Dark Tourism: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Skulls stacked up at the Killing Fields, Cambodia

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Well, we’ve had this dark tourism blog for a little over a year now, so it seemed like a good idea to finally write a post addressing what dark tourism is, why it’s important, and why we’ve dedicated a blog to it.

What is Dark Tourism?

It’s difficult to discuss why dark tourism is important without first providing a definition.

There is a lot of misinformation about what dark tourism is. We’re even guilty of this, as we tend to sweep anything macabre under the dark tourism umbrella. And we’re not the only ones. The popular Netflix show Dark Tourist introduced many new people to the term. Which is great, but he didn’t get it all right.

Don’t get me wrong, Dark Tourist does cover some dark tourism, but he also visits several sites that have a tenuous connection at best.

For example, the racist nationalists in Africa? Not dark tourism. McKamey Manor, the terrifying horror house in Tennessee? Not dark tourism. Disturbing and macabre, for sure, but not dark tourism.

I’m not here to discuss the general merits of the show. If you like it, I honestly think that’s okay. I enjoyed quite a bit of it. However, it is important to know what is and isn’t dark tourism. And also to understand that a lot of it is sensationalist.

RELATED: The Best Historical TV Series for Dark Tourists

Defining Dark Tourism

Memorial Stones at the Jewish Ghetto in Riga, Latvia
Memorial Stones at the Jewish Ghetto in Riga, Latvia

Since I actually did my university dissertation on the effect of dark tourism on cultural heritage in Cambodia, this definition of dark tourism is almost word for word what I wrote in said dissertation:

The term ‘Dark Tourism’ was first coined in 1996 by professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley. Dark tourism, or Thanatourism as it is sometimes referred to in academia, refers to sites associated with death, disaster and destruction.

In recent years, interest in these sites has increased; although death, suffering and tourism have been linked for centuries, specifically in the context of warfare, with sites such as the Waterloo battlefield drawing in visitors from the early 1800’s onwards. Thanatourism sites can be found around the world in varying size and scope. 

In his 1996 paper Guided by the Dark: From Thanatopsis to Thanatourism, Professor A. V. Seaton outlined five different forms of dark tourism: 

  1. museums that showcase death or symbols of death in some way, such as the popular Dungeon museums (i.e London Dungeon, Paris Dungeon) that allow visitors to “relive” the horrors of a city throughout its history; 
  2. participation or observation of death simulation, such as the re-enactments of famous battles; 
  3. witnessing of public deaths (though this form is less common as public executions occur in very few countries today), this would also include activities like gladiatorial combat; 
  4. visits to memorial sites – this encompasses graveyards, crypts, internment sites; and lastly
  5. travel to sites of individual or mass death and/or tragedy; this includes the sites of famous dead people and the homes of mass murderers, as well as the sites of battlefields (Waterloo, Gettysburg), and genocide (Rwandan genocide memorial sites, Holocaust memorials sites and extermination camps, i.e. Auschwitz, Dachau).

Hope that clears things up…

Grave sculpture at Olsany Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic
Grave sculpture at Olšany Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic

What Dark Tourism Isn’t

Essentially, haunted houses, abandoned places or just mean people aren’t necessarily dark tourism unless some kind of tragedy is attached to them. For example, we visited an abandoned amusement park in Elektrėnai, Lithuania and while it was wonderful and somewhat reminiscent of Chernobyl with the large, decaying ferris wheel and bumper cars, it was not dark tourism. Whereas Chernobyl, which suffered a devastating nuclear disaster in 1986 is very much dark tourism.

Likewise, we’ve written a few posts on haunted places and some of them are probably closer to dark tourism than others. The little girl who was locked in her home with her dead parents and was forced to succumb to cannibalism before choking on the flesh of her parents? Definitely closer to the definition of dark tourism than the residential home that may or may not have a poltergeist, but no one really knows why. In case you’re curious, those can both be found in this article.

So to reiterate, all dark tourism is macabre, but not all macabre tourism is dark tourism.

Why Dark Tourism Is Important To Me

I’ve always been a weird kid. I have a dark sense of humour, I find serial killers fascinating, and  Schindler’s List was my favourite film when I was 7. You get the idea.

Memorial statue at Plaszow former concentration camp in Krakow
The Kraków-Płaszów Concentration Camp is the setting of Schindler’s List

There are more of us ‘weirdos’ than you think. Some people, like Caitlin Doughty, of Ask a Mortician fame, become morticians (and write darkly humourous books about it) and co-found death positivity movements like The Order of the Good Death. Others, like Tori Telfer, write books about history’s deadliest women and host podcasts on the same topic.

But I travel; it’s always been a big part of who I am. So it should come as no surprise that I became a dark tourist.

For a long time, I didn’t realise that’s what I was. It’s not just that I didn’t know the term – because let’s be fair, the term ‘dark tourism’ only entered into popular lexicon within the last few years, and while I did know the term before that, it’s irrelevant. What I mean is that I never connected my interests as a tourist with anything out of the ordinary.

I knew I was weird, I knew I liked macabre stuff and most people didn’t, but whenever we went to a ‘dark tourism’ site, it was normally pretty busy.

People thought I was weird, but travelling made me realise I wasn’t all that different from the world as a whole – just from small town America.

So yes, on a totally selfish level, dark tourism is important to me because it made me feel a little bit more normal. And as a kid that was important to me because I wasn’t like other kids, and kids care about that.

But dark tourism is also important to me for the same reasons it should be important to everyone. History matters. Those who lost their lives to genocide or trying to enact positive  change matter. Remembering matters.

RELATED: The Best Dark History Podcasts

How I Became a Dark Tourist

Honestly, I’ve always been one. 

I have always made it a point to visit sites that would be classified as dark tourism sites; I went to a former slave plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, paid my respects at several concentration camps, and looked out at the ocean that swallowed so many slaves on their way to North America at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. Museums that showcase a dark period in history are often a highlight of my trips. And that’s just the beginning.

Door of No Return at Cape Coast Castle, Ghana
Door of No Return at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana

Truthfully, I don’t even remember the first place I went that could be classified as dark tourism, especially if we’re including museums. And I am, because museums make for excellent historical records concerning difficult history and heritage. Plus, technically speaking, today often sites like Auschwitz and the Killing Fields are also considered museums.

I don’t remember when I first heard the term dark tourism, but I remember how I felt when I heard it; I was relieved to know there were other people like me. It made sense; I had a box to tick on ‘type of travel’ all of a sudden.

Although I don’t remember where or when I heard it, dark tourism has definitely been in my vocabulary since at least the early 2010s. And in 2015, I really sealed the deal when I moved to Cambodia to do research on my dissertation.

What I can say for certain is that being a dark tourist has made me a better person. Learning about past atrocities from a young age (I was seven when I first learned about the Holocaust) taught me a lot about empathy, compassion and tolerance.

RELATED: Eye-Opening Books About Racism from Around the World

Dark Tourism Gets You Out of Your Comfort Zone

Visiting dark tourism sites can be quite shocking and upsetting for many people. Even as a seasoned dark tourist, our trip to Lidice in the Czech Republic had a profound effect on me.

This isn’t a bad thing. Learning about the bad parts of history are just as much a part of the travel experience as seeing beautiful buildings. It helps us grow as people, and it allows us to better understand and appreciate where we are.

This statue of the Lidice children is one of the most powerful dark tourism memorials we've seen
The War Children’s Victim Monument in the Lidice Memorial Park

I truly believe it is impossible to fully appreciate places like Poland and Cambodia without first learning about their tragic pasts. Horrific as they may be, these events are a part of a country’s history – oftentimes their very recent history – and have shaped them into the places they are today. To fully understand a place, we need to acknowledge and learn about its history.

In fact, it wasn’t until I lived in Cambodia and met so many people directly affected by the Khmer Rouge that I truly understood how vital it was to share these histories.

Genocide education didn’t become mandatory in Cambodia schools until 2010. Prior to that, there were thousands of young Cambodian children who didn’t know about their own past. Many Cambodians who lived through the war couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about what happened to them. In some stronghold areas they didn’t know the war was over. I met children who didn’t even know the Khmer Rouge had happened, let alone that their own parents and grandparents lived through it.

While doing dark tourism research in Cambodia, I found that the more I learned, the less I really knew.

This is because dark tourism forces you out of your comfort zone. It makes you confront harsh truths about humanity and society.

I think it is vital to visit well known and popular sites like Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields, Ground Zero or the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

But I also think it is important to go deeper than that. These sites are a tiny piece of the puzzle. If you can handle delving deeper, you should. This can take on many forms, from visiting some of the lesser known WWII sites in Krakow to aid your understanding of Auschwitz, but also by visiting places not often on the tourist trail at all. Places such as Bosnia & Herzegovina, which witnessed its own genocide in the 1990s, or Gorée Island in Senegal, where you can learn more about the African slave trade.

But Isn’t Dark Tourism Unethical?

Dark tourism is often in the news when something bad happens. Auschwitz and Chernobyl have both seen a rise in problematic selfies. Most recently, Syria has expressed concern over the rise in dark tourism.

However, the problem is not dark tourism. The problem is people.

Dark tourism itself is not unethical. How people choose to conduct themselves at dark tourism sites can be unethical. Equally, not everywhere should be visited. Syria is an active war zone, not a tourist destination for adrenaline junkies.

Sometimes it comes down to personal feelings. Many people feel a certain amount of time should pass between the event and visiting, while others are happy to visit shortly afterwards. I do not think either approach is inherently wrong, but your motivations matter. 

Tourists flocked to Grenfell Tower in the UK almost immediately after the tragedy that killed 79 people in 2017. And while many were there to pay their respects, a lot of people were condemned for taking selfies. Either way, days after an event is too soon to show up if you don’t have a personal connection to a site.

And selfies are almost never okay.

The Killing Tree at Choeung Ek, Cambodia
Would you take a selfie next to this?

But sometimes it is impossible to tell how soon is too soon. You might be surprised how long it took for some dark tourism sites to open.

The Rwandan Genocide Memorial opened its doors in 2004, only ten years after the massacre that forever changed the country.

The Ground Zero Memorial was completed in March 2006, not even five years after the tragedy that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City.

And Auschwitz was converted into a museum on July 2, 1947, just over 2.5 years after the camp was liberated.

Why so soon? Because ultimately, these stories matter. They must be told, and they need to be remembered. The longer we ignore tragedy, the more chance the mistakes of our past will be forgotten and repeated.

Wait, Did You Say Selfies Are Okay?

Yes. And no.

Are you a black American reclaiming your tragic heritage by posing and smiling in front of a former slave plantation? You’re probably okay.

Are you a Jewish kid whose family was murdered during WWII and now you’re giving a big fuck you to Hitler’s failed final solution? Also okay.

Do you have to take a selfie in those instances? Definitely not. Can you still feel those are inappropriate? Yeah, that’s totally valid. But there are nuances and complicated histories behind that.

Additionally, just because something at first seems problematic, doesn’t mean that it is and it’s important to understand the context behind a site, as well.

People having a photo shoot at a dark tourism site
People having a photo shoot at the Ninth Forth Holocaust Memorial, Lithuania

The Argument For Chernobyl

Following Chernobyl’s recent rise in popularity due to the HBO show, people were outraged about mass selfies at the site. I won’t lie, I’m still outraged about it. Darmon Richter, who runs ExUtopia and has spent a lot of time in the Ukraine, tweeted that the residents of Chernobyl don’t want people to be sad all the time because they live there and it’s nice to see people happy and smiling.

I completely agree with Darmon. Chernobyl is unique because people live there. What I don’t think is okay about the selfie culture coming out of Chernobyl right now is that the people taking those selfies don’t necessarily seem aware of that distinction.

There is also a huge difference between taking a group selfie with your tour guides or locals that you meet and befriend, and taking ‘sexy’ selfies in front of the abandoned ferris wheel.

If you want to take selfies at Chernobyl, there should be context. You should be explaining everything I just said to give reasons for why it is okay in this instance. The photos should also show the wonderful people you met while there and tell their stories, not yours!

Dark Tourism Should Not Be Controversial

People have been visiting sites of tragedy for centuries. People flocked to places like Pompeii and the Battle of Waterloo not long after the events had passed. But social media didn’t exist back then. Since there is now an academic term for people who are drawn to these sites, and with the increased popularity of sites like Instagram, it has become seemingly controversial. 

The main controversy surrounding dark tourism comes from three things: 

  • a) the selfie culture and everyone’s need to ‘prove’ they were there and make themselves a part of something. This is highly problematic as it moves the focus from the tragedy and the victims onto the person visiting. Once someone makes themselves the focus of the photo, they are taking agency away from victims – often victims who can no longer speak for themselves. 
  • b) people who visit sites, such as active war zones like Syria, as tourists rather than humanitarians, politicians or journalists. To me, this isn’t dark tourism, this is irresponsible tourism and thrill chasing.
  • c) the idea that dark tourists derive some kind of pleasure from these sites. This is a complicated thing to explain. Many dark tourists do derive a sense of satisfaction from visiting dark tourism sites. But it is not because they are vicariously playing out a sick, twisted fantasy. It is about education; it is about being able to see a place they have read about their whole lives in person. It is also about paying their respects. 

But let me be clear: most dark tourists believe that sites like Chernobyl, Auschwitz, the Killing fields, and so on are paramount because we never want them to be forgotten. If they are forgotten, it will happen again and again and again. Even with the wounds of the Holocaust and WWII still relatively fresh, we have already witnessed many new genocides since. 

Essentially, dark tourism is important because in an ideal world, no new dark tourism sites will ever be added to our dark tourism “bucket lists.”

If you want to know more about dark tourism, you can check out our dark tourism page. There you will find a brief overview along with book recommendations and every article we’ve ever written about dark tourism.

A Haunting Visit to the Lidice Museum and Memorial
Revisiting the Terezin Propaganda Camp in the Era of Fake News
East Grinstead Museum and the History of Queen Victoria Hispital
The Katyn Museum: Remembering a Forgotten Massacre
Beating Hearts: Visiting the Salaspils Memorial Park


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