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Dark Tourism: When Tragedy Becomes a Tourist Draw

Dark tourism, also known as grief tourism, is a relatively new term that's still not well defined.

Mostly, it involves visiting sites and places related in some way to violent death or suffering - places that might qualify as macabre. Grief tourism is a similar term and they're sometimes used interchangeably.

Dark tourism Lockerbie memorialLockerbie memorial at Arlington. Tim1965 CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

An even more graphic word for this type of travel is thanatourism, from the Greek word thanatos, the Ancient Greek personification of death.

To add to the confusion, this is different from disaster tourism, which deals mostly with regions that have suffered from natural disasters rather than man-made ones. But they have plenty in common.

There are plenty of examples of dark tourism, or grief tourism.

Here are a few of the most famous, or notorious:

  • Ground Zero, site of the former World Trade Center twin buildings
  • Nazi death camps, where six million people died
  • Crash sites, such as Lockerbie in Scotland, where a TWA jumbo jet was blown up in 1988
  • the Paris tunnel in which Princess Diana was killed in 1997 being chased by paparazzi
  • Cambodia's killing fields (Choeng Ek Extermination Camp), mass graves for some 20,000 Cambodians murdered during the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s
  • Central Park's Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon, who was assassinated nearby outside the Dakota in 1980
  • Most cemeteries, including Arlington in the US and the Père Lachaise in Paris
  • Soham, a small English town, where two 10-year-olds were kidnapped and murdered by their school caretaker
  • Hiroshima in Japan, where the first atomic bomb was dropped
  • Chernobyl, where tour guides use geiger counters to test radiation while escorting visitors
  • the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, in memory of a 13-year-old Jewish schoolgirl who kept a diary while hiding from the Nazis
  • Hitler's mountain residence at Berchtesgaden, in the Bavarian Alps
  • Fukushima, site of Japan's tsunami-related nuclear disaster

Cambodia - The Longhan Orchard (Choeng Ek Extermination Camp) by Nancy Hawker of

The legacy of genocide that the Pol Pot regime left behind - their prisons, extermination camps and killing fields - have now been transformed into mass tourist attractions. One of these sites is the Choeung Ek Extermination Camp, which was first unearthed by the Vietnamese after their liberation of the Cambodians in 1979. It lies just 15 km southwest of Phnom Penh, and preserves the remains of some 9,000 victims. 

Upon arriving at the longhan orchard with its green fields and silver-tipped trees blowing gently in the wind, I found it hard to believe that so many horrors could have taken place amongst
so much beauty. A dirt path winds around the site, with information about each gravesite written across crude wooden plaques. These grassy mounds, around 129 of them, have now all been excavated and marked with the numbers and the sex of those unearthed, and the condition in which they were found. 

Prisoners from Tuol Sleng Detention Camp were transported to Choeng Ek by truck, and upon arrival were either detained in wooden shacks that were constructed from wood with galvanized steel roofs and darkened to prevent prisoners from seeing each other, or else immediately executed and then thrown into mass graves. Chemicals were then thrown overtop to dissolve the bodies. 

Another path through the fields takes you to a large stupa, a Buddhist shrine that has been built to commemorate and hold the preserved remains of those that were killed. Beaten and misshapen skulls peer out from behind thick panes of glass, expressions of surprise and horror still etched on their frozen faces. Propped up against the inside walls of the stupa are the leg and arm bones that once belonged to them. 

I was very moved by Choeung Ek Extermination Camp, and although I felt conflicted by paying to see something so tragic, it's a place that should be visited in order to remember and respect the people who suffered and died there. 

Dark tourism - Hitler's bunkerHitler's bunker, Berchtesgaden by Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Dark tourism is nothing new...

Remember the Roman gladiators? The arenas were full to bursting with spectators. In medieval times, the biggest attraction was a local hanging or execution.

In the mid-19th century, Thomas Cook organized tours of British travelers to American Civil War battlefields, and during the Crimean War a few years later, tourists led by Mark Twain visited the wrecked city of Sebastopol - he even scolded his travel mates for walking off with souvenir shrapnel.

And in Victorian England, tourists toured morgues. Since time immemorial, death and tragedy have fascinated people.

But where do you draw the line? Is visiting haunted castles and houses? How about Pearl Harbor? Or Inca ruins once used for human sacrifice?

Should you avoid dark tourism?

It depends on the site, its history, and your relationship to it. It's a personal decision - so the more you know about it the better.

It also depends to a great extent on which end of the dark tourism spectrum you're talking about.

At one end are sites related to war and battle, like war memorials and cemeteries. I live in the foothills of the French Alps, where there are a number of memorials to Resistance fighters. I've been to many of them, as a homage to those who fought, out of interest, or simply not to forget what once happened. This type of tourism isn't usually considered controversial or wrong and tends to be structured and organized.

At the other end is the truly grim type of tourism, such as visiting a place where death is just taking place, like an execution or war zone, or where it has taken place so recently that any visit can only be considered gawking.

Visiting questionable sites can be a positive experience. It can help you gain a better understanding of history and of the world around you - and ensure you contribute to making sure a similar tragedy doesn't happen again. Your visit and that of others may help contribute financially to an economically depressed area. And if you've been affected by the tragedy, however distantly, a visit can help you grieve and heal.

Conversely, there are reasons why you should not indulge in dark tourism. Your presence may be forcing people to relive a tragedy they'd rather forget. You can be perceived - and with reason - as disrespectful and insensitive if you've only come to gawk. You could be a voyeur, an exploiter. And, what you're doing may be plain morally wrong.

An important factor is the behavior of visitors. What seems unacceptable is the trite way in which tourists visit some of these areas, posing for selfies and giggling where thousands may have died. And heading into dangerous places is, well, dangerous.

What's your take on dark tourism? Is it all right to visit these sights? Why or why not? Please let me know below.

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