The concept of 'dark tourism'

For a more informal general introduction see what is dark tourism?

On these pages, a somewhat more "academic" discussion is undertaken (without going too deep – I'll leave that to more experienced academic specialists in this area; cf. other sources):

First, here's the simple rough-and-ready definition usually provided: dark tourism is travel to sites that in some way are connected with death and disaster/tragedy or the "seemingly macabre" …

It's an observable phenomenon. People do go to such sites as tourists. And the tourism industry caters for this too. So we may ask: why? And: what is the nature of the phenomenon?

Whether people visit dark sites out of some morbid attraction/fascination or simply plain interest that we all, or at least some of us, somehow do have in such sites, I will leave this question of dark tourism motivation open here (but see also ethical questions). I'll just take it as read that that people do engage in dark tourism. No doubt about that.

But there are other questions to address: what exactly is 'dark' comprised of in this context? And, conversely, are there things that may appear 'dark' but are NOT part of dark tourism? In other words: what are the delimitations of the concept? This is also addressed separately under beyond dark tourism.

A similar question is: what other forms of tourism is dark tourism related to? For this see under overlaps.

Next is a question of classification: what different forms does dark tourism take? For that see categories of dark tourism.

And of course there's the question of origin: where does dark tourism come from? In a wide sense, 'dark tourism' is both the oldest form of tourism and a relatively recent development. It has been argued that pilgrimages were the very first forms of travel that could be called 'tourism'. 'Tourism' means the reason for travelling doesn't serve any practical purpose (trade, hunting, search for better farming lands, war), on the contrary: tourism provides a distraction from practical life, but it adds to pleasure in life and/or to education, or aids spiritual edification or such like.

The destinations for pilgrimages were often sites of death, burial sites in particular, or sites of assassinations. Think of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, set around a pilgrimage to the assassination site of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral – still a kind of 'darkish' tourist sight today. Clearly, there's the connection with death, so this qualifies as 'dark' travel. In short, people have always also travelled for dark reasons.

However, in a somewhat narrower reading of 'dark tourism' I generally follow Lennon/Foley's book "Dark Tourism" in taking the concept of dark tourism to be a 'modern' phenomenon. They claim it's actually part of the "concept of modernity" itself. Huh? To explain: the attraction of death and disaster is largely helped or often created by modern media, without which a certain travel destination wouldn't even attract visitors. For instance, how many people would make the excursion to the real Bridge on the River Kwai if it hadn't been for the famous film of the same name? (Although the film showed a different, wholly fictional bridge and was shot in Sri Lanka). Probably nowhere near as many as in fact do go there every year.

Given the 'modernity' of the mass media, it follows that there has to be a certain temporal constraint on what can count as a dark tourism destination – and Lennon/Foley stipulate a roughly 100-year time-frame. Anything more ancient, i.e. going back to times predating modern media, would then have to be excluded from the concept. Medieval battlefield sites, for instance, thus do not qualify as dark tourism destinations (see also beyond dark tourism), even though it may still be perfectly legit history tourism (see overlaps).

In some cases, however, this 100-year restriction seems too radical and rigid. Obviously the figure will have to "travel with time" in any case, so presumably Lennon/Foley would now have to assume at least a 117-year constraint (their book was published 1999), i.e. the starting point is the beginning of the 20th century.

However, what about a place like Krakatoa? It was the 1883 eruption that affected much of the world. But there was more that captured the world's imagination – it's the myth that has since evolved around Krakatoa. Especially the role of modern media involved in it (esp. TV and feature films, even pop music) in my view makes Krakatoa qualify as a dark tourism destination too … It has to, in every respect except that it falls outside the decreed time constraint, if only just. And the local tourism industry does caters for people's desire to see the place. It certainly appeals precisely due to the link with its dark historical significance. So I'd say it definitely does have to be included as a dark tourism destination ('adventure tourism' too, given the remoteness of the place).

Occasionally we may have to push the time-frame back even further. There's one extreme example: Pompeii. Now, this goes back to antiquity! It's an archaeological site – in fact one of the world's most important such sites. But: it has always been a tourism destination too (in fact from the very beginnings of the precursor to the concept of tourism: the Grand Tour). And I'd argue that it is also a dark tourism destination. Why? Basically for three reasons: 
  1. it is very much on the modern tourism itinerary, well-developed for handling crowds and with all the trimmings of modern mass tourism paraphernalia such as souvenir shops, guided tours, fast-food stalls, etc.
  2. the cultural significance of the place aside, a major element of why visitors are attracted to the place is indeed its visibly dark side as a site of violent death. Most visitors come first and foremost to see those "petrified" corpses (actually plaster casts) of the victims of the volcanic disaster that destroyed the ancient town of Pompeii. A strong element of "morbid attraction" very much forms part of the Pompeii experience.
  3. the area around Mt Vesuvius still is a volcanic risk area – i.e. the threat of disaster is quite contemporary. This adds a very real connection of the historical site of Pompeii to the dangerousness of the mountain today. If Mt Vesuvius blows its top again (and it is overdue according to volcanologists) it could lead to much greater catastrophe – esp. if the nearby megacity of Naples were affected. Furthermore, visits to Pompeii are often combined with a trip to the crater rim of Mt Vesuvius itself – clearly for the thrill that comes from knowing that it was the cause of the Pompeii disaster back then (and that it threatens to do it yet again).
Therefore, I wouldn't exclude Pompeii from the list of dark tourism travel destinations, despite the age of the site or how long ago the associated disaster took place. There's enough connection to modernity to justify including it.

But this is very much an exception. In the overall catalogue of dark destinations, most are indeed related to the 20th century (or, such as in the case of Ground Zero, to even more recent events).

There's just a handful of further examples where I've made an exception for a place whose historical dark link goes beyond the 1900 mark: St Helena, Easter Island, Maison des Esclaves in Senegal, the Sedlec ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, Wounded Knee in the USA and a few more. In all these cases there is either some kind of link to the present or they stand out and can thus be seen as representative of the kind of site, even where others of the same kind have not been mentioned here.

The latter also very much goes for the few cemeteries included on these pages: here I had to be ruthlessly selective. There are simply too many cemeteries in the world. So there has to be something that marks them as exceptional enough to be picked out, either for size (e.g. Ohlsdorf) or significance (e.g. Pere Lachaise) or both (e.g. Arlington).  

A different question arises about location and genuineness. In most cases, the dark destination is the very same place at which the connection with death and disaster is located too – e.g. concentration camp memorial sites, volcanic sites such as Pompeii or Heimaey, Cold War sites, etc. These are unproblematic. The dark link is perfectly evident. But what about "displaced" dark sites, which are geographically distinct from what they are about?

To give an example: what about the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.? The Holocaust didn't take place in America! But then again, the same caveat could be raised about Yad Vashem. The Holocaust didn't take place in Israel either. Obviously, no one could deny Israel its very own central monument to its people's enormous tragedy. Nor is there anything disputable with having a Holocaust museum in the USA (or other not directly related locations). But the question here is: is going to see the US Holocaust Museum or, in particular, Yad Vashem (esp. as a non-Jew) "dark tourism" or does it have to be excluded here? It is a difficult question. But at least in those two cases mentioned I would tend to include them despite the "dislocation" (which applies to the Washington-based museum much more than to Yad Vashem anyway, insofar as the latter is still at least on the territory of the Jewish state). The Washington Holocaust Museum is one of the most widely recognized institutions of its kind. For that reason alone, I'd say an exception has to made for it. It does not mean, however, that every single Holocaust-related site or monument has to be covered here. The sites where the Holocaust actually took place are certainly the more significant and genuine dark sites.

Another issue is that of commodification. First of all, there has to be something "there" in order for a site to be a real dark tourism site. Sites where nothing at all remains of what makes/made it dark may be commemorative places, but in my view for a site to be a dark tourism site, there has to be something to be seen/experienced there. (For example, an old battlefield that is nothing more than an empty field now is not good enough.)

There may be genuine remnants (e.g. ruins of buildings), or a site can be more abstract, such as illustrations given in a museum. Typically, both is combined. Once a site isn't simply left to speak for itself, but illustrative/explanatory measures are taken, then you can say the issue of interpretation comes into play. And since there is always more than one way of interpreting a site, there then arises the issue of how adequate, objective, balanced this interpretation is – and how appropriate the manner of display based on this interpretation is. One has to be particularly aware of this issue once commercial (profit) interests are involved too. This is further discussed in the glossary under commodification.

Similarly "bendy" is the notion of how "touristy" a place is in general. I'm often asked by people "have you included X or Y?" … where X and Y are related to some dark episode in (especially) recent history, or even somewhere where tragedy is still going on, say Darfur or Zimbabwe. Those people tend to overlook the second part of the notion "dark tourism". There sure are a lot of very dark places out there – but not all are for tourists! Some are downright too dangerous (see danger tourism). But in other cases there may simply not (yet – or no longer) be any tourist infrastructure. So travelling to such places would rather be an adventure and/or an expedition.

The distinction between leisure tourism and adventure travel, on the other hand, is naturally blurred too, though. And some places presented here may verge on the adventurous side (e.g. Semipalatinsk), or be otherwise "extreme" – to name the most extreme example of them all: the wreck of the Titanic – it can only be "visited" in an adventurous, hugely expensive and somewhat dangerous expedition … if at all (also for legal reasons). But then again, other sites that most people would consider too adventurous or extreme do indeed draw tourists in significant enough numbers to support a viable real specialist tourism industry – possibly the best example here is Chernobyl. In fact, Chernobyl is a prime dark tourism site! The "amount" of darkness is indisputable here, still you can visit the place in relative safety – and people do! And accordingly tour operators satisfy this dark interest.

Finally, not all dark tourism is necessarily totally distinct from non-dark tourism. In fact, it probably rarely is. Most dark tourists "do" dark tourism only as part of a more general way of travelling, taking in a dark site amongst various other non-dark ones when in a certain country. For instance, I doubt many people travel to New York ONLY to go and see Ground Zero. By far the majority of people visiting Ground Zero will do so as part of a more general New York trip. It has in fact been claimed, e.g. in the Lonely Planet's Bluelist 2007, that to a degree we all are dark tourists, the question is only how dark. I'm not quite so sure. While the type of tourist who 100% exclusively visits only dark sites may be extremely rare, if this type exists at all (I doubt it), the type of tourist who NEVER visits any dark sites, and wouldn't even consider it, is not only a real possibility, but I'm pretty certain I've encountered that type too. Just go to a typical mass tourism beach or booze-fuelled all-inclusive resort and you'll probably find some examples of that type there.

It is true, though, that most dark tourists are only dark tourists to a degree, just as much as mainstream tourists also take in dark tourism options to a certain degree in otherwise non-dark travels, which makes them dark tourists too, if only to a lesser degree – in short: there IS overlap.

This website is for dark tourists of any degree – just take your pick. Some places may be "too dark" for your personal tastes and preferences, others may not be dark enough, if you're of the more dedicated "pitch black" type. Furthermore, each dark site presented here is also put in its context of non-dark tourism options that it may be combined with.

Academic issues of dark tourism – which is after all even an object of university study (see other sources) – may occasionally be brought up in these pages where I see it fit, e.g. at particularly sensitive sites where the commodification may be debatable. In general, however, I'll cater for the dark tourists themselves, not so much for those who study their behaviour. Not that I'm not interested, but this is just not the academic platform for that. Elsewhere, I have also contributed to the academic discussion myself (see again under other sources: books) – but this website shall rather remain focussed on information for the practitioners of dark tourism.      


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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