"Dark Tourism – Reisen zu Orten des Leids, des Schreckens und des Todes"
by Albrecht Steinecke (München/Tübingen: UVK Verlag, in the series "Tourism NOW"), 222 pages
reviewed April 2021
This is the first German-language monograph on dark tourism (so the author claims, and as far as I know this is correct). Its title would translate as “Dark Tourism – travel to places of suffering, horror and death”. It uses the English term ‘dark tourism’ despite being in German, because no German equivalent has been found to compete with the established Anglicism.
This book fills a significant gap – hence I’m writing a review in English too, even though the book itself is in German. Hopefully it will see an English translation at some point. But I’ll keep this English-language review shorter than the original in German
The book is a bit of a hybrid: it is informed primarily by the academic research on dark tourism (henceforth DT), but isn’t itself a contribution to the scholarly debate on the topic, as it makes clear from the outset. Instead it aims at providing a lucid, readable introduction and overview. The readership is presumably supposed to be anybody who wants to gain a proper, but accessible, insight into what DT really is all about. This could be especially people within the tourism industry, where DT so far has been left largely unmentioned and contact with the topic is mostly avoided. Yet, because DT is seen as a growth sector, gaining a better understanding of it could facilitate an improved and more appropriate attitude towards the topic. Of course anybody interested in the topic who isn’t an expert yet can benefit from this book. I very much hope that journalists take note of it, since the book clarifies many of the common misunderstandings and unjustified negative value judgements directed towards DT.
This is not a travel book, though, certainly not for people who’d already consider themselves dark tourists, although they too may find some inspiration regarding certain destinations (I’ve personally learned about a few through this book that I hadn’t been aware of before).
is organized thus: after a brief foreword and the table of contents, a double page highlights some key (or not so key) motivations for dark tourists, then comes a proper detailed introductory chapter about DT as such. Next up are chapters about specific subcategories of DT, beginning with sites of the Holocaust
. Related to this is the next chapter, which is a five-page interview, namely with the director of one of Germany
’s lesser known concentration camp
. This is followed by the topic of battlefields and military museums/sites. The next chapter is a mixed bag, combining sites of terrorist acts, natural disasters and nuclear accident sites. After that there is an “excursus” about slum tourism
. Next come graves and cemeteries and then former prisons. The final topical chapter is about commercial ‘dark’ visitor attractions (such as Dungeons
or ghost hunts
). Finally there’s a conclusion and outlook chapter. A list of photo sources, a substantial bibliography and an index complement the main content part of the book.
The list of subcategories that receive chapters in this book already reveal that the author casts the net very wide indeed, to also cover areas that some DT researchers, and myself too
, wouldn’t even consider part of DT, in particular slum tourism, battle re-enactments
and such artificial commercial attractions like Dungeons. On the other hand, some important other subcategories are left unmentioned, in particular Cold-War
sites, which is a bit odd given that this is a German book, and Germany
offers some of the best sites in that topical area
What I found immediately positive about this book is how the author, as early as on the first page of the foreword, debunks misconceptions of DT as morally deviant, and nothing more than sick voyeurism. You can indeed find these accusations with annoying frequency in the all too often sensationalist media. Here, however, authoritatively and with reference to numerous solid studies, the author puts this right and correctly declares that, for the most part, people visiting DT sites do so for perfectly respectable reasons. Again I hope journalists will take note!
Despite this, however, the double page outlining six key motivations immediately reintroduces ‘voyeurism’ as one of them. That seems inconsistent and unnecessary.
The longer intro chapter adduces a few classic destinations together with a table of relative visitor numbers. This is characteristic of the whole book, which is full of bullet-point lists, diagrams, tables and box-out texts about specific side topics. This also makes it varied in layout and anything but “dry”.
The author notes a shift in interests on the part of travellers, who no longer want to make do solely with the standardized offerings of the tourism industry but are on the lookout for unusual alternatives in order to broaden their horizons. Moreover, the concept of what constitutes “cultural sites” has clearly shifted too – evidenced by the list of dark sites that have been entered on the UNESCO World Heritage List (e.g. Auschwitz
, Robben Island
). Clearly, so-called “dissonant heritage” is no longer excluded from what we consider “culture”.
The author stresses that DT is nonetheless seen as controversial by many. But he points out that it is not proper to infer certain “lower” motivations simply from the presence of people at a site that is deemed dark. And in fact studies have proved clearly that most people go to such places for serious reasons and out of genuine interest. He also notes that many such people wouldn’t even see themselves as tourists when visiting such places – even though they necessarily are dark tourists, “qua definitionem”! Indeed, this is something that is too often not properly understood.
Various competing parameters characterizing dark sites are discussed, e.g. learning-oriented vs. entertainment-oriented, “in situ” vs “ex situ” (i.e. whether something is at the authentic location or not), close in time or longer ago, etc.; the author then outlines the key aspects that the book will look at when dealing with subcategories in the following chapters: 1) goals and narratives, 2) conflicts of interests of ‘stakeholders’, 3) relative significance as tourist attractions, 4) expectations and reactions of visitors, and 5) challenges for tourist-industry marketing and management.
The chapter ends with a list of bibliographies and online resources, including, I was pleased to see, also my (i.e. this) website. Suggestions for further reading are also given for all subtopics in the following chapters too, which is of course an excellent service.
The first chapter on a specific subcategory of DT
is about sites of the Holocaust
or other genocides
. The author notes a stark hierarchy in terms of visitor numbers, with Auschwitz
receiving 2.2 million annually, in contrast to Flossenbürg
with merely 91,000. The issues of authenticity is discussed, noting that e.g. the barracks at Dachau
are in fact reconstructions. Visitor motivations are determined to be mainly a desire for information and better understanding, coming to terms with the suffering of the victims, but also place authenticity. The important role of movies as “triggers” is also noted, e.g. the Spielmost welcomeerg film “Schindler’s List”. Other genocides covered are the Cambodian
genocides, and the author surmises that the memorials associated with those dark events are specifically geared towards international visitors’ expectations. This m1ay hold for the Kigali Genocide Memorial
, but I would reject that for the other genocide memorials in Rwanda
, many of which are more aimed at domestic visitors and are in part drastically different from Western-style memorials, even in shocking ways (see e.g. Nyamata
), so one has to infer that the author isn’t particularly familiar with those memorials outside the Rwandan capital
. The author also notes the case of the Anne-Frank House in Amsterdam
as lacking in authenticity (even though it is in the real place) and being too commercial while the House of Terror in Budapest
is seen as overly dramatic and relying too much on audiovisual effects. In Germany, in contrast, there is a “code” for the management of Nazi
-era sites to do without too much emotionalization.
The chapter is complemented by an interview
with an “expert”, in this case the director of the Flossenbürg memorial site
, who, however, rejects the designation “dark” for this memorial site, even though it clearly is one, by definition, so maybe this person wasn’t quite such an expert after all. What I found quite interesting, however, was the director’s negative attitude towards digital technologies as an insufficient “surrogate” for eyewitness testimonies and place authenticity. He also plays down the rise in disrespectful visitor behaviour that the media sometimes overstate and claims that 99.9 per cent of Flossenbürg’s visitors are unproblematic and more than welcome.
The next chapter
about battlefields and military museums/sites
again notes a strong hierarchy in popularity, with Pearl Harbor
attracting millions of visitors, other sites far fewer. Similarly, Hiroshima receives disproportionally more attention than Nagasaki
. It’s seen as a problem that many visitors to military sites/museums tend to focus too much on details of the combat actions and the technical side of military hardware rather than on commemoration. This can be a challenge for curators of military museums, but he praises e.g. the museums in Peenemünde
and in Dresden
in this regard, and rightly so, I would add. Battlefield tourism is described as having undergone an evolution from mourning and pilgrimages towards more “touristification”, though I remember meeting some other visitors in the Somme
who clearly still saw themselves as being on something akin to a pilgrimage. Controversially, the chapter also includes a section about battle re-enactments, which I wouldn’t even count as DT. For me this has more the character of festival tourism. Somebody I know who regularly takes part in such re-enactments told me even that he doesn’t see it as “tourism” at all. Portrayed especially negatively is the “Vietcong park” with the Cu Chi tunnels
, which the author dismisses as “pop colonization”, in which the horrific reality of the Vietnam War
is pushed into the background. This may be true for the Cu Chi tunnels, but I would say that other sites related to that war are of a very different character, e.g. My Lai
and especially the War Remnants Museum
in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
The fifth chapter
groups together sites of actually rather different natures, namely those associated with terrorist acts, natural disasters and nuclear accidents
. The first in this list is predominantly represented by the 9/11-Memorial & Museum
in New York
. Here the author is especially critical of the site’s over-emotionalization, exaggerated patriotism, and commercialization. Again I would object and call for more differentiation. Parts of the memorial may indeed feel overly dramatized from a non-American perspective (though this is often the case in the USA
), but this really cannot be said for the core of the museum, the main historical exhibition, whose coverage of the events of 9/11
is completely sober, serious and detailed – I even placed it at the No. 1 spot on my top dark museums list
! The accusation of too much commercialization through the museum shop also has to be differentiated. Some of the items sold there may indeed be somewhat questionable, but it has to be stressed that no visitor is forced to go into the shop. Unlike at so many other museums it is not the case here that you have to exit through the shop. You can completely ignore it if you wish. So it’s not quite so straightforward with regard to the alleged commercialization, I would say. In the section about natural disasters it is noted that there are so many of them and only few remain in the public’s memory for long enough, so that commemoration is uneven, also geographically and financially. Therefore you won’t see much disaster commemoration in countries like Haiti or Bangladesh, which don’t have the monetary means for this anyway, while a rich country like Japan
erected “large memorials” for the 2011 tsunami. It would have been interesting to be told where these are supposed to be, because when I travelled to the region affected by that disaster I only found rather small-scale memorialization (see e.g. here
The final section in this chapter is mostly about Chernobyl
. For someone like me who has visited the Zone repeatedly and knows the subject reasonably well, this section comes across as rather flawed. On the one hand, this is in some details, e.g. the often made claim that Chernobyl released 200 times as much radioactive material as Hiroshima. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, you cannot really compare these too events, as they were of completely different natures, also in terms of the sort of radiation involved. Moreover, the author dramatically overstates the “dangerous” levels of radioactivity in the Zone, when large parts of this are these days completely harmless, except for some hotspots. The claim that “official” tours only started in 2011 is repeated here too (cf. this
), even though that is far from so straightforward. What changed in that year was that the government got involved in order to get a slice of the profits from those tours, but they had existed before, and not just for former residents and scientists as the author erroneously claims. My first tour to Chernobyl was in 2006 and it had exactly the same application procedure as my tours after 2011 and was basically of the same nature as today’s day tours, except that there were far fewer participants than is typical these days (we were just six of us on our 2006 tour, and that was the only tour on that day, whereas these days it is more typical to see full coachloads of tourists, sometimes more than a dozen on the same day). As one of the triggers for the rise of Chernobyl tourism the author sees two of the many photo books with atmospheric images taken in Pripyat
and elsewhere in the Zone, but when one of the years of publication is given as 2019 you have to wonder how something published in that year can possibly have triggered something that had allegedly already started in 2011 (and in actual fact even earlier than that). The author notes the influence of media, such as computer games (esp. the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Series) or the acclaimed 2019 HBO miniseries “Chernobyl”. But I think he goes way too far when he concludes that Chernobyl has thus become a “hyperreal, imagined” place or even nothing more than a “dark Disneyland”. In Disneyland nothing at all is authentic, whereas in Chernobyl quite a lot still is, even if there have been manipulations (e.g. dolls positioned by tourists specifically in ways to make for more dramatic photos). Nor can you claim Disneyland and Chernobyl are on the same level of commercialization, even if you criticize the two souvenir stalls at the main checkpoint. But inside the Zone no such commercial aspects can be seen anywhere. Moreover, the author seems to think that all visitors go on the same sort of tour, like the large-groups day tours, which indeed are rather superficial and standardized (and the victims of the disaster are barely commemorated on such tours). Most tours may be in that form, but by no means all tours. That’s why I always recommend to people who ask me for advice about visiting Chernobyl, to invest in a longer (minimum two-day) private tour, specifically in order to get away from the big groups – and various operators do offer such more substantial and tailored tours. The only other form of visiting that this author acknowledges, however, are urban explorers
(by which he must have meant what is more usually referred to as “stalkers” in this context), who enter the Zone illegally, which he dismisses as “infantile” and “obscure”. But in actual fact it’s far more complex. It would have helped if the author had read this book (my review)
, but that must have come out too late (2020), when this author’s German book must already have been in production. It is particularly baffling that the author proceeds to place Chernobyl at the lighter end of DT, classified as mere entertainment and voyeurism. In contrast, this website puts Chernobyl
in the highest category on its darkometer
and places it at the top of this list of darkest destinations
. This is something the author must have overlooked.
The next part of the book is not called a chapter but an “excursus
” and it’s about slum tourism
. Again, that’s something that this website excludes altogether, because I see it as something fundamentally different. In fact there has been quite a bit of discussion about whether or not slum tourism can be seen as part of DT in the academic circles, but this author does not mention this controversial status of slum tourism with regard to DT. As far as motivations are concerned the author concedes that most participants on such tours are perfectly respectable, but he does note that some of the people living in slums and who are being goggled at on such tours do not welcome this fact. So let’s not go any further into this.
The next chapter
takes us back into a core category of DT: graves and cemeteries
. Included in this are the Taj Mahal in India
and the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, though I would say that the fact that these are indeed tombs plays only a very marginal role in why they are such super-popular tourist attractions – they are just iconic must-sees. A more prototypical dark place in this category is Père Lachaise
, which is also a very popular destination. Again the author produces a list of well-known cemeteries, and provides the relative TripAdvisor rankings for them. Included are classics such as Vienna’s Central Cemetery
, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires
or Novodevichy in Moscow
. Amongst the motivations for visiting such places the author does not see merely a “morbid kick”, but rather things like pilgrimages, contemplation (about mortality) or simply curiosity. He also discusses ways in which tourism management can deal with such places, e.g. though proper signposting, maps or especially smartphone apps. As a special form of grave tourism a kind of “cult of celebrities” is noted, i.e. specifically visiting graves of famous people. In this category Graceland with the grave of Elvis Presley is indeed a particularly striking example.
The next chapter
is about former prisons
. Here the author distinguishes between three subcategories: firstly, ex-prisons that are now memorials that commemorate the victims of repressive regimes, such as Robben Island
, and which have a similar character to genocide memorials; secondly former prisons in non-authoritarian countries, like the West Virginia Penitentiary
, where the focus is more on infamous inmates, who are “demonized”, and the narrative is more about justifying their treatment in such prisons and the institution of imprisonment as such; thirdly there are said to be prisons that through the influence of mass media and movies have become “hyperreal” places in which pure entertainment plays the biggest role for visitors. As the prime example for this the author adduces Alcatraz
, which I find a bit unfair. This place is also more multifaceted than the author makes it out to be. For instance, parts of the exhibitions were actually quite critical of the US prison system and the non-prison history of the place, especially the occupation of the island by Native Americans in the 1960s, is by no means swept so under the rug, as the author claims. To argue that Alcatraz suffers from “decontextualization and dehistorifiction” is a bit too sweeping in my opinion.
The final topical chapter
is about what in the English-language academic coverage of DT has become known as “dark fun factories”
. These are commercial visitor attractions such as the Dungeon
group, some torture museums or the controversial “Body Worlds” exhibitions of plastinated bodies (first popularized by Gunther von Hagens). Here the author at least mentions on the side that not all academics see “dark fun factories” as really belonging to DT, and indeed it’s another example of a category not covered as such on this website, in the same way as “ghost hunts” or other “paranormal” and fictional aspects are excluded (why is explained here
). What is covered here as well as in this chapter are medical exhibitions such as the Josephinum
. Here the author sees the attraction in the unusual combination of scientifically correct recreations and a high level of aesthetics. That, I would also say, is spot on. He recounts some of the criticisms of the Body Worlds phenomenon, especially with regard to the fact that these are real human bodies and that it’s not always clear how voluntary the body donations have really been, but he also notes that most visitors do not visit such exhibitions out of gory voyeurism, but for genuine medical interest.
The final chapter is a conclusion and outlook. The author, again, emphasizes the diversity of DT, which is why no single general conclusion can be arrived at. Variables he names are: multiple interests (of stakeholders) and narratives, media influence, multi-optionality (regarding the range of visitor motivations, from commemoration to entertainment), hierarchies (with some sites being “stars” while others remain “wallflowers”), cycles of commemoration (memorial museums age and have to be revamped repeatedly), and the level of touristification (visitor numbers, the risk of trivialization, new media).
In a diagram the author tries to visualize the relative position of subtypes of DT/example sites along two scales, the first ranging from “official/governmental site” to “commercial offers”, and the other ranging from “mourning/commemoration to information/enlightening to entertainment/voyeurism” (p. 181). This seems to work at the darker end of the spectrum, with genocide memorials at the “highest” level, but at the other end the diagram seems severely skewed, with Alcatraz
being put on the same level of commercial entertainment as Dungeons
or ghost hunts. This does sites as dark as Chernobyl no justice and only works for Alcatraz if you’re prepared to apply merely the narrowest of views. It seems that the pressure to squeeze them into this diagram outweighed an appropriate evaluation of the complex realities of such sites.
Finally, there’s the outlook. On the one hand the author predicts a further rise and golden future for DT, evidenced not only by growing visitor numbers but also a realization of a widening demand for “unusual, authentic experiences outside the standardized mass tourism market” (p. 184). I agree, but fail to see how things like the Dungeon exhibitions fit into that assessment. With regard to the management and marketing side of affairs, the author offers up two contrasting scenarios. One is “optimistic”, and hopes for a responsible and appropriate approach to sites according to a high level of ethical and moral standards. The other scenario is a pessimistic and dystopian one, taken from Sci-Fi novels and apparently also from musings of some tourism academics. One such scenario is the so-called “Hunting Humans”, set in the year 2200, characterized by “overpopulation, natural disasters, scarcity of resources and particularly extreme societal inequality” (so far it sounds quite like today) and the well-heeled elite takes to a gruesome form of entertainment by hunting/killing people in poor quarters by means of drones and other remote weaponry, a bit like in a computer game but for real. This may seem far-fetched, but the author insists that you can already observe precursors of such a scenario and adduces the example of a Russian cruise ship that apparently provoked pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, only so that paying passengers can fight back the duped pirates with hand guns provided. If this is/was real then you have to ask if that’s supposed to be part of DT as well. And I would vehemently reject that. It’s more like war-zone tourism, like those Russians who allegedly travelled to Sarajevo in the 1990s to join the Yugoslav Army’s snipers “for fun”. That is so fundamentally different from everything unquestionably belonging to DT that calling this DT too is at best phenomenologically unsound or at worst malicious. In any case it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And it isn’t helped much by the author’s final conciliatory remark that drawing up this dystopian outlook scenario was only to serve as a warning so that we can prevent such a cruel future. Well, let’s hope so.
So much for the content part of the book. Technically, the book is certainly well made, with excellent image quality and layout and also linguistically; stylistically it strikes a good balance between the academic and the accessible. I spotted only a few mistakes, just the odd doubled word or wrong ending, but these are rare. One bigger issue I stumbled over was the confusion of “terrorism” with “tourism” on page 77 in the context of airport security, which is a bit “ouch”, but can easily happen, I guess.
All in all: I may have voiced criticisms of particular details (and a couple of more general points) in the above text but that should not detract from the overall impression I gained that this is a very good book in general. Most importantly it fills a gaping gap, and does so in a lucid and accessible style. I’d say an English equivalent would also sit well within the international market, so the publishers should consider commissioning a translation!
The book is also visually appealing, with its large format, lively layout and rich illustrations. What I found best about it, though, is the way in which the author debunks various misconceptions about dark tourism among the general public, and especially in the media, and makes it clear that DT generally isn’t morally dubious, morbid rubbernecking. That the author nevertheless lists “voyeurism” amongst the motivations for DT thus seems inconsistent. I would also have liked more comments about the negative reflexes you find time and again in (bad) journalism. This could have been condemned more forcefully.
On the other hand, the author, too, seems to be specifically fishing for controversial angles and in doing so occasionally overshoots the mark. This is especially so when he classifies Chernobyl
as mere entertainment. Here the author’s view is too narrow, for the sake of preserving a pre-given classification system, it seems. The harsh criticism of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York
is another case of a too narrow view, only seeing the dramatic exhibits and the excessive emotionalization outside the main historical exhibition. The undeniable fact that the latter is of outstanding quality is thus completely swept under the rug.
The coverage of subtypes of DT is a bit unbalanced, with areas that aren’t even universally considered part of DT, in particular slum tourism, battle re-enactments and things like ghost hunts, receiving the same depth and discussion as real core areas such as Holocaust
or war sites. Moreover, some areas of DT, in particular anything to do with the Cold War
or Iron Curtain
(of which Germany
offers loads!), are missing altogether. Well, I guess you just cannot have everything.
Nevertheless, for those wanting a good overview of DT as such as well as of the academic study of the subject, written in German, this is indispensable reading! Even if some sections have to be taken with a grain of salt, it is still a unique book (at present) and absolutely recommended. I can well imagine that it will find wide use in the education sector where the topic of DT is addressed, and hopefully it will also find recognition within the tourism industry and especially also in the media. The latter, however, I fear is less likely given the book’s ca. 200 pages (few journalists will allocate the necessary time for that). I also hope that an English version may one day appear, as the international market still lacks such a book.