What's the appeal of dark tourism?

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Dark tourism isn’t just about the thrill of the macabre. Visitors also wish to deepen their understanding of past troubles, and consider the human element. Click. explores

It was in 2000 that ‘dark tourism’ first saw widespread recognition as a travel genre, after Scottish academics Malcolm Foley and John Lennon acknowledged the growing phenomenon of tourist interest in death, disaster and atrocity in their book of the same name.

According to most agreed definitions, dark tourism involves travellers deliberately visiting locations linked to, yes, death, disaster and atrocity. That can mean war zones, the sites of nuclear blasts, natural disasters or witch-hunts, genocide prisons, voodoo festivals and vampire gatherings. Such places may be dangerous, and are often eerie and unappealing at first glance.

Demand for darkness

Nevertheless, dark tourism appears to be a global trend that’s gathering pace. In 2018, statistics from Kiwi.com, a flight-booking website, demonstrated a 307% increase in UK searches for destinations typically linked to doom or gloom. One such site, Chernobyl, where the catastrophic nuclear disaster took place in 1986, had previously seen visitor numbers to its ‘exclusion zone’ climb from just over 7,000 in 2009 to almost 37,000 by 2016.

Contributing factors to this phenomenon include the internet’s raising awareness of such places, the increasing provision of low-cost flights to atypical destinations and the Netflix series Dark Tourist, broadcast in 2018, in which New Zealand journalist David Farrier visited sites from Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide hotspot, to Manson Family murder locations.

Farrier’s show, however, also examined why tourists visit such sites – with the implication that macabre attributes aren’t necessarily the key attraction. Instead, it seems, many dark tourists come to try and understand; and thus to try and extract a positive from past negatives. 

Auschwitz, Photo: Erica Magugliani

Auschwitz, Photo: Erica Magugliani

That chimes with feedback from Wioletta Tasarek, Head of Reception Desk at the Hotel Imperiale in Oświęcim, southern Poland, which can arrange for guests to visit the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, occupying the site of appalling Nazi concentration camps used during the Holocaust.

“In my opinion it’s important to respect the past,” Tasarek says, “and most of our guests who visit the memorial and museum say the same.” Hence the Imperiale offering half-board ‘historical packages’ involving guided tours of Auschwitz. The commercial thinking here is clear and logical: dark tourism is here to stay, so why ignore it?

History and human interest

A slightly more conventional side of dark tourism concerns visits to the sites of famous skirmishes. First World War sites in France provide one example, while South Africa’s simply-named Battlefields in KwaZulu Natal are another. Thousands died here and the course of history was inextricably altered.

“Almost all our guests come to learn about the Anglo-Zulu War,” reveals Douglas Rattray, the co-owner of Fugitives’ Drift, a luxurious lodge which has offered guided tours in the area since 1990. Rattray’s father, David, was considered the pre-eminent historian of South Africa's former Zulu kingdom.

“The importance of the Anglo-Zulu War,” Rattray continues, “is that all the major political forces which brought the conflict into being are alive and well today – and are likely to impact our political landscape for decades to come. So visiting these sites allows for an understanding why South Africa is the way it is today.”

To which end, Fugitives’ Drift runs flagship morning and afternoon trips to the Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift battlefields each day. 

Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, Photo: Marc Szeglat

Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, Photo: Marc Szeglat

While historical context seems to be key at the Battlefields, some tourists request to explore a dark tourism site thats impact is much fresher in the mind. In Iceland, the Eyjafjallajökull glacier volcano’s eruption in 2010 caused mass disruption to air travel and holidays across northern and western Europe. “A large number of our guests are interested in Eyjafjallajökull, and in visiting the area around it,” says Hildur Guðbjörg Kristjánsdóttir, Chief of Operations at local firm Midgard Adventures.

Yet the reason for visits isn’t to simply marvel at the destruction. “Our tours tell of how the area was evacuated, and how that affected people in the area. It’s also very interesting to see where the eruption significantly changed the landscape. We have one lagoon that dried up, and new, eight-year-old mountains which were formed.”

Once more, the emphasis of a dark tourist’s interest appears to be on the effect and legacy of a traumatic event, rather than its gory detail. Perhaps dark tourists aren’t so dark after all?

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Hero image: credit to Hoshino Ai, Unsplash

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Dark tourism doesn’t just concern visiting grisly or morbid sites, but also understanding, honouring and learning from them
The trend is fast-increasing, enabled by the internet, low-cost flights and cultural attention including a 2018 Netflix series
Well-located accommodation providers can aid dark tourists by offering guided packages exploring the relevant destinations and hotspots