Categories of dark tourism


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The basic concept of dark tourism (see also: what is dark tourism), its short-hand definition, as it were, stipulates that it involves sites associated with death and disaster (or the seemingly macabre). But that can take very different forms:
Disasters can be natural, industrial or both (environmental disasters, for instance, may have been caused by human interference – see e.g. the Aral Sea). Disasters can result in humanitarian catastrophes, like the 2004 Tsunami,  or, while being spectacularly destructive, not actually cause any deaths at all – e.g. the Eldfell eruptions on Heimaey, Iceland – even though much of the town was destroyed by the lava flows, nobody was killed.
Sites of death can be graves, cemeteries, mausoleums, ossuaries, i.e. places where there are actual mortal remains. They may be more abstractly sites where deaths happened, such as assassination sites (e.g. the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, where JFK was shot). Or both at the same time – e.g. the Cambodian Killing Fields memorial site (with its stupa full of skulls).
Some distinct subcategories that I believe can be discerned include:
–   grave tourism  
–   Holocaust tourism  
–   (other) genocide tourism
–   nuclear tourism  
There is a degree of overlap, of course, both between these categories as well as overlap with other forms of tourism. Under the list of destinations ordered by categories the above types are also split up into even more subcategories, which increases the overlap. But that's no bad thing, as it is perfectly normal for a given site to be of interest to the traveller for more than one reason. So the overlap simply reflects reality (this is not about neat "scientific" classification in any case).

Grave tourism – visiting (famous) cemeteries, graves of famous individuals, or grand mausoleums of some real cult-of-personality big shots (Atatürk's in Ankara, Turkey, for instance). Artful ossuaries (most famously the Sedlec ossuary in the Czech Republic) can also fall into this category.

Holocaust tourism – visiting concentration camp memorial sites, former ghettos, or sites where the Nazi perpetrators planned it all (e.g. the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin); also memorial museums that are actually totally "displaced", geographically, from the Holocaust, such as the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., belong to this category.
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Genocide tourism – the Nazis' genocide of European Jewry (i.e. the Holocaust) was far from the only such case (though certainly the worst); more recent horrors of genocidal magnitude have put other destinations on the dark tourism map too, esp. Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebrenica.

Prison and persecution site tourism – e.g. Stasi prisons in the former GDR, former KGB prisons (e.g. in Lithuania), gulag sites in Russia, and many more places of persecution, repression and imprisonment; also sites like the former Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the USA.
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Communism tourism – very niche and more weird than dark are e.g. museums of communism and socialist realist art displays (e.g. in Berlin, Prague or Budapest), some looking more at the lighter, quirky sides of the communist era of the past, some overlapping into the darker aspect of persecution (see the above category); in some places you can even go on dedicated communism package tours, e.g. in Bulgaria – and then there's extreme tourism in the form of travel to places that still are staunchly communist today, most notably North Korea.
Visiting the grand mausoleums of communist leaders of old also falls into this category (and overlaps with grave tourism), especially the Big Four: Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and, last but by no means least: North Korea's Kims'.
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Cult of personality tourism – overlaps with the above as far as communist leaders are concerned but goes beyond. In some cases, it's a cult of personality of long or recently deceased leaders (e.g. Turkey's Atatürk or Turkmenistan's Turkmenbashy, respectively), in others the personality in question is still alive (e.g. in Kazakhstan). One may also include former cults of personality, of (deceased) ex-leaders of states which no longer exist in that form, e.g. the former GDR's Erich Honecker, or Albania's Enver Hoxha – in such cases, however, there may not be much left for the so-inclined dark tourist to savour. However, you do get quite an astonishing amount of ex-cult-leader merchandise in many such cases (e.g. the Stalin mugs sold in the gift shops at Grutas Park)    
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Cold War & Iron Curtain tourism – seeking out traces and remains of the Berlin Wall, for instance, or border museums along the former Iron Curtain. Visiting old nuclear bunkers now opened to the public can also be considered part of this (e.g. Hack Green or at The Greenbrier). Another aspect is sites even more directly associated with the threat of nuclear war that defined the deterrent strategy that was at the core of the concept of the Cold War, e.g. atomic bomb test sites (such as Semipalatinsk) or ICBMs on display (e.g. at the USAF Museum) – this overlaps with parts of nuclear tourism.
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Nuclear tourism ('atomic tourism') – apart from sites of nuclear testing (Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, Bikini, or the NTS in the USA), or missile silos (e.g. Titan Missile Museum, Arizona), there's also the two places where atom bombs where actually used for real: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are also dedicated museums, in those Japanese cities as well as in the USA. Furthermore, there are sites of non-military nuclear disasters, most notably Chernobyl in Ukraine (or cf. Harrisburg, USA). Surprisingly many of the world's other "civilian" nuclear plants (which haven't, yet, seen any major accidents) have visitor centres too (cf. Kozloduy, Bulgaria). Sites of nuclear waste storage or more imminently looming nuclear disasters are usually inaccessible for the public (the nuclear submarine graveyard near Murmansk, Russia, is a case in point), and/or are places not to visit from a health and safety point of view (e.g. Mayak).
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Disaster area tourism – partly overlaps with nuclear tourism, but also encompasses places of other man-made or natural disasters. Of the latter, sites of volcanic destruction (Pompeii, Montserrat, Mount St Helens, etc.) tend to remain visitable for longer periods of time after the events, whereas the traces of many other kinds of natural disasters, such as floods, storms, fires, earthquakes, etc., are often only temporary. Rapid rebuilding usually leaves no sites for tourists to visit. (There are a few exceptions, e.g. the Tsunami monument/ruins in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.) And before such rebuilding/recovery, i.e. while the disaster is still current, it may not be ethical to go to such places – voyeuristic disaster tourism is certainly something NOT to be promoted (while voluntary aid and relief work is welcome – but that's not really tourism). There can be borderline cases, where such disaster viewing may actually be encouraged by the locals, such as at the mud volcano of Sidoarjo, Indonesia. But it is a touchy issue. See in general: ethical issues.
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Icky medical tourism – not travelling for one's own medical treatment somewhere (that's medical tourism proper) but going – for "fun"! – to see exhibitions such as the Josephinum in Vienna, Austria, or the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, USA, which displays e.g. longitudinal slices of heads (showing the brain), medical monstrosities such as deformed babies, specimens of outsized parasites (tapeworms etc.) and other such things that make most people cringe but that still exude a strange appeal to many. A similarly famous museum in this category is the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo – the only one of its specialist kind. The "Bodies Exhibition" of recent years is also a good example. In many cases the exhibits are "real" and thus are clearly connected to death – in other cases the exhibits are just models, but still, if they're life-like (or shall I say "death-like") that's close enough. Both ultimately involve "dead on display".
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And then there are further categories that some regard as dark tourism which I, however, consider beyond the scope of dark tourism proper, such as:
- battlefield tourism and battle re-enactments
- the 'Dungeons' exhibitions (kind of dark amusement parks/-halls)
- paranormal tourism (e.g. to crop circles or UFO sightings)
- travel to fictional dark places, such as film sets of (in particular) horror movies
- danger tourism, travel to places at which you'd put your own life at risk, esp. active war zones. This site does NOT propagate such craziness! (See also infamous dark places not to be visited)
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©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2016