Dark Tourism: A Fine Line Between Curiousity and Exploitation

Editor's note: This is part one in a multi-part series exploring dark tourism.

Sometimes we travel to see a beautiful landscape, a precious artifact or a well-known painting. But other times our purpose is to experience something a little darker: to see a concentration camp where thousands of people were gassed to death, to visit a natural disaster zone that we’ve seen plastered across our TV screens, or to gawk at people living in poverty, sometimes with the intention of trying to help them.

All of these things and more have been encapsulated recently by the umbrella term of dark tourism. And while some people are quick to say they’d never be involved in something with a name like dark tourism, the scope is broad and you might be a dark tourist without realizing it.

A Dark Field
© sektordua

So What Exactly is Dark Tourism?

Well, that kind of depends who you ask. But let’s go for someone who sounds quite authoritative: the University of Central Lancashire, which is actually undertaking academic research into dark tourism. They say:

Dark tourism is the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme.

It’s a term that has only arisen in the past couple of years, perhaps brought into sharper focus with the rush of tours that followed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But people have been visiting so-called “dark tourist” sites for a much longer time — the concentration camps at Auschwitz in Poland spring immediately to mind.

Like rubberneckers at a car crash, it’s somehow human nature to want to be an eye-witness to suffering. A morbid curiosity grips many of us and although we might outwardly say we don’t want to visit the site of a natural disaster or a mass murder, a lot of us, secretly, really do. The reasons, like the reasons we travel at all, are many and varied, but range somewhere between wanting to understand how other people live through catastrophe and showing sympathy to victims, all the way through to an out-and-out interest in death and depravity.

What Kinds of Dark Tourism Are There?

Are you a dark tourist? Nearly everyone has interest in at least one or two kinds of dark tourism, even if they wouldn’t initially characterize themselves that way. But it’s certainly a matter of degrees. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring a range of different traveling ideas that fit somehow into the idea of dark tourism. Here’s an overview of one way of categorizing dark tourism.

Grief Tourism

You might be surprised to learn there’s an entire website dedicated to grief tourism. I sure was. But when you get into the detail, grief tourism is a kind of sightseeing that many of us have been doing naturally for years. Basically, you can define grief tourism as being when you travel somewhere to visit a scene of some tragic event.

Ground Zero, New York City
Ground Zero, New York City © wili_hybrid

The most common examples of grief tourism are war-related, like visiting the concentration camps and battle sites, seeing cemeteries, and tourists coming to see where tragic crimes or events happened, for example in Soham, England, when floods of tourists visited the small village where two young schoolgirls were murdered. And perhaps the ultimate example of grief tourism is the wave of visitors to Ground Zero in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Disaster Tourism

Some might say disaster tourism is a subset of grief tourism, but it deserves its own category after getting so much attention of late. An onslaught of visitors following some kind of natural disaster, such as those visiting south-east Asia following the 2004 tsunami crisis, or people traveling to New Orleans to see the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, are both examples of disaster tourism.

It’s a shade more controversial than grief tourism. You could argue that those who visit disaster zones — especially when little time has elapsed since the disaster — may hinder the efforts being made to restore communities to a normal way of life. On the other hand, promoting this kind of travel might bring in much-needed income at a difficult time.

Morning Shampoo in Kolkata, India
Morning Shampoo in Kolkata, India © Shayan (USA)

Poverty Tourism

It’s a natural human trait to be interested in how the other half live. That’s why we line up in droves to trundle through exquisite royal palaces or mansions belonging to the rich. But some are more interested in how the other, other half live: the very poor.

Poverty tourism usually features tours to slum areas and poverty stricken towns. Some claim to help these poor by using profits from the tours to improve their lot, but this seems counter-productive — if they broke the poverty cycle here their tour business would close down. As you can see, I’m a bit cynical about the idea of poverty tourism. Touring a squatter camp in Soweto, South Africa, or similarly poor settlements in India, and driving through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro all belong to this category.

Suicide Tourism

This particularly dark side of dark tourism generally takes two forms. The first involves people traveling to a particular destination with the intention of committing suicide, often by jumping from a famous landmark. Statistics prove that a significant proportion of suicide cases at well-known tourist attractions are tourists, although it’s not clear whether their trip was planned around this.

A second form of suicide tourism takes into account the various laws related to euthanasia in different countries. For example, in several European countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, active euthanasia is not illegal, and terminally-ill people sometimes travel there to end their life legally.

Doomsday Tourism

The end of the world is coming, some people believe. Or at the very least, the end of certain tourist attractions is coming. Doomsday tourism refers to the thinking that you should hurry up and visit particular places which are under threat, usually as a result of environmental problems and globing warming.

For example, there’s been a rush on visits to see Arctic glaciers because many travelers (nudged by their travel agents) are scared they’re going to disappear. Some visitors to the Great Barrier Reef, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Galapagos Islands follow the same line of thinking. Of course, it’s not entirely logical, because the act of traveling to these places is in turn creating environmental pressures — but perhaps these travelers won’t mind, a touch selfishly, because they’ll have seen what they wanted.

Next week: exploring grief tourism.

45 Responses

  1. Ken Chen

    Fascinating article! I guess I’m like most people who skip over the psychology of traveling whenever I plan my trips.

    I wonder though, what is your opinion on how volunteer tourism fits into this? If disaster and poverty tourism can be subsets of grief tourism, does that also include those that travel to these places, not to gawk, but to help?

    I can’t wait for the next part of this feature. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  2. Amanda

    Ken, thanks for the feedback. It’s interesting for me, too, to look back on some of the trips I’ve made and see where they fit into the “dark tourism” spectrum.

    On volunteer tourism: That’s a good question, and I think my answer is “it depends” … I guess that in general, I personally think volunteer tourism is usually OK but perhaps there are a tiny minority who sign up for it more as a “status symbol” than out of a genuine desire to help. Part of me wonders, though, that if a job gets done that the locals need, then perhaps it doesn’t matter what the motivation is. Whereas those who merely gawk are definitely not helping. What do you think?

    Reply
  3. Ken Chen

    I think you hit it right on. It all goes back to the notion of there is no such thing as a selfless act. But I say, what’s so wrong about feeling good about yourself, just so long as you really did help someone out.

    There’s been many criticisms, for example of out-of-town Katrina volunteers, that accuse people of coming in, helping out, flying away feeling good about themselves but then forgetting about what they saw. In my mind this ties back to dark tourism, where it’s that urge to see human suffering that draws people in…and that in turn draws a natural desire to help out. But just like with the poverty cycle you mentioned above, flash in the pan volunteering might do more damage than good.

    So how do the tour companies, or even the sites themselves, use the psychology of grief and disaster tourism to attract visitors? Are they pulling at the heartstrings of travelers simply to earn a profit, or are they really looking to educate the uninformed with in-your-face exposure? My hope is the latter.

    Reply
  4. Amanda

    Ken, my hope is the latter too, but to be honest, I’ve been kind of shocked at just how many tour operators run trips that I personally think only fit on the “wrong” side of dark tourism. Seeing poverty makes money. But there definitely are some who have a genuine aim of educating people. You just have to choose the right place, right time with the right people, I guess. Easier said than done!

    Reply
  5. Ash

    Your point regarding the pressures placed on tourist attractions in the doomsday tourism section are so accurate. its sad to think that people will selfishly, for the benefit of their own eyes, visit certain attractions in such large numbers that their visit is detrimental to the long-term sustainability of the attraction.

    its sad to think that a little selfishness could result in significant pressure and irreversible negative effects being place on these destinations as a result of tourists wanting to ‘get in before the attraction is gone’.

    excellent article. thoroughly enjoyed reading it! =]

    Reply
  6. Jody Williams

    Hi. Just wanted to say how much your article has helped me get a better grip on some of the issues surrounding Dark Tourism. Im a student currently looking into this subject- however so far i’ve found very little on the motivations towards dark tourism. Im wondering if you can help… You certainly seem to know your stuff!

    Reply
  7. Guillaume Le Sommer

    interesting! I’m a french student and i’m surprised to observe how this subject is developped in the anglo-saxon world; In France there isn’t such researches and it’s a big “fight” to find some books on what you call dark tourism. The only place where researches are starting i think is in Quebec . We have to do something!!!If you have some books names to give me it could be great for my works for university

    Reply
  8. sayanna

    Yeah,interesting!Amanda,Could you explain the details of benefit of dark tourism?

    Reply
  9. Bashir

    Im currently doing a Masters dissertation on Dark Tourism and have found many articles on this area. My email address is ba5h1r@hotmail.com contact me for those who would like to exchange information or ideas.
    Great Article above indeed.

    Reply
  10. Alin Todea

    I think that a part of Dark tourism can also considered the livresque Dark tourism (people who want to visit areas related to novels, movies containing Vampires, Dracula, monsters). I am thinking of Loch Ness Lake visited for the monster, or Transylvania visited by tourists for Dracula or Vampires myths.

    Reply
  11. rodnas

    so, what are the top destination of dark tourism ?

    Who organizing this tours ? Are there any travel agency´s specialized in this type of tourism? I am reserching on this subject myself and would be interesting to getmore feedback.

    Reply
  12. Evan

    Dearly Departed Tours in Los Angeles specialise in grief tourism, mainly to do with dead celebrities. You can find them at http://www.findadeath.com.

    I also know there’s a novel coming out in Australia in September 09 called Hollywood Ending which is about two teenagers obsessed with dark tourism. The author’s name is Kathy Charles and she blogs about dark tourism too at http://www.kathycharles.com.

    Reply
  13. paul kasami (in Uganda)

    hey Amanda…. i am currently doing my research on dark tourism, you don’t know how much your preview has helped me.what is the most visited site for dark tourism?contact me through my email.

    Reply
  14. samantha

    Hi.

    I am currently studying Dark Tourism at university. I have to say that I disagree with you having put poverty tourism into the attraction categories of this niche market. This is because poverty is ongoing and therefore a tourist is visiting a site that was established in the past but is still continuing in the present.

    Whereas the other types of categories within this niche market like grief, holocaust, disaster, cemetery etc are within the past and contain elements of death!

    Dark tourism is either historical (real) or heritage (guardian of history) but who decides which is real? Who decides what attraction’s can be repackaged and sold?

    Additionally, you did not mention genealogy tourism, yeah the tourist does this themselves but it leads to the demand of visitations to homelands or cemeteries etc….it could be said that this is a societal motivation but comes across as a cultural gaze.

    Also Paul, you should purchase the book by Sharpley and Stone, The Darker Side of Travel. It will help you, it is my lecturer that wrote this book! There’s also a website http://www.dark-tourism.org.uk this should help too =)

    Reply
  15. paul kasami (in Uganda)

    Samantha thanks a million i have been trying too hard to get books that critically look at this subject. you cant believe this but my university doesn’t have any book about dark tourism.Samantha is there a way we can talk more about this because my lecturer wants perfection.Merci d’advance.(you can find me on facebook or use my email address; kasamipolo@yahoo.com.)

    Reply
  16. Briana

    Hi Amanda,

    I was just wondering what your views are on whether Dark Tourism could be considered sustainable in a positive sense or do you believe there is a danger of giving the ‘wrong message’?

    Thanks

    Reply
  17. Michael Flanagan

    This is an interesting concept. I’ve been to ‘Skeletons In The Closet’, the giftshop of the L.A. Corner’s office and went to Gibsonton after reading the book ‘Lobster Boy’ about the death of Grady Styles, and also went to Belle Glade Florida after reading about how the residents lied to social scientists early on in the AIDS epidemic: telling them that insect bites were spreading the epidemic as opposed to admitting to their sexual activity. But I don’t always think it’s as simple as merely wanting to have a window into the sorrow of others (nor do I think you’re saying that). Often it’s just the desire to see the real world representation of something you’ve read about. I look forward to your next article.

    Reply
  18. Christian Jacobsen

    I lead ghost tours in Pike Place Market, Seattle. There are quite a number of haunted places and gruesome tales in that area, and people are fascinated by the stories I tell.

    TV shows like Ghost Adventures and organizations like WSPIR also do investigations throughout this area for various paranormal phenomena.

    There are many ghost tours throughout the world, and I regularly have people attend my tour who schedule their travel around ghost tours, haunted hotels, etc.

    So while my tour falls distinctly outside the part of the Venn diagram that holds Auschwitz and Katrina, I think the Market Ghost Tours and other tours like it have a place in the Dark Tourism definition. People come to hear about death, hauntings, and inexplicable phenomena.

    As to where we stand in relation to the Curiosity/Exploitation line, I think we are clearly on the Curiosity side.

    But this article has really opened my mind to another kind of tourism I have not thought much about… and a demographic that I definitely see on my tours, but did not have a name for. Until now.

    I look forward to the rest of the series!

    Reply
  19. c.

    I’d just like to add that it seems to me that most kinds of dark tourism may be better than their opposite – a preferance to ignore the suffering of others.

    Reply
  20. Kieran

    @Amanda and Ken: I think I’m with you on “it depends” (whether volunteer tourism is “dark tourism”).

    Cases I can think of are these:

    1. If a well-educated person from a developed nation goes to a developing nation to volunteer to share the products of their more-advantaged education (by teaching or skills exchange), that’s reasonably altruistic, useful to the developing nation, and likely worth the cost of the flight.

    2. If a person from a developed nation goes to a developing nation to do some manual labour (building an orphanage, say), then, while it may help the country out, it is likely to be far less so. However, it’s likely that for just the cost of the plane ticket, several local workers could have been hired instead, gotten more done for the country, as well as having some direct benefit to themselves and their families. That kind of volunteer tourism is actually a little selfish — it’s all about the rich person getting an experience, and very little about the benefit to the poor country.

    I suppose that there may be some long-term benefit in exposing people from richer nations to abject poverty in that they may get the message out, but there are better ways to do that than flying people over.

    Reply
  21. Ray

    I travel to North Korea annually and I would say that I am into Dark Tourism. My Cold War resume includes the USSR four times, all of Eastern Europe in the old days multiple times and Cuba. The West Bank was fun and I have spent a day in a Soviet jail. China in 1985 was fun.
    It is thrill seeking to some extent but it is more about the experience. Has it been dangerous? My encounter with the East Germans was “unpleasant” but going where others do not has its reward. Romania was a nightmare in 1979 and the early 1980s but the amount to be learned about dictatorships was rewarding. Iran to me is not dark enough. As I say to friends, if they shoot tourists then I am up for it. See my photos under Zaruka at Flickr. Latest DPRK photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/collections/72157624768838428/

    Reply
  22. wsouthteacher

    I teach HS in FL, and I’m taking some students to the Mississippi Delta next week (flooding be damned). A major stop on the trip is a 3-hour tour of all major locales related to the Emmett Till case, from the Bryant Store where he “whistled” at the white proprietress, to the spot in the river where the body was found, to the courtroom where the killers were acquitted (and everything in between). I did the tour with a group of teachers last summer, complete with police escort; I stopped at the Bryant Store solo back in 2006 and had my life threatened by a pickup-and-gun-rack local. Dark tourism, with lots of ugly stares, indeed. Contact the Tallahatchie County, MS Parks and Recreation Department to arrange your own tour; they’re guided and free. I hope the students learn from the experience, despite its morbid nature.

    You don’t need to travel very far to find some very scary history.

    Reply
  23. Kunzer

    hey guys,

    I am currently doing my research on dark tourism and I am searching for tour operators that are specialized on dark tourism…if you know any, please tell me ’cause it’s important…its for my bachelor’s thesis ;)

    thanks

    Reply
  24. Juliana

    I’m currently living in Rio de Janeiro, and working on a post about favelas and poverty tourism. All the posts in this series were so helpful! Thanks for writing them :)

    Reply
  25. Amanda

    Hi Iam residing in South Africa, currently studying Tourism Management. I would like to thank you for your articles they really help i have gained knowledge about dark tourism and I am currently doing an assignment about this.

    Reply
  26. Claire

    Hey really enjoyed the article. Im currently an Irish student doing my dissertation in Dark Tourism in Ireland but cant seam to find many relevent sights on Ireland specifically, if anyone has come accross any it would be a great help.

    Reply
  27. Festo Simalenga (TANZANIA)

    Dark Tourism should be emphasized because it keeps records for our feature generation and a certain country can generate money through it but in Tanzania people may not consider on it…….

    Reply
  28. John

    Perhaps a subcategory of Doomsday Tourism could be the desire to visit places that are rapidly changing by causes other than natural. For example, an ancient culture or country that is rapidly modernizing. I know that’s one of the things I consider when prioritizing my dream destinations.

    Reply
  29. Debs

    Amanda this article has helped make my decision on what to write about for my dissertation a lot easier :) thank you very much and I look forward to reading more on your work.

    Reply
  30. rachel

    hi,
    would you consider and critically discuss the role of technology in the creation of authentic experiences at dark tourism sites or attractions?

    Reply
  31. Ahmed

    It is really quite an interesting topic.
    I am just wondering about slum tourism or poverty tourism. Is it a category of DARK TOURISM?!
    I have found that all the books differentiate between them both, and state that dark tourism doesn’t include slum tourism.
    Can you please give me more details about that?
    Thanks in advance

    Reply

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