The what, why and where of dark tourism.
Dark tourism is the name given to the ever-growing sector of the travel market focused on taking visitors to popular areas of historical destruction or loss. These somber destinations give visitors a chance to walk through history in a more personal and meaningful way than they could in a museum and there’s sometimes even the opportunity to talk with people who have lived through the devastating events.
What exactly is dark tourism?
Dark tourism can take many different forms. Some dark tourism sites are obscure and off the beaten track while others are the most popular and highly recommended spots in the region. Memorials, museums and “murder houses” are all dark tourism destinations, while more extreme locations like Chernobyl, natural disaster areas and active war zones are also a form of dark tourism.
Depending on what you’re looking for, dark tourism can be broken down into three different categories:
- Memorial and grief tourism
- Disaster and war zone tourism
- Macabre sightseeing
Memorial and grief tourism
Memorials are popular tourist attractions. They are often wonders of design like Berlin’s famous Holocaust Memorial, which delivers an emotional jolt far beyond what an everyday landmark could deliver, especially as you walk between its obelisks.
Historical sites like the Anne Frank House are similar. A lot of tours around the world promise to bring history to life, but with grief tourism, this promise can mean a lot more.
Visits aren’t fun, and they aren’t meant to be, but for those who take part it’s no surprise that these memorial sites are often some of the most highly recommended and popular destinations around the world.
Well-known grief tourism sites
- The 9/11 Memorial: The monument at Ground Zero has seen more than 28 million visitors since it opened in 2011.
- Pompeii: It’s been thousands of years, but the remains of the once-beautiful Roman city and the immortalised plaster casts can still leave one feeling overwhelmed.
- Auschwitz: The site received more than 1.7 million visitors in 2015 alone, according to the Times of Israel, while other concentration-camps-turned-tourist-sites have received millions more.
- The Anne Frank House: Millions of visitors have walked through the halls of the Amsterdam home since it opened.
- Choeung Ek Genocidal Center: The largest of Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” has seen visitor numbers steadily increase since the day it opened in 1999. More than 200,000 tourists visited in 2014.
- Rwanda Genocide Memorial: The remains of more than 250,000 people are interred in Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, both in remembrance and for educational purposes for visitors.
Cambodia's Killing Fields
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and the Killing Fields partly show the extent of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity. The regime lost power in 1979 and conflict remained until 1994. A lot of people still remember living through this era. As such, this is one of the most emotionally conflicting sites that tourists can visit. Survivor’s stories, mass graves, photographs of victims, prison cells and human remains are all on display for visitors to see.
Destinations such as the Killing Fields bring home conflicting feelings about the nature of turning horrifying sites into tourist attractions. As you book a tour online or take a lunch break among the scenes of loss, it’s impossible not to be struck by the inherent ethical difficulties of dark tourism and drawing a line between remembrance and tourism.
Disaster and war zone tourism
Some people might visit disaster zones in memoriam of the victims, others are interested in seeing history as it happens. And some are drawn by the uniqueness and the opportunity for experiences that can’t be found anywhere else.
Some of the more hands-on tours give travellers the chance to develop and test survival skills, while others simply offer the opportunity to witness something that is, for better or worse, incredible and awe-inspiring. These kinds of adventure tours can give travellers a hands-on trip to both remote destinations and well-trodden paths.
Untamed Borders, for example, is a travel group that specialises in tours like ski trips to Afghanistan and treks into some the wildest parts of Russia while other providers like Geckos Adventures play it a little bit safer, but still take small groups beyond the usual comfort zones in Cuba, the Middle East and many others. A number of travel insurance brands are starting to open their doors to the increasing number of people who want to visit Syria, Iraq and other war-torn areas, but many will still restrict cover here.
Meanwhile, visitors to Ukraine during the height of its conflict were offered the chance to tour active war zones in armoured vehicles. Not wanting to pass up what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, many visitors took part.
Well-known disaster tourism sites
- Chernobyl: More than 30 years after the disaster, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is drawing more than 10,000 people per year.
- Hurricane Katrina tours: It was only a short time after the hurricane event that travellers started making their way to New Orleans to see the destruction for themselves.
- Củ Chi tunnels: These remnants of the Vietnam war are a popular spot, with visitors to Vietnam getting the chance to crawl through the Viet Cong tunnels and fire AK-47s.
- Costa Concordia boat tours: This accident made history as one of Italy’s most deadly. A few months after it occurred, tourists were sailing around the wreckage, wanting to see the capsized cruise ship up close.
- Syria: Some tourists visiting the Golan Heights in Israel have been offered the opportunity to take in an active war zone. You can hear the gunfire from across the border and even see missiles from a point of relative safety.
- North Korea: The famously insular country is slowly opening up to tourists, although all visitors are strictly guided along predetermined pathways that show only the bright spots. It’s not unheard of for tourists who disobey the rules to be sentenced to hard labour, or even execution, for transgressions.
Hurricane Katrina Tours
There’s a fine line between a gawker and a helper. Locals started taking tourists through what was left of New Orleans before the waters had fully receded and before all lost people had been accounted for. Feelings were mixed. Some argued that the money was needed and that the people who were profiting from the tours were mostly victims of the disaster.
Others didn’t want their pain to become a tourist attraction and objected, in particular, to visitors taking photos of their ruined homes as holiday snapshots. Today the tours have been largely repainted as educational trips through history. Visitors bring children who were too young to remember the event and tours promise to bring you past breached levees and talk about the city that New Orleans used to be.
As time passes, these tours turn from stark disaster tourism to historical tours, but both remain a form of dark tourism.
Dark tourism can be the macabre made fun. The Tower of London and the many refurbished torture devices and waxwork victims you can find around the city are a well-trodden example. Many refurbished prisons now do time as tourist attractions, such as San Francisco’s Alcatraz Prison, which receives about 1.4 million visitors a year. A lot of the impact is lost when you have to stand in line, so priority passes are a good way to skip to the queue and get discounts around the USA.
Murder houses are also making their mark on the tourist scene, as are the former houses of serial killers, with a growing number of visitors making diversions, or even planning entire trips, for a guided tour of these real-life haunted houses.
What makes these sites different from other dark tourism sites largely comes down to why you visit and what you get out of it.
The most popular dark tourism sites around the world
- The 9/11 Memorial, USA
- Alcatraz, USA
- Auschwitz, Poland
- The Pearl Harbour Memorial, USA
- Pompeii, Italy
- Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, Germany
- Arlington National Cemetery, USA
- The Paris Catacombs, France
- The Anne Frank House, Holland
- Hiroshima, Japan
While most of these locations are well travelled largely because the countries themselves are popular destinations, many of the dark tourism locations with the most impact can be found in countries or regions that host fewer tourists overall. It can be even easier and cheaper to get to these, which is one of the reasons they are steadily drawing more visitors.
Learning from dark tourism
No matter where you go, there’s a lot to learn from travelling there, from customs and culture to the country’s history and how that has shaped the region today. Arguably, dark tourism is one of few ways you can actually get a closer understanding of this. It takes you beyond just skimming across the surface as a tourist.
The Rwandan genocide is still a recent event and a range of memorials, museums and learning centres around the country teach visitors about what happened and try to explain why. The destinations are deliberately confronting and are not for everyone.
The mass graves left behind by the Khmer Rouge are becoming increasingly visited locations. Photographs of the murdered, human remains and many other tangible reminders encourage visitors to take in the scale of the tragedy and keep remembering.
Many visitors detour to battlefields such as the Somme and Verdun from the first and second world wars, while France’s cities, especially areas that felt the brunt of the occupation, have museums and memorials in place for visitors to learn about how France’s history was changed forever.
The Pearl Harbour memorial in Hawaii, along with the wreckage of the USS Arizona, is a visceral reminder of the historically impactful attack, while memorial graveyards such as the Arlington Cemetery and many others combine education and remembrance.
Dark tourism sites in Australia
- Port Arthur Historic Site: The memorial in Tasmania is dedicated to the victims of the Port Arthur massacre is a visual reminder of both the devastating loss and the impact this event has had on Australia’s history and Australia’s gun ownership laws. The location also includes old convict prisons, emptied coal mines and the historical remnants of Tasmania’s convict trails, all of which are significant parts of Australia’s history.
- The Old Melbourne Gaol: Ned Kelly has become an emblematic figure of Australian history and the Old Melbourne Gaol, where he was imprisoned, has become an integral part of the legend. In later years it served a new purpose as a prison for WW2 deserters. The reenactments and exhibits may land it more on the side of macabre sightseeing, but visitors are free to choose what they want to get out of it.
- Many museums: Over the years, Australia has had to come to terms with the facts of the stolen generation and the impact of European colonisation on the Indigenous population. Many of the museums in each state capital do their part in acknowledging and remembering.
- ANZAC Tours: Australia comes together on ANZAC day, with almost every city around the country having its own events. ANZAC tours are popular with both locals and tourists, and can be both a reminder of the lost, and Australia's role on the world stage.
The ethics of dark tourism
Thousands of travellers were on cruise ships bound for Haiti when the earthquakes struck in January of 2010, leaving countless dead. Some of the cruise ships diverted, but others made the decision to arrive on schedule anyway, bringing sunny travellers in Hawaiian shirts to a destroyed coastline.
Many went on to enjoy beach barbeques, watersports and shopping at local markets while only a few kilometers away the city was in ruins. Others decided to stay on the boat, unable to bring themselves to enjoy the break.
When tourism saves lives
Opinions were sharply divided. Some called it a failure of humanity while others defended the necessity of the visit, no matter how uncomfortable. The best thing for tourists to do, it was argued, was to spend money and try to enjoy themselves. Meanwhile, the best thing for the cruise lines to do was help out however they could.
This is exactly what Royal Caribbean did, loading boats with essential supplies for delivery and donating all proceeds from the stay to recovery efforts. There's no denying that they made a real difference, and helped save lives. The same argument is put forward in defence of other active disaster site and war zone tours, such as the Hurricane Katrina tours in New Orleans, or visits to Syria. The normalisation of tourism can be a boon to locals and the money tourists bring is part of the recovery effort.
Is grief tourism respectful?
The ethics of grief tourism are also murky, with many saying that the very act of treating these destinations as just another part of your holiday is inherently disrespectful to victims. Others argue that ignoring it entirely is infinitely more disrespectful, akin to pretending it never happened. In truth, the answer may be self evident. These sites exist for a reason and were meant to be visited.
Tours around the area are respectful affairs, and are often guided by locals. For example, in earlier years it wasn't unusual to get guided tours from holocaust survivors, and today tours of Berlin that take in old Soviet-era Stasi prisons might be guided by someone who was once locked up in there.
Similarly, a tour of Cambodia that passes through one of the genocide memorials will almost inevitably lead you to cross paths with someone who still remembers the time vividly.
Far from rejecting these tours as disrespectful, most locals are happy to pass on their knowledge and make sure it's not forgotten. The ever-growing popularity of these spots as tourist attractions suggests that most people feel the same way. While dark tourism might not be for everyone, most people probably want to take part at some point. This is borne out by looking at the people who visit sites, whether they come for personal reasons or as tourists.
Who visits dark tourism sites?
People who have a personal connection to the site, such as family members who knew someone involved in the event, are likely to pay a visit. This is partly because they have a personal stake in the history of the site and partly because they will often live nearby and the place may be easily accessible to them.
For example, the majority of visitors to Auschwitz are from Poland, although the number and proportion is decreasing as time passes. This is likely the result of several factors:
- The increasing number of overseas visitors means locals make up a smaller proportion.
- As time passes, there are fewer people left with a personal connection to the location. In this case, fewer people who knew someone, or who were themselves, imprisoned there.
- Many dark tourism sites don’t lend themselves to repeat visits.
School groups are not uncommon at dark tourism sites either. It's getting easier and safer to take school groups overseas, and the sheer educational value of these locations and the rare opportunity to connect students with history makes dark tourism sites a must for both international and domestic travelling school groups.
In fact, one survey showed that the majority of visitors to the Houston Holocaust Museum are under 18 and that college-aged students are more likely visitors than older people.
Dark tourism and travel insurance
The increasing popularity of dark tourism shows no signs of stopping and many travel insurance brands are shifting gears to accommodate this. For example, Cover-More Travel Insurance will offer insurance for areas where travel is strongly discouraged. It’s unusual for a mainstream insurance provider to offer this type of cover, although its policies do still carry a specific exclusion for loss related to terrorism or civil unrest.
The confronting nature of many dark tourism destinations, especially for people with a personal connection to these areas or for travellers who may have depression or any other mental illness, can also make grief tourism potentially risky. This also has travel insurance implications, but mainstream insurers are looking for ways to expand their cover. If you already have a mental illness and declare it as a pre-existing condition, it is possible to be covered for loss relating to the potential mental or emotional impacts of these destinations.
However, getting covered for a mental illness that results from visiting a grief tourism site, such as a shellshock-type state or post-traumatic stress after visiting an active war zone, is still largely beyond the capabilities of travel insurance. The best way to visit these places is to compare a range of travel insurance options to find out how you can get covered.