What Is Dark Tourism and Why Is It Controversial?

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Call it morbid curiosity, call it going off the beaten path, but there are tourists who spend their holidays visiting locations where some of the worst events in human history have taken place – think: Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan, and more. This travel phenomenon has become known as ‘dark tourism’ – and it’s a growing global movement.

What Exactly Is Dark tourism?

Dark tourism (also know as ‘black’ or ‘grief’ tourism) is the name given to visiting any kind of place that owes its notoriety to death, disaster, or atrocity. It could be the site of a natural disaster or somewhere that genocide, assassination, incarceration, ethnic cleansing, or war occurred. The term was originally coined in 1996 by J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, two faculty members at Glasgow Caledonian University.

In a 2017 article revisiting the topic, Lennon wrote: “For many years, humans have been attracted to sites and events that are associated with death, disaster, suffering, violence, and killing. From ancient Rome and gladiatorial combat to attendance at public executions in London and other major cities of the world, death has held an appeal.” He continues: “Tourism and death enjoy a curious relationship. Death and acts of mass killing are a major deterrent for the development of certain destinations and, yet, such acts can become the primary purpose of visitation in others.”

Eight-part Netflix docuseries Dark Tourist recently shed light on the concept. In it, journalist David Farrier visits unusual tourist spots, including visiting the ‘most-nuked place on Earth’ and taking part in a faux illegal border crossing in Mexico.

What Is Dark Tourism and Why Is It Controversial?

What Kind of Places Are We Talking About?

Like other strains of travel, dark tourism even experiences its own micro-trends. After the HBO series Chernobyl dramatized the 1986 power plant explosion, The Times reported that travel company Explore experienced a 30 to 40 percent increase in visitors to the area. Many dark tourism areas have created profitable businesses as a result of the interest from tourists, erecting museums and running tours.

Concerns have grown in recent years around tourists traveling to less formalized ‘dark tourist’ spots though, particularly war-torn areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. The appeal of these places is thought to lie in their ‘unmapped’ qualities, particularly if foreign travel advice discourages tourists from visiting certain areas for their own safety.

evgeny nelmin tuol sleng genocide museum
Photo: Courtesy of Evgeny Nelmin

Why Is It Controversial?

Some have argued it’s voyeuristic and inappropriate. For instance, local residents expressed anger at people stopping to take selfies outside Grenfell Tower in the months following the fire, in which 72 people died. A sign was erected, reading: “Grenfell: a tragedy, not a tourist attraction.” Others believe dark tourism is a way to learn from the past and reflect on tragedy. Visiting the site of a natural or man-made disaster can arguably give context to the horror and magnitude of an atrocity, allowing us to honor the victims involved.

Obviously this depends on tourists treating dark tourist spots with respect. Refraining from taking selfies, dressing appropriately, and conducting yourself in a quiet manner are important things to consider. Bear in mind that dark tourism can also be a deeply upsetting experience – it might not be appropriate for children – and above all, ahead of visiting a disaster site, you might want to think about whether it’s appropriate. If the tragedy was very recent and visiting with a camera feels ill-judged, it might be better to pay your respects from afar.

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