What is dark tourism?

Travelers' fascination with the macabre is not new

Chernobyl tourist booth
A tourist information center in Chernobyl
(Image credit: Olga355 / Getty Images)

If you've ever wanted to visit — or actually visited — locations where disasters or tragedies occurred, you're not alone.

This style of travel even has its own name: dark tourism. While dark tourism isn't new, it has become more conspicuous, especially as its uptick dovetailed with the debut of Netflix's "Dark Tourist" a few years ago. Climate-related disasters and political unrest are also creating more sites of tragedy, some of which are being used for economic gain. As such, travel to these troubled locations has raised ethical questions. Some believe this kind of tourism is inherently disrespectful; others support dark tourism, claiming it provides funds for rebuilding and aid. 

What is dark tourism?

Dark tourism refers to visiting places where "some of the darkest events of human history have unfolded," which can include "genocide, assassination, incarceration, ethnic cleansing, war or disaster — either natural or accidental," The Washington Post reported. Some popular examples of dark tourism are Chernobyl, the 9/11 memorial and the concentration camp Auschwitz. J. John Lennon, a professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University, who coined the term "dark tourism" with a colleague in 1996, told the Post that dark tourism is not a new phenomenon and "there's evidence that dark tourism goes back to the Battle of Waterloo where people watched from their carriages the battle taking place."

Dark tourism has become popular because "when you're part of a society that is by and large stable and you've gotten into an established routine, travel to these places leads you to sort of feel alive," Dorina-Maria Buda, a professor of tourism studies at Nottingham Trent University, told The New York Times. Travelers have been drawn to these gloomy locales more in recent years, and as the effects of climate change accelerate and global conflicts like those in Ukraine and Israel unfold, there are an increasing number of such locations to visit. "There is an inherent fascination with ruination," Philip Stone, who runs the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, told CNN

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What exactly are the ethics of dark tourism?

"It's very ethically murky territory," New Zealand journalist David Farrier, told the Times about dark tourism. Gawking at a location where disaster happened can be disrespectful. For example, World Crunch reported, a Ukraine travel agency faced controversy after offering tours to the scene of large-scale civilian massacres resulting from Russia's attacks on Ukraine. Many claimed it was "too soon" for tourism to the region, given that destruction is ongoing. "Bad conduct by tourists at sensitive sites — smiling selfies at concentration camps, for example — has been widely shunned on social media," said The Washington Post, adding that "the ethically questionable 'voyeurism' of visiting an ongoing or very recent tragedy to gape" is also largely considered taboo. 

Still, there can be a lot to learn from visiting dark-tourism sites. Climate change is causing more natural disasters and destruction, and "the visual impact of climate change-induced landscapes serves as a warning of our industrialization," said Stone. "Visiting such places now can shine a critical light on the effects of climate change." A considered visit can also help provide fiscal resources to affected areas, like the Spanish island of La Palma which experienced a volcanic eruption in 2021 and Morocco which suffered a powerful earthquake in September. However, some locations, like Lahaina, Hawaii, which was nearly razed by devastating wildfires over the summer, have discouraged tourism to allow locals to recover and mourn the losses of their loved ones.  

Many popular dark-tourism locations are sites with extensive, complicated histories. And thoughtful visitors often leave with newfound knowledge. "I think they're important places for us to reflect on and try to better understand the evil that we're capable of," remarked Lennon of Glasgow Caledonian University. According to Dark-tourism.com, a website dedicated to the phenomenon, there is indeed an optimal way to participate in dark tourism. "What is endorsed here is respectful and enlightened touristic engagement with contemporary history and its dark sites/sides in a sober, educational and non-sensationalist manner."

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