Dark tourism: chasing death

Date of news: 26 July 2021

Taking a trip to Auschwitz or visiting the tunnel where Princess Diana died are examples of dark tourism. It involves travelling to places that are associated with death and has proven to be quite popular. Although there are a number of ethical dilemmas associated with this form of tourism, its popularity is not set to decline over the next few years. “There’s money in this type of tourism, which means that the demand is only going to increase.”

There is nothing new about our fascination with death and visiting those locations that are associated with it. Historian Tony Seaton calls this thanatourism, which is a Western tradition that goes back centuries. As far back as the Middle Ages, pilgrims travelled to specific sites to view relics, or the body parts of deceased saints or personal objects that belonged to them.

Other scholars regard dark tourism as a more recent, postmodern phenomenon, in which people seek spectacle by visiting obscure locations. Such scholars include John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who first used the term dark tourism in 1996, says Charley Boerman, who is a PhD candidate at the Radboud Institute for Culture and History and lecturer of The Ethics of Tourism course. Whether it is an old or new phenomenon, nowadays more attention is certainly being paid to dark tourism, partly due to the Netflix series Dark Tourist and a website that tips people off about obscure locations and rates them on a darkness scale.

When it comes to dark tourism, there are many different types and choices, from visiting Auschwitz or a former slave fortress in Ghana to a tour of Chernobyl or a holiday to a dictatorship like North Korea. “The term dark tourism is actually quite confusing, because it suggests that it’s a separate form of tourism, and that there’s also such a thing as light tourism,” explains Boerman. “But people often visit these kinds of obscure locations while they’re on a beach holiday or city break.”

Justin Bieber

Promoting tourism in places where horrific things once happened is not entirely uncontroversial. Are these locations meant to entertain people or are they meant to teach them something? “This is where you see significant differences. Auschwitz, for example, is quite sober in character, and there’s no restaurant or café where you can go for a meal at the end of your tour.” In Transylvania, however, Dracula’s castle has been given extensive publicity. At the moment, it’s even being used as a coronavirus vaccination centre. “Although it’s not as recent, this was once the home of Prince Vlad III, who was notorious for murdering his opponents by impaling them on a stake.”

To what extent does the tourist who visits these places bear a responsibility? “In 2013, Justin Bieber came under fire after he left the following comment in the Anne Frank House guest book: ‘Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber’. Many people felt that this comment was disrespectful.” At the same time, Boerman understands the tourists’ need to document their visit. “The gates of Auschwitz have become iconic, and people feel it’s a place that they need to have visited at least once in their lifetime. I don’t think it’s all that strange that they want to document that moment.”


Another dilemma lies in the relationship between tourism and the local population. “In Chernobyl, tourists can make a spectacular tour armed with a Geiger counter so that they can measure the radiation. And at the same time, the residents continue to experience the consequences of the nuclear disaster that occurred there in 1986,” says Boerman. “The same applies to the trips that are organised by the North Korean government. Tourists pay a lot of money for a mere glimpse of the country. The proceeds from these tours don’t go towards improving the local population’s circumstances, but they do go some way towards lining the pockets of the dictatorial regime.”

Then there are places that attract groups of people with entirely different intentions. “Some people who are on holiday may choose to spend a day at the slave fortress on the Ghanaian coast, while other visitors specifically go there to learn more about their family history. These groups experience the same place in a very different way and this can be the cause of much discomfort.”

Colonial dynamics

Boerman anticipates that the dark tourism sector will continue to grow in the coming years. “There’s money in this type of tourism, and I consequently believe that it will continue for the foreseeable future. This may occasionally cause problems with the local population. But at the same time, it could offer them the opportunity to earn some money, like with the tours in Medellín, the Colombian city where drug lord Pablo Escobar lived. However, there will always be some degree of imbalance. People would obviously prefer to earn money from promoting a beautiful city than from promoting a recent yet violent incident that continues to plague them but offers tourists an exciting day out.” Then we come to the question of the extent to which such places continue to do justice to the events that have taken place there. “When it comes to a familiar event, the story will usually be told in a nuanced way. If fewer people feel connected to a historic location, there is more scope for making it all the more spectacular, which means that it will do less justice to the past.”

As Boerman already pointed out, it is unusual that dark tourism is considered to be a separate category of tourism. “For example, how ethically responsible is it to travel to a country where everything is extremely cheap? Take Cartagena in Colombia, for instance, which attracts many Western tourists because it’s such a beautiful, romantic city. However, any menial labour here is primarily performed by people of colour. The colonial dynamics are painfully apparent. We need to be a bit more conscious of the places that we visit, whether they have been characterised as obscure or not.”

Photo: Julian Hacker via Pixabay.