Dark tourism : harder, better, faster, darker

13 min reading time

Published on 23/03/21 - Updated on 17/03/22

tourisme dark sombre noir

There are many categories of tourism: beach tourism, medical tourism, cultural tourism, urban tourism, green tourism, etc., and they respond to the different expectations and desires of travellers. In recent years, one type of tourism has stood out from the others due to its singularity and sudden popularity: dark tourism. But what does this term encompass, who are its followers and where can it be practiced?

Dark tourism is not so new but it has become very popular over the last few years due to series thrilling the crowds on unusual themes such as nuclear disasters or the lives of famous criminals. The rise of social networks is also an important factor in bringing this type of tourism to light, even if, as we shall see later, they are not always as beneficial as all that.

The origins of dark tourism

Dark tourism refers to travel that involves visiting places associated with death, suffering, grief or disaster. The term was first used in 1996 by two researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, and was later taken up by Dr Philippe Stone who now works at the Dark Tourism Research Institute based in Lancashire, England. It is also referred to as thanatourism, a term used by Professor A.V. Seaton which is a contraction of Thanos, the personification of death in Ancient Greece, and tourism.

Despite what one might think, this type of tourism is not recent; on the contrary, according to research and academic studies on the subject, it dates back to Gallo-Roman times. Indeed, crowds were gathered in arenas to watch gladiatorial fights and killings, and this phenomenon continued in the Middle Ages with fights between knights and executions in the public square. Humankind has always had a certain attraction for everything that has to do with death, as evidenced by the leading tourist attraction in Paris during the 19th century, which welcomed thousands of visitors every day: the morgue. Also, battlefields such as Waterloo and Gettysburg were visited by curious people wanting to see 'what it looks like in real life' soon after the fighting had ended.

Lennon and Foley state that these visits are "motivated by a desire for real or symbolic encounters with death. ". The motivations for visiting dark tourism sites have been more or less the same for centuries: contemplation, the desire to better understand history and to immerse oneself in it at the same time. But in the age of smartphones and social networks, a feeling of voyeurism is increasingly felt. According to Lennon and Foley, the "primal interest" in this phenomenon has changed dramatically over time, especially in our consumer society. They add that "dark tourism has changed a great deal today and current trends are marked by a disenchantment linked to postmodernity. ". Thus a large proportion of modern dark tourists are looking for sensationalism and more or less disturbing experiences that take them out of their daily lives.

The different kinds of dark tourism

Disaster tourism

tourisme catastrophe nucléaire


Natural or man-made disasters are a real subject of fascination for many travellers who do not hesitate to put themselves in danger to discover places marked by these sad accidents. The 11th of March marked the 10th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, a region of Japan that experienced an earthquake, a tsunami and then the explosion of its nuclear power plant in the space of a few hours. Today, the cities devastated by this disaster have become tourist attractions for thrill-seeking tourists; in 2017, no less than 100,000 visitors were counted in this disaster area. The region is composed of 3 zones, the green zone which is open to all and is considered as the least dangerous in terms of radioactivity, the orange zone which is only accessible to scientists and experts and finally the red zone which is strictly forbidden. Several companies offer bus tours of the region, equipping tourists with masks and Geiger counters to measure radiation levels. Chernobyl, a place marked by the same disaster, attracts 72,000 visitors during 2018, a figure that is constantly increasing and has seen a real peak, plus 40% of bookings, in 2019 following the broadcast of the HBO series inspired by the disaster. Unlike Fukushima, everything can be visited today, including the forbidden zone around the reactor that caused the disaster. Authorities and operators assure that the visit of the site is safe but recommend not to smoke, drink or eat in order not to inhale toxic particles and to cover the skin as much as possible to avoid any contact with potential radioactive dust. The visit continues in the ghost town of Pripyat, a town on the outskirts of the power plant that was abandoned and has remained untouched since, seemingly frozen in time. The President of Ukraine wants to encourage tourism in the area with development work such as better hiking trails and an improved mobile phone network.

War tourism

tourisme de guerre combat soldats


Dark tourism is not only about places that have experienced horror in the past, war tourism is a type of tourism which is practised in territories that are currently experiencing war and suffering. It is also known as extreme tourism because of its dangerous nature, and in recent years it has become increasingly popular. Among the trendy destinations for this type of tourism are Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To go to these countries, which are strongly discouraged or even forbidden by the Ministry of the Interior's website, there are two solutions: register as a volunteer for a mission with an NGO in high-risk countries or turn to a travel agency specialising in war tourism, such as Disaster Tourism in the United Kingdom or War Zone Tours in the United States. These agencies offer pre-departure training to teach travellers how to communicate by radio, how to shoot and how to evacuate a wounded person if the situation requires it. A useful training when we know that in 2016, 6 tourists were slightly injured by Taliban rocket fire on the road to Harat in Afghanistan. The practice is also developed in Latin America and more specifically in the numerous favelas of Rio de Janeiro. A number of them are still in the grip of gang wars, but this does not prevent tourists from visiting them accompanied by a guide to ensure their safety. This type of tourism has been developing since the 2010s with the existence of several specialised tourist agencies such as Favela Tour.

Banditry tourism

tourisme banditisme narcotraficant criminel


The world has always been fascinated by the great bandits and gangsters, and this is reflected in the many films and series that tell their stories. In 2015, Netflix released the first season of the series "Narcos", which follows the career of the world's most famous drug trafficker: Pablo Escobar. The series was a hit and since then thousands of tourists have been flocking to the city of Medellin in Colombia, where Pablo Escobar built his drug empire. His spirit is still very present in the streets of the city, through graffiti but also a number of merchandising products such as mugs, stickers and other souvenirs bearing his image. It is easy for tourists to follow in the footsteps of the famous criminal thanks to the many "Pablo Escobar Tours" run by agencies and locals alike. The tour consists of two major sites, the tomb of the drug trafficker and the Catedral, the prison built by him in which he spent many years with the possibility of coming and going as he pleased. It is even possible to meet Popeye, Pablo Escobar's former right-hand man, who has now repented and is making Youtube videos about his former life as a bandit. Travellers can also discover the "barrio Escobar", a neighbourhood named after him because most of the houses were built by him to give back to poor families. A museum dedicated to him has even been erected in the neighbourhood to pay tribute to him. A little further north on the continent, in the United States, there is also the city of Chicago, which was the scene of various crimes perpetrated by a great name of banditry of the last century: Al Capone. Many of the places frequented or marked by the gangster's imprint have been destroyed by the city, but his spirit still inhabits the streets and avenues of Chicago, an atmosphere sought after by tourists who wish to discover the Chicago of the Prohibition era. It is still possible to visit bars and speakeasies where Al Capone would have had a drink and to go and listen to jazz at the Green Mill club and ask to sit on the number 1 bench, which is supposed to be the bench where Scarface sat. The more adventurous will go as far as a mythical island to follow the bandit's trail, Alcatraz Island where the famous prison of the same name is located and where he was held for several years.

Macabre and surnatural tourism

tourisme macabre surnaturel peur


Serial killers, psychopaths, witches, ghosts and other spirits are both frightening and exciting subjects for some people. A large number of legends, myths, documentaries, films and series have made them their main subject, which partly explains the craze around them and therefore the popularity of sites and tourist attractions dedicated to them. One of the best known examples is the famous murderer Jack the Ripper who was active in London at the end of the 19th century, particularly in the Whitechapel area. Many guided tours are organised to discover the emblematic places marked by the serial killer's passage. This is currently the main attraction of the district, which is not really touristy outside of this, and since 2015 a museum dedicated to Jack the Ripper has been installed there. Another town marked by its past, Salem, located in the state of Massachusetts in the United States, has used its particular history to become a must-see place for dark tourism enthusiasts. The town is known worldwide for its witch hunt, which resulted in the killing of 25 people accused of witchcraft. Since then, Salem has become a symbolic place for witchcraft, and the town is now full of esoteric shops, herbalist shops and fortune-telling practices. Numerous museums have been set up to tell the story of the famous Salem trials. The house of the judge in charge of the trials remains intact and attracts many curious visitors. The town plays on this mystical image and can be discovered at night by lantern during a ghost tour, which tells stories of witches and ghosts that still haunt the town's streets. However, when it comes to haunted places, it's Scotland and its many castles that attract the most tourists looking for a scare. The most famous of these is in the city of Edinburgh, which is itself considered to be the scariest city in Britain.


necrotourisme cimetière ossuaire


Dark tourism is not only about sensationalism and the desire to be scared, a simple walk through a cemetery is also part of this practice. One of the most emblematic places is undoubtedly the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, which is visited by 3 million tourists every year, mainly because of the presence of numerous celebrity graves such as Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Alfred de Musset, Oscar Wilde and many others. A similar cemetery can be found in London, Highgate Cemetery, where the lush nature of the area is matched by the graves of famous people. Egypt is home to another popular burial ground, the famous Valley of the Kings where Pharaoh Tutankhamun is buried, a place that attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world every year. However, there is a noticeable difference between the two European cemeteries and the site of the pharaohs' tombs, as Egypt makes every effort to welcome visitors to the site with guided tours as tourism in this region is centred around this site. While in France and England there is no real infrastructure or services dedicated to visitors, these sites simply add to the long list of places attracting 32 million and 17 million visitors respectively in 2017. In Guatemala, the city of Quetzaltenango has decided to play the thrill card by offering visits only on the evenings of the full moon to its cemetery with its original and colourful tombs, accompanied by a guide who tells the history and legends surrounding the site. An even more unusual visit is offered in the French capital, the discovery of the city's catacombs. A somewhat frightening dive into the history of Paris that 250,000 tourists make every year. The site covers an area of 11,000m² and contains no less than 6 million bones from various cemeteries in the city. On the route, an inscription warns visitors, "Stop! This is the empire of death! "setting the tone for the visit and adding to the eerie atmosphere of the place.

The abuses and ethical problems surrounding dark tourism

Dark tourism is still not well known today, so it is difficult to control it in order to avoid any form of abuse, which is unfortunately frequent. Moreover, this type of tourism is often confused with memorial tourism, which is a form of tourism that consists of highlighting the historical heritage of a place, particularly when the site in question has been marked by a specific event, significant in that it may be founding or potentially painful. The places visited may be similar but the motivation of the travellers differs greatly, in the case of remembrance tourism people go to these places as a duty of remembrance, homage and understanding of the events whereas dark tourists are more fascinated by the morbid and frightening side of the sites.

This difference is strongly felt in places such as the Auschwitz camp, which welcomed 2.3 million visitors in 2019, with a wide range of behaviour observed. Some visitors do not hesitate to pose in the gas showers or balance on the rails of the death wagons, thus failing to respect the memory of all the deportees exterminated in the camp. Forcing the Auschwitz Memorial to react by posting these inappropriate photos with the following message: "When you come to Auschwitz, remember that you are on a site where a million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to balance on rails than on the site that symbolises the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people to their death. The same problem is observed in Chernobyl, a place brought back to the forefront by the eponymous series, which since then has seen waves of Instagrammers looking for the photo with the most likes on social networks, and for this purpose some even pose in their underwear in the middle of this post-apocalyptic place. Some tourists go even further and decide to break the rules of certain places, like in Fukushima where a few intrepid people explore the red zone, which is strictly forbidden because of its dangerous radioactivity.

However, the excesses do not only come from tourists, the tourism industry also takes advantage of the popularity of the phenomenon to build offers that are sometimes disturbing and border on bad taste. This is the case of the Karosta hotel in Latvia, which is a unique establishment of its kind, in fact it is a prison-hotel that offers a detonating experience, where tourists are treated like prisoners during their stay. Iron beds, prison meals and nightly physical and mental harassment by the "guards" are part of this special stay. The place was not chosen at random, as it is a former prison that was used in turn by the Tsarist autocracy, the Nazis and the Soviet army. In Japan, there was talk of a Fukushima Gate Village project in the vicinity of the nuclear disaster with the construction of restaurants, hotels and shops to attract as many tourists as possible. A project that has drawn the wrath of many locals, denouncing the "disneylandisation" of such a place. A term that applies to many other places that fall under the heading of dark tourism or tourism of memory, due to the number of souvenir shops present on these sites, such as at Auschwitz, where the sale of small figurines representing caricatures of deportees recently caused controversy.

Dark tourism has only gained in popularity in recent years, especially with the internet allowing the practice to become more democratic. Many blogs, Instagram pages, Facebook and Youtube pages are addressing this theme and revealing the places in the world where it is practiced. Netflix has also taken up the phenomenon with the production of a documentary series entitled "Dark Tourist", in which we follow a New Zealand journalist on a journey to discover sites and practices related to dark tourism across all continents. The series was met with a certain amount of criticism, the reporter's attitude was considered too casual and the mix of places chosen was surprising, going from sites marked by real catastrophes such as Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan (a nuclear test site for the Soviet army) to gatherings of so-called vampires in New Orleans.


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