows about them and their dark significance, so travel there will hardly ever be “accidental”. But even these big name destinations can in reality merely be add-ons too, namely as “things to do” when in Kiev, Krakow , or Hawaii , respectively. But they are major sites where dark tourism and mass tourism meet.
Much more often, however, dark tourism is indeed a niche activity within the larger context of tourism. And the official tourism management industry is often reluctant to even cater for this side of alternative travel in any way. More typically it is the private sector that embraces this niche – sometimes with remarkable success (see, e.g. Belfast and its Troubles-related tourism offerings).
Governmental tourism departments, on the other hand, tend to shun the darker sides of touristic portrayals of “their” places, fearing bad press, avoiding the “digging up” of the nastier sides of history which they prefer us to forget about. But they're not “their” places – they're ours (part of the heritage of all humankind!), and we all have, or should have, the freedom of choice in what we want to be interested in. Call me subversive, but I firmly believe that dark tourism is our right if we choose to claim it!
Since the mainstream tourism industry only sporadically endorses dark tourism overtly, much of it will have to take the form of independent travel. So far there are only very few dark-tourism-themed package trips (and they never openly use the term “dark tourism”, but only terms of sub-categories of this broader category – such as the “communism tours” in former Eastern Bloc countries like Bulgaria or Poland).
It is thus the main point of this website, to aid people sharing our interest in such travelling that is inclusive enough to cover the dark sides. The site aims to provide practical guidance and some background info where the usual guidebooks and online travel portals fail to do so or are too scant and superficial. My mission is to fill that gap – and I hope that you, the readers of these pages find useful preparatory information for your future travels! (See also under why a dark tourism guide?)