Dark Tourism-Unfolding the ruinous events of human history

Bharti Sharma

Tragedies, horror and massacres have always attracted human’s interest and arouse curiosity. This, to a level, describes the rising popularity of dark tourism in recent years.

For centuries, people have been drawn to death and tragedy. Right from the Roman Colosseum, where death was a spectator activity to Halloween’s ancient birth in a Celtic festival of the dead, dark tourism may seem like a predominantly exasperating form of voyeurism, it’s not that basic to understand. It can also be termed as ‘milking the macabre’, the ‘dark side of tourism’ and ‘tragedy tourism’. Dark Tourism is not straightforward, as there’s a pool of human emotions attached to it and that emotion practically doesn’t define pleasure.

There was dark tourism even before it got its official name in 1990 when few academicians gave its name while doing their research on the assassination of JFK.  In basic terms, tourism that includes the sight-seeing of places that encountered genocide, assassinations, war or disaster — either natural or accidental is dark tourism. Many and surveys have shown that witnessing destruction and annihilation gives us the opportunity to confront our fears and despair while still feeling some level of safety.

Dark view of Arquata del Tronto medieval village in the marche region destroyed by earthquake of Amatrice

The Dark Sites

When it comes to vacations, there are people that head to places that have witnessed some of history’s darkest hours to check out sites of atrocities, accidents, natural disasters or infamous death. 9/11 memorial, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, Bran Castle and Poienari Castle in Romania, Jack the Ripper exhibition, Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar and Chernobyl in Ukraine are some of the top destinations. Leading the way are sites of nuclear disasters such as Fukushima in Japan and Pripyat in Ukraine. It may make us wonder that it’s not really a newfound segment as people have been visiting such sights for a long time. Swathes of tourists visit the Battle of Gettysburg even before the bodies were cleared away.

Visit to Auswitch concentration camp during a sunny day in Poland

Syria is also starting to attract a segment of tourists who just wants to see the survivors during the war and wants to know their stories. Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, once used by Nazi Germany to oppress, imprison and murder millions of Jews is one of the most sights we have.

How good or bad is Dark Tourism?

It is pretty obvious that any destination that offers dark tourism doesn’t have a gleaming history. Simply because in the past people have suffered or may have died there. The conduction and organization of tours in such areas play a significant role as there are a set of communities involved. Consideration of their thoughts, ideas and perceptions is highly imperative as the regular visitations of tourists can irk them or will act as a constant reminder of the disaster or incident. This can prevent them from moving beyond the situation.   

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine

At the same time, one also needs to identify that the purpose of dark tourism is rather very affirmative. The tourists visit such sites and memorialize the victims. Along with that, they also educate themselves which is an enlightening experience in itself. Therefore, we see a lot of these sites are named as memorials, remembrance for heritage and edification. Dissensions like this are a vital and inevitable attribute of dark tourism, and the stigma of death and tragedy may or may not be repugnant to the local residents.

Understanding the existence

A right perspective is necessary to understand this subject as it can play a significant role in the process of recovery for the destination. The rise in tourism to such places which otherwise would have been linked to negative exposure helps the destination to revive in terms of economy and also helping the communities morally, economically and can further empower them. One also needs to differentiate that there has to be a balance to walk between these dark sites and exploiting human misery for monetary gain. While some sites can be commercialised and some non-commercialised, dark tourism has two varieties of tourists namely ‘schadenfreude’ tourists, who garner pleasure from seeing others’ adversity, and ‘thanatopsis’ who are fascinated to undercover the meaning of the loss of life and considers such places sacred. So, apparently, the ‘schadenfreude’ type should be avoided and ethics should be followed while visiting such places.


Nowadays, with the combination of the digital revolution and mass tourism, there’s much more awareness of this sensitive and fragile form of tourism. The hit US drama ‘Chernobyl’ brought a new generation of tourists to the nuclear disaster zone. It is said that that visitors increased from 30 to 40 per cent.

Indisputably, it is an uphill task for tourism organizations and communities to develop dark tourism at dark sites in the most planned manner. Also, it’s apparent that not every tourist knows the ethics and behaviour for dark tourism sights. So, there comes a need of an admirable approach to rejuvenating this segment. It even came to knowledge that few tour operators were taking their arranging trips to the active war zones to give their travellers the real-life experience. This is an absurd move and the worst example of voyeurism.



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