‘Dark Tourism’ Defined

I participated in a twitter chat recently that introduced me to the idea of “dark tourism.” I had never heard this term before, so I was stumped by the first question: What does dark tourism mean to you?

Dark tourism, according to the Institute of Dark Tourism Research, is “travel to sites of death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre,” such as to battlefields, prisons, or cemeteries. It may also be known as morbid tourism, disaster tourism, grief tourism, black spot tourism, or even phoenix tourism, I’m assuming as a metaphor for rising again after death or disaster. In academic research, dark tourism is known as thanatourism.

Thanatourism originates from a paper published by Professor Tony Seaton in 1996. He argued that death related tourism is not new, but has a long history dating back to the Middle Ages and especially the Romantic period around the turn of the 19th century. While it may be a new term, it is apparently not a new concept. Apparently, tourists flocked to the battlefield at Waterloo after 1816. Seaton defined thanatourism as “travel to a location wholly, or partially, motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death, particularly, but not exclusively, violent death.”

German traveller Peter Hohenhaus created a website dedicated to dark tourism sites around the world. According to him, he is interested in dark tourism because he “generally enjoy[s] travel experiences on the edge, preferring the unusual over the ‘normal’.”

As the world becomes easier to navigate thanks to modern travel conveniences like fast airplanes and quick telecommunications, perhaps more and more people are seeking out “unusual” places. Or, perhaps like myself, we have been travelling to these “dark” places without calling them by that name.

3 Places I Was a Dark Tourist* (And Didn’t Know It)

1. Slave castles in Ghana

The slaves castles on Ghana’s west coast were holding spots for African slaves on their way to the Americas. Local guides can inform visitors of the tragic stories and the roles Ghanaian’s played in the trade. I went to learn more about the slave trade from the African perspective.

2. The streets of belgrade

When NATO bombed Belgrade, Serbia during the Kosovo Warin the spring of 1999, it left behind the bombed remnants of businesses, public buildings, military barrakcs, and bridges—and killed hundreds of civilians. When I visited Belgrade in 2013, I had no idea that these buildings would still be there. I went to Belgrade to visit a friend and never intended to see the evidence of war.

3. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia

This building was an old high school that the Khmer Rouge converted to the notorious S-21 prison. I went because I didn’t know anything about this peasant uprising in the 1970s. It is the only time I have been brought to tears at a historic site.

So why do it? Why visit a place of historic tragedy or disaster? The biggest reason is to understand history and the significance of that event in place and time. Beyond just reading about it, Hohenhaus writes “actually being in a place of historical significance (dark or otherwise) can really heighten the awareness of the (hi)story in question. Using one's own senseseyes, ears and nose in particularadds something to the experience that no amount of abstract knowledge and/or imagination can ever achieve.”

*Note: "Dark tourist" is not really an accepted term. A tourist is a tourist no matter what the attraction or destination; there is no particular distinction made for tourists of "dark" sites.