Some of you will be familiar with the term ‘dark tourism’, some will not. At its most basic level, the hobby involves travelling to sites of historical interest that are associated with war, disaster, genocide, and other such tragedies. To the seasoned dark tourist, it really is that uncomplicated. But to the wider public, dark tourism has been a source of moral panic ever since the term was popularised in the 2010s.
At this time, the media began probing into the ethical complexity of dark tourism in some depth, often considering it in relation to a perceived rise in cultural insensitivity. Dark tourists were described as blundering into some of the “unhappiest” or most “tragic” sites around the world with a dizzying lack of awareness; an ignorance epitomised by the ubiquity of tourists taking selfies at sites such as Auschwitz.
To the general public, dark tourists are often regarded as the inversion of the benevolent traveller, the antichrists of tourism. But, to Dr Peter Hohenhaus, who runs a website about dark tourism, there really isn’t any distinction: “Ask yourself this: have you ever been to, or thought of visiting, war museums and memorials, say, the A-Bomb-Dome and Peace Park/Museum in Hiroshima, Japan?” he writes in an attempt to define dark tourism. “Would you consider including a tour of the famous catacombs of Paris or its Pere Lachaise cemetery when visiting France’s capital? Or try to seek out the traces of the Berlin Wall when visiting Germany’s capital? If your answer to any of those questions is ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’,” he continues, “Then you are – or potentially could be – a dark tourist.”
If we adopt Dr Hohenhaus’s definition, the moral implications of this form of travel slip away to reveal something infinitely more worthy of exploration: why do these sites fascinate us and what does this fascination reveal about humanity? One would assume that – being the pleasure-loving animals that we are – we’d much rather keep these sites of trauma as far away as possible. But in reality, we are absolutely mesmerised, travelling hundreds if not thousands of miles to be closer to them. Why?
The most common answer used to rebuff this disarmingly complex question is that modern society has separated us from pain and suffering to such an extent that we’re now actively chasing after it in some self-flagellant pilgrimage. But that doesn’t stand up. Dark tourism, although it hasn’t always gone by that name, has been around for centuries. Pompeii, for example, was a key site on the Grand Tour, a rite-of-passage that saw 18th and 19th-century European aristocracy travel around the continent. Think ‘gap yah’ posh boys but with fluffy ruffs and powdered wigs.
As John Lennon, a professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University said: “There’s evidence that dark tourism goes back to the Battle of Waterloo where people watched from their carriages the battle taking place.” But I’d argue that the seeds of it go back even further than that. Consider all those public hangings in the Tudor period, or ancient Rome’s gladiatorial games – which saw trained warriors fight to the death for the gratification of the Emperor and his subjects. Dark tourism is perhaps merely a modern iteration of an ancient fascination with death and tragedy.
It’s possible that, in visiting sites like Chernobyl, or even somewhere as harmless as London’s Imperial War Museum, we are hoping to get a kick from the fact that we are bearing witness to carnage and violence without being directly involved? It’s like watching a horror film and getting a little rush of pleasure knowing that we are safe. But, according to Dr Phillip Stone of the University of Lancashire, who runs the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, dark tourism is less about detaching oneself from suffering and more about embracing the reality of death. “People face their own mortality by looking at other deaths of significance,” he argues.
This is certainly the case with the location of JFK’s assassination in Dallas. After his death, John F. Kennedy became an almost Christ-like figure in the eyes of American democrats, a modern sacrificial lamb who was killed, like his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, in the pursuit of liberalism. As a result, the site of his assassination has since taken on the cultural significance of a site of pilgrimage. A much more recent site of tragedy, London’s Grenfell Tower, has also become a controversial tourist spot in the immediate aftermath of the fire that killed 72 of the building’s residents in 2017, with busloads of tourists stopping to take photographs in front of the still-smoking husk just days after the disaster.
Just as Phillip Stone suggests – whether they behave sensitively or insensitively – tourists seem to be drawn to such sites because they highlight the fragility of life in a way that, at times, seems almost spiritual. Is it possible, then, that the same motivations that drive history buffs and true-crime fanatics to Dallas every year are the same that drove medieval monks to travel thousands of miles to Golgotha, the hill in Jerusalem that is supposed to be the site of the crucifixion? If so, the rise of dark tourism could be defined as a quest for meaning. In visiting places associated with death perhaps we are simply trying to feel more alive.
But I doubt it’s that simple. After all, there are many more reasons for a person to visit a dark tourist hotspot than morbid curiosity. Those members of the nobility who travelled to Pompeii in the 18th century did so in the pursuit of education. Modern dark tourists aren’t any different in this regard. Like every other type of tourist, they travel in the hope of gaining knowledge and understanding, and while places such as Cambodia’s Killing Fields are symbolic of much more recent tragedies than ancient sites such as Pompeii, they can teach us equally important lessons. But this is where it gets a little complicated because, whilst it is convenient to imagine that Pompeii and the Killing Fields are little more than sites of historical interest, the reality is that – unlike Pompeii – Cambodia’s tragic genocide is still within living memory. Therefore, greater cultural sensitivity is required of visitors. The same could be said of Auschwitz, the 9/11 memorial, and the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda.
When I asked Dr Peter Hohenhaus about this subject he was quick to assert that “the majority of visitors at such sites instinctively behave appropriately,” before adding: “Selfies are an exception these days, though, but that’s just part of a general selfie craze and not particular to dark tourism.” Hohenhaus suggested that prospective dark tourists do two important things before visiting a culturally sensitive site. The first is very simple: “behave respectfully.”
The second is to read up on the destination before arriving. “Come informed and mentally pre-prepared,” he says. “That way you’re less likely to behave inappropriately, to begin with. And, perhaps more importantly, you get more out of that aspect that I find so crucial about dark tourism: place authenticity. If you already know what happened at a certain location, then actually going there brings an immense added value that you are less likely to get if you just accidentally stumble upon it totally unprepared.”
For Hohenhaus, whose book Atlas Of Dark Destinations is set for release next week, it is important that dark tourism isn’t misunderstood. As a seasoned dark tourist himself, he’s not interested in the paranormal; he’s not a ghosthunter, after all. What he is, however, is just one of the millions of travellers who visit dark sites every year, all of whom have different motivations and levels of tact. This poses a problem to conscientious tourists like Hohenhaus, who is consistently asked to defend a form of tourism that, in his eyes is no different from any other. It looks like he’s going to have to get used to it because dark tourism isn’t going away. “It is true that places like Auschwitz, Chernobyl or the 9/11 Memorial have seen vast visitor numbers and steep increases,” Hohenhaus told Far Out, making it clear that there are few solid statistics to back up such claims. Nevertheless, “You get the feeling dark tourism is on the rise,” he argues.
For whatever reason, we are fascinated by the shadowy corners of our history. If the popularity of dark sites – from the ruins of Pompeii to the concentration camp at Auschwitz – teaches us anything, it’s that we are drawn to darkness and always have been.