What Is Dark Tourism?

Rebecca Mecomber

Dark tourism is a type of niche tourism in which tourists specifically target destinations or exhibitions highlighting death, morbid suffering or atrocities. Also called black tourism for its emphasis on the nefarious or oppressive aspects of historical events or places, dark tourism is one of the many types of tourism that has arisen in the development of modern niche tourism. Examples of popular dark tourist sites include the Toul Sleng Killing Fields in Cambodia that are filled with the skulls of tortured and executed political prisoners, the London Dungeon in England that highlights medieval torture implements and skeletal remains of hapless victims, and the Ukraine's ghostly Zone of Alienation in Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster.

Visiting Nazi concentration camps is a form of dark tourism.
Visiting Nazi concentration camps is a form of dark tourism.

Some academics interpret dark tourism under more general auspices and do not measure intent in defining dark tourism. For example, some may classify World War II European concentration camps or haunted houses as dark tourist attractions, as these exhibits emphasize the tragic or frightening moments of human history. Other academics make a clear distinction between dark tourism and other types of adjectival tourism. They narrow the definition to exclusively include exhibits and attractions solely associated with the gruesome or morbid historical events or exhibits that strongly appeal to the darker, curious side of human nature.

Visiting the Zone of Alienation at the site of the Chernobyl disaster is one form of dark tourism.
Visiting the Zone of Alienation at the site of the Chernobyl disaster is one form of dark tourism.

Most definitely, dark tourism in its truest form generally differs from other types of special interest tourism, such as war tourism or grief tourism. Many tourists visit war memorials to pay respects to veterans or to remember the honorable sacrifices made on a battlefield. This type of visitation is generally not considered "dark." Dark tourism relates specifically to the act of traveling for the entertainment value of a morbid interest in death, suffering and disasters.

The word tourism was invented in 1811, although people have traveled to view historic sites of interest for thousands of years. Countless pilgrims have visited holy sites, such as the tomb of Jesus, or locations of momentous battles to pay their respects or honor, yet these people cannot necessarily be considered "dark" tourists. Tourism is a booming business for many countries, and the modern development and marketing of niche tourism is very lucrative. Dark tourism and other types of adjectival tourism appeal to people who may otherwise have little interest in general history or homage.

Visiting the site of a natural disaster is a form of dark tourism.
Visiting the site of a natural disaster is a form of dark tourism.

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Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - People don't work that way. I don't think it should be up to anyone except victims and descendants of victims to decide how something should be remembered.

Respect means different things to different people. I remember taking a tour in one of the London experiences where they had people in costumes reenacting different horrible events from history and were trying to scare the people taking the tour.

It might not pass muster as being totally respectful to everyone, but I actually felt like they had one of the best recreations of what several events must have been like. There's a difference between reading a plaque with information and being shut in a room that is (safely) recreating the sounds and scents of the Great Fire.

One might be darker than the other, but that one also encouraged real empathy.


@pleonasm - I guess I think that it should all be educational and respectful, rather than some of the darker parts of history being designated as amusing. Ghost stories are almost always based around a real person or event and by their very nature are going to involve death and probably suffering. I just don't think that should be taken lightly.


This seems like it would be difficult to define properly, and perhaps it should be used as an overarching term, with some other term specifically for people who are looking for morbidity rather than simply being interested in the darker parts of history.

I mean, I have taken several tours through places where atrocities have happened, including the Tower of London and one of the concentration camps in Poland, and I didn't do it in order to be scared. I did it because it is an important part of the history of Europe.

On the other hand, I've also taken so-called "ghost tours" in cities like Prague and they have a different flavor to them, which uses history more as entertainment than enlightenment.

I would call both of those kinds of tourism "dark" but one is more respectful than the other and seeks to educate, rather than amuse.

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