What is 'dark tourism'?  

Are you a 'dark tourist'?

Short answer: most of us are at least to a degree dark tourists (even if they're unaware of it). It is by no means as exotic, dubious or outlandish as it may at first appear or as some media reporting has painted it.
First of all, 'dark' in this context is not meant literally but metaphorically, as in "a dark chapter of history". And these dark aspects of history and humanity are simply quite interesting. Thus it feeds into tourism too. 
Ask yourself this: have you ever been to, or thought of visiting, war museums and memorials, say, the A-Bomb-Dome and Peace Park/Museum in Hiroshima, Japan? Would you consider including a tour of the famous catacombs of Paris or its Pere Lachaise cemetery when visiting France's capital? Or try to seek out the traces of the Berlin Wall when visiting Germany's capital? Or see the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero when in New York?
If your answer to any of those questions is 'yes' or 'maybe', then you are – or potentially could be – a dark tourist, even if you didn't know it yet. And in the case of the 9/11 Memorial you'd be in plenty of good company: it has some 5 million visitors a year, which probably makes it the most visited dark site in the world today. But not all dark tourism destinations are that popular. Some may even be quite off the beaten track and little known.  
In general: dark tourism is considered to be travel to sites that are in some way connected to death or disaster (or at least something in one way or another "macabre"). Or so goes the rough-and-ready definition usually applied as shorthand in academic studies. But of course it is much more complex than that short one-liner suggests. 
Dark tourism comes in a very wide variety of forms (see categories of dark tourism). The connection with 'death and disaster' can be very direct, as in the mausoleums of great communist leaders whose actual dead bodies are on public display (e.g. Lenin's in Moscow). Or it can be quite indirect, like at sites of volcanic destruction (e.g. Iceland or Hawaii) which may not have involved any actual deaths at all – just the fact that it could have may be enough to give a site some 'dark appeal'.
Sometimes the connection can be pretty vague too, as in the various exhibitions of socialist realism art and propaganda – here you have to know about the underlying realities of life under communism to be able to make the connection at all (such places are often more weird than truly dark). Yet other sites may be decidedly dark historically, but there may not be much left to see of it today (e.g. the memorials at the sites of former death camps in eastern Poland). Some may be quite mainstream-y, such as many war museums (e.g. the IWM in London). Others can indeed be exotic oddities well off the beaten tourist tracks that few people ever visit (e.g. the Polygon in Kazakhstan).
'Dark tourism' is just a convenient cover term, but it covers a vast range of different types of sites that may have little to do with each other otherwise.
So are the motivations: it can be purely educational (much of Auschwitz's visitor contingent is of that sort), it can be downright voyeuristic (see ethical issues), but I hasten to add that the latter is actually far from the rule but very much the exception (and it is not endorsed by this website!). Most visitors to dark tourism sites go there simply because they find it interesting and intriguing. Many come to learn something, or to try to understand something grim and unnerving that is hard to come to terms with. Some may attach even more philosophical depth to it.  
It has been speculated that one element could be that many dark tourism destinations make visitors confront their nightmares; e.g. what would you do if you found yourself in a civil war breaking out all around you – or if a nuclear power station blew up next door?
The full range of motivations of dark tourist is a popular object of academic study, but there isn't a single straightforward answer.
Generally, it seems to be easier to define what dark tourism is NOT than to give a clear-cut definition of what it is – for more on that see the concept of dark tourism and its overlap with other forms of tourism.
What is NOT included in dark tourism are such mainstream tourism elements as sunbathing on beaches, surfing or any kind of sports activities – except perhaps a bit of hiking that may be involved in visiting some dark sites. Neither are traditional cultural elements of tourism such as opera, ballet, theatre and a large proportion of art galleries, historical buildings, or museums – unless, of course, they include some kind of dark element (there are lots of dark-themed museums listed in these pages, for instance). Nor are folkloristic cultural offerings part of dark tourism, such as tribal dances in Africa or Polynesian islands.
But that doesn't mean dark tourism couldn't be combined with any of those other elements of tourism. In fact, the descriptive entries for individual places on this website usually end with a few suggestions for such combinations.
After all, few people are so one-dimensional, we all want variety, and I know of no tourists who are entirely dark and ONLY visit dark destinations. More often than not, visiting dark sites/sights is only part of a wider range of things to do and see when going to a particular place. For some people it's enough to add on just a little bit of dark tourism to an otherwise totally non-dark itinerary, e.g. a stopover at Hiroshima when touring Japan, a day trip to Auschwitz when visiting the pretty Polish town of Krakow, or going to the Anne Frank House when in Amsterdam, etc.; in fact all these examples are quite established in the tourism "industry" of those countries/cities. 
More dedicated dark tourists may choose their destinations by what they offer on the dark side, but still wouldn't shun other elements of tourism. I am of this category myself ... e.g. I also value the culinary sides of travel a lot, and I love wildlife watching. To be honest, I too would find someone who did nothing but dark stuff a little bit weird as well. But I doubt that sort of extreme traveler even exists.
Yet there are degrees of 'dark' and accordingly different types of 'dark tourists' (see the concept of dark tourism). Obviously, some can handle more than others and look for it, other may do some dark sightseeing but would abstain from other more "difficult" sites – see also my darkometer ratings.
But it cannot be denied that many people are in some way attracted to the dark and are interested in such elements when travelling, at least if they travel with open eyes and an open mind in a way that involves engaging with the local history and culture. If this applies to you – to whatever degree – then this site is for you. If, however, all you want from traveling is beaches, sun, distraction, relaxation and general escapism, then this website is not for you. 

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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