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THE DEFINITION OF DARK TOURISM
The term 'Dark Tourism' was first coined in 1996 by John Lennon (no, not that one) and Malcolm Foley, professors at Glasgow Caledonian University in the Department of Hospitality, Tourism & Leisure Management. Dark tourism refers to tourism to sites of mass tragedy and death.
Today, dark tourism has many names, among them, Thanatourism, grief tourism, and morbid tourism. There are also many facets of dark tourism, such as nuclear tourism, war tourism or slum tourism (more of these below).
Understandably, many of these are controversial.
Additionally, because there isn't a better/other term for sites generally associated with the macabre, we currently broaden this to include abandoned places & ghost towns, ghost stories, cemeteries, sites of revolt, prisons & anything macabre.
But we always want to look at these places from an educational and historical point of view.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DARK TOURISM
Although an 'official' term did not exist until 1996, dark tourism is not a new practice. People have been visiting sites of death and tragedy for centuries. Early examples include viewing public hangings and decapitations, or spectators at gladiatorial games in the Colosseum. Pompeii has been popular among those able to travel, almost since its tragic end in 79 AD. At the beginning of the 19th century, the site of the Battle of Waterloo became one of the most visited locations in the world.
Arguably, pilgrims became the first dark tourists, as they often set out to visit sites of executions and death surrounding religious figures. One example is the final resting place of Muhammed at Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (or, the Mosque of the Prophet) in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
It is important to remember, that ancient sites are not, strictly speaking, dark tourism sites. Dark Tourism refers to sites that affect recent memory and heritage. Although the Colosseum or Pompeii have a dark history and they are tourism sites, they are first and foremost historical sites. Though again, we may, until we set up separate pages for them, chuck them into the dark tourism overhead for the time being.
WHY WRITE ABOUT DARK TOURISM?
Our aim is to introduce people to different kinds of dark tourism. For example, while not strictly a site of mass death, we believe that sites like East Grinstead's Queen Victoria Hospital fall under the purview of dark tourism, as its historical significance is rooted in tragedy. Namely, that without the disasters of war, its current iteration would not exist. We also want to examine why dark tourism is so popular, why we feel it is important (despite its controversy), and how to be a responsible dark tourist.
We think dark tourism is integral to understanding a country. I (Dagney) used to live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and I met A LOT of tourists and foreigners who would complain about the city because it was too busy, too polluted, too corrupt. Many of them just wanted to go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and then head to the beach. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all tourists, but definitely enough of them. Often when I asked if they would be visiting the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng - or even Wat Thmei in Siem Reap - they said no, because it was too depressing.
Yes, visiting any site associated with the Killing Fields is harrowing, but not only can you not fully understand modern Khmer culture without visiting, you are doing a disservice to the Khmer people but ignoring these tragedies. Because here's the thing, it would amaze you the number of people who have been to Cambodia who don't realise the Killing Fields were everywhere. Choeung Ek (aka the Killing Fields), the one in Phnom Penh, is one of THOUSANDS of sites across the entire country. Many people I have met who have been to Cambodia don't know there are sites like this in Siem Reap.
Equally, if the aforementioned people took the time to understand the state of Cambodia before the war (it was often considered to be one of the most progressive and developed in the region), the genocide itself and the aftermath - namely that almost no high ranking members of the Pol Pot regime were ever sentenced, and the current Prime Minster is a former member - they might have a bit more compassion for the Khmer people. Cambodia is now considered to be one of the poorest in the region because it is still recovering from a war that some people in the country aren't even aware happened.
Long rant short: visit dark tourism sites, it will make you a better tourist and a more compassionate person.
Listed below is every article we've ever written that discusses dark tourism. Some include more conventional forms of dark tourism, such as memorial sites and museums in Warsaw, while other others are more unconventional, such as The Hill of Witches in Lithuania which explores both light and dark mythologies (we count it because there are demon effigies).
TYPES OF DARK TOURISM
Dark tourism can be broken down into many sub-categories (countless, really), many of which overlap. Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Genocide Tourism: Genocide refers to the deliberate and systematic killing of a specific group of people, normally targeted because of their religion, ethnicity, race or nation - although in the case of the Khmer Rouge genocide it became about poor and agrarian versus rich and urban (in very simplified terms). Genocide tourism is by far the most well-known form of dark tourism as it encompasses many of the mass tragedies throughout history. Here are just a few of the horrific events covered under genocide tourism: the Holocaust in Europe, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Hutu massacres in Rwanda, Holodomor in Ukraine, Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire (specifically Turkey), Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and the massacres of Native Americans in the USA.
- Holocaust Tourism: Holocaust tourism is the most popular form of genocide tourism. This involves visiting sites affiliated with the Holocaust and Hitler's final solution specifically. So WWII battlefield sites do not fall under this category. However, labour camps, concentration camps, mass graves, or museums such as the Anne Frank house all do. It isn't always clear cut, though. Sites like Lidice, a village just outside of Prague razed to the ground by the Nazis, could be considered Holocaust tourism since it was a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, but as no one living there was Jewish, some might not consider it such. Personally, Lidice is Holocaust tourism to me because it was a direct result of Hitler's final solution and an attempt to undermine it, rather than a tragic consequence of war.
- War Tourism: This one is fairly self-explanatory. From unknown civil wars to world wars, this type of tourism encompasses sites related to war. This would include the battlefield re-enactments in Gettysburg, USA, the cemeteries of Normandy, or the war memorial at Elephant Pass in Sri Lanka. Many genocide and holocaust sites also fall under war tourism, and some people interested in this form of tourism are actually battlefield tourists (many are also particularly interested in one particular war).
**It should be noted war tourism can also refer to tourism to active war zones, which is very different! We do NOT condone this form of war tourism, nor do we consider it to be dark tourism.**
- Cold War & Iron Curtain Tourism: The Cold War is considered to have lasted between 1947 to 1991. The phrase conjures up tales of spies, espionage and nuclear disaster. It was a period of increasing tension following WWII between the atomic superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as their allies, the Western Bloc and Eastern Bloc of Europe, respectively. Sites that fall under this purview typically include: sites along geopolitical borders (such as the Berlin Wall or Checkpoint Charlie, both in Berlin, Germany, or even the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea), bunkers (like the Qender Zjarri bunkers across Albania or the Secret Nuclear Bunker in Ligatne, Latvia), and atomic test sites (see more further below). For some people, it also includes really anywhere associated with being behind the ‘Iron Curtain,’ which is similar to Soviet Tourism (all listed further below).
- Grave Tourism: Do you enjoy wandering around a beautiful graveyard or cemetery? Find it interesting to hunt down famous graves, or find the most interesting statues? Then you’re at least a little bit into grave tourism. Just be responsible and, as with any form of dark tourism, be respectful!
- Nuclear Tourism (aka Atomic Tourism): Nuclear tourism is about visiting sites associated with nuclear technology, research and testing, nuclear explosion and accident sites, and everything in between related to nuclear and atomic energy. Famous nuclear tourism sites include Hiroshima, Chernobyl and the Bikini atoll test site in the Marshall Islands.
- Medical Dark Tourism: Medical dark tourism is all about the history of medicine and gross things in jars. It relates to places like old operating theatres, plague towns, sanatoriums or medical museums with human specimens. This is one of my personal favourite forms of dark tourism, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. I just find it incredibly fascinating (Jeremy is a bit more on the fence about it). Plus, realising just how far medical science has come will make you feel very grateful to be alive now. We also include sites like East Grinstead Hospital in this due to its relationship with WWII and medical advancements.
**NOT to be confused with regular medical tourism, which is travelling to foreign countries for medical procedures.**
- Cult of Personality Tourism: Enthralling serial killers, magnetic cult leaders, charismatic tyrants… there is something about this brand of psychopath that seems to pull us in. Cult of Personality tourism covers everything from Jeffery Dahmer and Pablo Escobar tours, to visits to North Korea or Turkmenistan.
TYPES OF TOURISM OFTEN ASSOCIATED WITH DARK TOURISM
Here are a few types of tourism that often get lumped in with dark tourism, but are different:
- Supernatural Tourism: As much as we love a good haunting, its ties to dark tourism are often tenuous at best. While the occasional haunted house backstory might tie in well enough, depending on its historical accuracy, vampires, witches and werewolves not so much. However, the mistreatment of those labelled 'different' and othered throughout history can certainly fall into this category. In particular to the supernatural category, the horrific witch trials throughout Europe and the USA most definitely fall under dark tourism.
- Disaster Tourism: This refers to the practice of visiting sites that have been affected by an environmental disaster. These disasters can be man-made, such as Chernobyl (which is also dark tourism) or the Exxon Valdez oil spill which didn't directly kill any people, but has led to the deaths of countless animals, caused a massive environmental impact and may well cause long term financial and health concerns for fishermen along the affected coast. Alternatively, these sites might be natural disasters like floods or tsunamis. Disaster tourism has its own set of ethical questions and concerns.
- Doom Tourism: Kind of the pre-cursor to disaster tourism, doom tourism refers to travel to sites that are potentially endangered (i.e. doomed) due to natural or man made causes and won't be around for long. Examples of places like this are Australia's Coral Reefs and the Everglades in Florida. Many would also include Venice or Machu Picchu. Personally this one feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. We tend to avoid these sites.
- Soviet Tourism: This is simply visiting former soviet sites. And yes, while many former soviet sites certainly fall under the dark tourism umbrella (see communism and cold war tourism above), not all soviet tourism is dark tourism. For example, some people opt to only/predominantly travel around former soviet countries (there are plenty of them, after all). But simply visiting Kiev is hardly dark tourism. There is, naturally, a lot of overlap with Cold War Tourism (above) and Red Tourism (below), but also with Holocaust and WWII tourism due to the USSR's role in WWII.
- Red Tourism: Sometimes called communism tourism, red tourism is very similar to Soviet tourism, but refers to tourism around the world related to communism sites of historical significance. Red tourism is actually supported by the Chinese government, and so it is most prevalent in China. However, this means that many - though not all - of the sites in China are shown positively rather than examining the negative effects of communism in the country. Red tourism sites in China range from Shaoshan (birthplace of Mao Zedong) to Xifeng Concentration Camp. Red tourism often overlaps with dark tourism when it includes travel to countries still under communism, such as North Korea, or going on communism tours in countries previously under communist rule, such as Estonia or the Czech Republic.
- Heritage Tourism: There are many different types of heritage tourism. The most popular is cultural heritage tourism, which involves visiting sites of cultural and historic significance. It also includes sites of natural beauty (think national parks, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, or the Tiger's Nest in Bhutan). While many dark tourism sites fit into this type of heritage tourism (I don't think anyone would argue that The Killing Fields or Auschwitz aren't culturally and historically significant), there is another type of heritage tourism that also tends to encompass dark tourism sites, namely tourism to discover one's own heritage. Heritage tours are particularly common amongst American Jews visiting Central and Eastern Europe and Israel. However, it is in no way limited to this demographic.
FURTHER READING IN DARK TOURISM
As my dissertation was on how dark tourism sites affect cultural heritage and memory in Cambodia, many of my recommendation for further reading are more academic (specifically anthropological) than light reading. However, I think if you are interested in dark tourism most of these are fairly accessible and interesting, regardless. There are many more than what I have listed here!
- Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley
- The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism edited by Richard Sharpley and Philip R. Stone
- Death Tourism: Disaster Sites as Recreational Landscape edited by Brigitte Sion
- Postcards from Auschwitz: Holocaust Tourism and the Meaning of Remembrance by Daniel P. Reynolds
- Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era by Tiya Miles - I thought this was a really fascinating book. It delves into the problematic portrayal of African Americans (particularly those who were slaves) in ghost story re-enactments.
- The Palgrave Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies edited by Philip R. Stone, Rudi Hartmann, Tony Seaton, Richard Sharpley and Leanne White
- Don't Go There! by Adam Fletcher
- Drawn to the Dark by Chris Kullstroem
- I am the Dark Tourist: Travels to the Darkest Sites on Earth by H. E. Sawyer
- Shadow Trails: Adventures in Dark Tourism by Tom Coote
- The Dark Tourist: Sightseeing in the World's Most Unlikely Holiday Destinations by Dom Joly - Personally this one isn't really my favourite. I don't get on with Dom Joly as a narrator/person. BUT this one seems to be the one most other people have read and enjoyed, so it warrants a spot on the list. At least he's introducing new people to the topic.
DARK TOURISM PHOTOGRAPHY BOOKS
- I Was Here: Photographs of Dark Tourism by Ambroise Tézenas and J. J. Lennon - Showcasing photos from somber locations all over the world,
- Dark Tourism by Rebecca Bathory - Bathory is a professional photographer and has several books out with her beautiful photography. She specialises in photos of dark tourism, abandoned places and decay. You can see some of her work here.