Dark Tourism

Chernobyl Tour by Nik Neves

Dark tourism refers to travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy. The main attraction to dark locations is their historical value rather than their associations with death and suffering.

While there is a long tradition of people visiting recent and ancient settings of death, such as travel to gladiator games in the Roman Colosseum, attending public executions by decapitation, and visiting the catacombs, this practice has been studied academically only relatively recently. Travel writers were the first to describe their tourism to deadly places. American political satirist and journalist P. J. O’Rourke called his travel to Warsaw, Managua, and Belfast in 1988 ‘holidays in hell’, or sociologist Chris Rojek talking about ‘black-spot’ tourism in 1993 or the ‘milking the macabre.’

Destinations of dark tourism include: castles and battlefields such as Culloden in Scotland and Bran Castle and Poienari Castle in Romania; former prisons such as Beaumaris Prison in Anglesey, Wales and the Jack the Ripper exhibition in the London Dungeon; sites of natural disasters or man made disasters, such as Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and the commercial activity at Ground Zero in New York following September 11, 2001. It also includes sites of human atrocities and genocide, such as the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia; the sites of the Jeju Uprising in South Korea[10] and the Spirit Lake Internment Camp Centre near La Ferme, Quebec as an example of Canada’s internment operations of 1914–1920.

In Bali ‘death and funeral rites have become commodified for tourism …, where enterprising businesses begin arranging tourist vans and sell tickets as soon as they hear someone is dying.’ In the US, visitors can tour the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. ‘with an identity card which matches their age and gender with that of a name and photo of a real holocaust victim. Against a backdrop of video interpretation portraying killing squads in action, the pseudo holocaust victim enters a personal ID into monitors as they wander around the attraction to discover how their real-life counterpart is faring.’

Academic attention to the subject originated in Glasgow, Scotland: The term ‘dark tourism’ was coined in 1996 by Lennon and Foley, two faculty members of the Department of Hospitality, Tourism & Leisure Management at Glasgow Caledonian University, and the term ‘thanatourism’ was first mentioned by A. V. Seaton in 1996, then Professor of Tourism Marketing at the University of Strathclyde.

As of 2014, there have been many studies on definitions, labels, and subcategorizations, such as Holocaust tourism and slavery-heritage tourism, and the term continues to be molded outside academia by authors of travel literature.

Scholars in the interdisciplinary field of hospitality and tourism have examined many different aspects. Lennon and Foley expanded their original idea in their first book, deploring that ‘tact and taste do not prevail over economic considerations’ and that the ‘blame for transgressions cannot lie solely on the shoulders of the proprietors, but also upon those of the tourists, for without their demand there would be no need to supply.’

Whether a tourist attraction is educational or exploitative is defined by both its operators and its visitors. Tourism operators motivated by greed can ‘milk the macabre’ or reexamine tragedies for a learning experience. Tourists consuming dark tourism products may desecrate a place and case studies are needed to probe who gains and loses. Thanatourism and ‘slum tourism’ have been described as re-interpreting the pastime according to the needs of financial elite.

American journalist Chris Hedges described the ‘Alcatraz narrative as presented by the National Park Service’ as ‘whitewashing,’ because it ‘…ignores the savagery and injustice of America’s system of mass incarceration.’ By omitting challenging details, the park service furthers a ‘Disneyfication,’ per Hedges.

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