Dark tourism, generally refers to a type of tourism that focuses on visiting places associated with death and suffering. Far more than mere morbid voyeurism, this concept encompasses more complex realities. It reflects the emergence of certain problematic trends in tourist practices. As a result, an increasing number of voices are raised against this trend. Therefore, we offer an insight into this obscure aspect of contemporary tourism…
Dark tourism: a practice older than you might think
Dark tourism was conceptualized by two American researchers, Malcolm Foley and John Lennon (not the singer!), in the 1990s. They defined it as “the phenomenon that encompasses the presentation and consumption by visitors of sites of death and disasters turned into commodities.”
Even during the time of the Napoleonic wars, visiting devastated battlefields was a common practice among thrill-seeking bourgeois. What about the archaeological site of Pompeii? It has always fascinated crowds, yet it was indeed a natural disaster that claimed the lives of approximately 15,000 people. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the Auschwitz camp museum was inaugurated in 1947! All of this shows that this practice is older than one might imagine. However, it’s only recently that dark tourism has come into the spotlight.
Two main explanatory factors can be identified: the development of mass tourism and media coverage. It’s easy to understand that as the number of travelers increases, the phenomenon gains momentum. Yet, grasping the influence of the media and social networks in this dynamic is more complex. Nevertheless, their role is undeniable.
Current Excesses in Dark Tourism
We are well aware of the influence of film tourism on certain tourist destinations. Croatia and Ireland with Game of Thrones, Scotland with Harry Potter, and Paris with Amélie Poulain are just a few examples of this trend. In the context of diversifying ways of exploring countries, this seems logical. However, when reality exceeds fiction, it raises certain questions.
One can think of the surge in visits to the former Chernobyl disaster site following the release of the eponymous TV series. Or the tour operators offering trips to follow in the footsteps of the bandit Pablo Escobar after his biopic. And how can one not be disturbed by tourists taking smiling selfies within concentration camps in Poland? All of these practices stem from a common desire to develop a business that capitalizes on trends. Morbid tourism is just another “trend” in a perpetually Instagrammable world.
In the same vein, the poverty of certain regions around the world becomes a source of staged experiences and profit. For a few euros, some companies promise a secure immersion in the favelas of Rio, the slums of Bombay, or the townships of Johannesburg. Here, one is given the sensation of living a more authentic journey, closer to the realities of the inhabitants, with photo sessions naturally punctuating the visit. This still falls into a form of voyeurism, raising questions about the intentions of visitors.
Dark Tourism: Explaining the Phenomenon
It’s evident that one of the primary drivers of dark tourism lies in the psychology of the visitor. Motivations are diverse:
- Curiosity: Some tourists are simply curious to discover these places that are often shrouded in mystery or taboos.
- Interest in history: Visitors interested in history in all its facets wish to delve into these, no matter how grim they may be.
- Attraction to the macabre: Some people are drawn to horror and sensationalism. They seek experiences that give them thrills or strong emotions.
- Confronting one’s own fears: Dark tourism can be a form of therapy. By visiting places associated with death or suffering, tourists can confront their anxieties in a cathartic way.
These various motivations illustrate that the issue of indecency is tied to the initial intent of the visit. We cannot equate a visitor’s desire for an anthropological approach with the desire to indulge in unhealthy voyeurism. This is what distinguishes dark tourism from the duty of remembrance. While one exploits our weaknesses, the other appeals to our capacities for compassion and understanding. Two camps are thus in opposition: those who seek to profit from morbid business and those who hope to combat this practice through education and restraint.
How to Counter Dark Tourism
Indeed, in response to this trend, voices are rising, and efforts are being made to prevent excesses. Concerning the places involved, the focus is on local communities, the families of victims, and trauma survivors. This involves measures such as:
- Better regulation of visits
- Selection of qualified professionals to guide visitors
- Restrictions on visitor behavior
- Prohibiting certain activities such as selling souvenirs or organizing purely voyeuristic and morbid-themed tours
A striking example is the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. Here, the museum, the memorial, and the souvenir shop are three distinct entities. There is a separation to avoid a mix of genres. The issue lies in the association between the history of the place and its economic exploitation. In this specific case, the connection is not made directly, making the initiative more ethical.
Dark tourism thus challenges our contemporary tourist practices. In an ongoing quest for novelty, some professionals in the industry occasionally cross the line of indecency. They exploit the baser instincts of travelers under the pretext of showing the world as it is, without taboos. This results in a sort of mass catharsis where visitors appear disconnected from the reality of the places they traverse. They seek more to live an experience perceived as “exciting” or “forbidden” than to learn and empathize. Education and better oversight seem to be the only ways to counter these practices.