FYI: Dark Tourism

Dark as in night?

Dark as in gruesome, gory or tragic. Fascination with places of suffering is not new – the London Dungeon and the ruins of Pompeii have long drawn visitors. But dark tourism is growing in popularity. Last year, about 700,000 people visited Auschwitz, while 200,000 trod the Cambodian killing fields.

Where coined the term?

Glaswegian professors Malcolm Foley and John Lennon (not the Beatle) did, in the mid 1990s. The poster boy for studies in dark tourism, though, is Philip Stone, an academic at the University of Central Lancashire. It’s also called thanatourism (thana is Greek for death) and, in Germany, Gruseltourismus (shudder tourism).

But everywhere has something dark in its past.

Some places are darker than others. Visiting Jim Morrison’s grave or looking at dead things in museums is dark tourism lite. While touring gulags, extermination camps, sites of genocide, and former slave residences is at the blacker end of the scale.

Why are we drawn to these places?

If you believe we’re pure of heart, the answer is education or enlightenment. If you think we’re less than fully evolved, you’ll note an unsavoury element here. Dark tourism allows us to have a raw and adrenaline-fuelled response to something shocking, be it the reality of evil or the reminder of our mortality. It’s the same thrill that attracts us to the macabre in film and books.

Is it a bad thing?

In its Bluelist 2007, Lonely Planet say it’s a legitimate business, with the caveat that travelling to these spots ‘while people are still grieving is not on if you’re doing it for no reason other than to have a good look around.’

Some people find it unnerving how quickly we’re transforming tragedy into amusement and commerce. The upside is that tourists bring cash into devastated areas like Rwanda and New Orleans.



2 Responses to FYI: Dark Tourism

  1. I really enjoyed this post, and I think you’ve hit the core of it. In addressing ‘why are we drawn to these places’ however, some researchers such as Philip Stone would go on to note a somewhat deeper – and perhaps even necessary – cultural draw to these places: the commodification of death.

    I think there’s certainly something to be said for the theory that revisiting the sites of great tragedy and suffering, trying to connect more with these past atrocities, could be seen as a symptom of gradual global healing – although as you note above, there is a thin line between this and an unsavoury form of voyeurism.

    In case you’re interested, I actually have my own Dark Tourism blog – so far dealing with my visits to places such as North Korea, Dracula’s Castle and the Bridge on the River Kwai. In fact, I’m actually in your home city right now, preparing a piece on Old Melbourne Gaol!

    The Bohemian Blog

    • Thank you so much for reading this, and for your comment! I am perpetually amazed whenever anyone visits my neglected blog. You have prompted me to write, and to look at your blog too. I’m looking forward to reading more about your thoughts on the topic. And you’ve been to North Korea? That’s a remarkably interesting part fo the world…for so many reasons. I wish you all the best with your piece on the Melbourne Gaol.

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