tourist taking picture of colosseum in rome concept of dark tourism

Dark Tourism: How We Can Learn From Historic Sites Of Tragedy

7 mins

Whether it’s the Colosseum in Rome, or the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, tourists flock to see the dark side of a country’s past and dark tourism can offer a surprising number of benefits — if conducted ethically, that is

Morbid curiosity is on the rise and the popularity of dark tourism is proof. What was once a travel niche limited to research papers and academic journals is now a rapidly growing subset of the tourism industry, with visitors flocking to sites of extreme tragedy — think mass burial grounds, nuclear exclusion zones, slave chambers, genocide museums, and former prisons and concentration camps. If it’s associated with death or destruction, it’s on the itinerary. 

Also known as grief tourism, black tourism, and morbid tourism, such travels have often been credited to Netflix. Audiences watched as journalist David Farrier traversed the globe to better understand why people choose to vacation in macabre places for the 2018 documentary series Dark Tourist, highlighting everything from a ghost town in Cyprus to the assassination spot of JFK in Dallas. 

The following year, the launch of HBO miniseries Chernobyl only fuelled a tourism boom in Ukraine, with local tour operators reporting a spike in the number of adventurers wanting to see this semi-abandoned wasteland up close. As fate would have it, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was captured on 24 February 2022, day one of the Russian invasion, effectively marking the end of Chernobyl as a tourist destination — for now.

Grim Spectacle

the colosseum in rome where dark tourism flourishes
Tourists flock to the Colosseum in Rome where gladiators fought tigers and bears

But taking a front-row seat to human suffering is hardly a new phenomenon. Crowds would gather to watch the grim spectacle of public hangings in London until the death penalty was abolished in 1965. Further back, death was essentially a spectator sport at the Colosseum in Rome, where the first record of a gladiatorial fight dates back to 264 BC. 

‘These are spaces where tragedy has occurred and, subsequently, become places of memorial, respect, and reflection. Tourists who take selfies – the contemporary manifestation of conspicuous consumption – therefore invoke ire among other tourists’ 

And let’s not forget the ancient city of Pompeii, buried under a blanket of volcanic ash in 79 AD, but sparking the debate around the ethics of dark tourism even today. Earlier this year, an unnamed Canadian tourist returned three pumice stones that she illegally took home from the historical site, citing the so-called ‘Pompeii curse’ as the reason behind being diagnosed with breast cancer twice and suffering financial hardship in an accompanying note. 

Unfortunately, she is one of countless travellers to exhibit the kind of behaviour – taking selfies, vandalising monuments, displaying cultural insensitivity – that gives dark tourism a bad name.‘Tourists who visit sites of pain and shame should always remember that they sightsee in the mansions of the dead,’ says Dr Philip Stone, Director of the Institute of Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire in England. ‘Often, these are spaces where tragedy has occurred and, subsequently, become places of memorial, respect, and reflection. Tourists who take selfies – the contemporary manifestation of conspicuous consumption – therefore invoke ire amongst other tourists and observers.’ 

The Benefits of Dark Tourism

The ‘tourist gaze’, however, is multifaceted. ‘When we turn the camera on to ourselves, the reflection is one of integrated travel, social media dissemination, and instant notification,’ he continues. ‘Whether taking selfies at dark tourism sites is selfish remains to be seen, but the ethics of consumption in a consumer society need to be reiterated. Most tourists who visit sites of cultural trauma are respectful of the events that took place. And those who are not respectful need to be enlightened by their dark tourism experience by truthful, provocative, and accurate interpretation that evokes emotion and affect.’
Dark tourism, he argues, engages us to experience the effects of cultural trauma of the past to help explain our present. ‘The past is always contested, and versions of the past are played out within heritage tourism,’ Dr Stone adds. ‘This dissonance inherent within interpreting the past involves politics of remembrance, issues of (re)presentation, and ethics of consumption. It is here where forgetting is just as important as remembering. Dark tourism offers difficult heritage to be consumed and experienced by the masses and, in so doing, offers connections to communities and their misfortunes, and provides a voice for those who have passed.’

Indeed, while the genre isn’t without controversy, criticised for monetising the pain of others, its benefits cannot be overlooked. Not only can dark tourism serve as a catalyst for enhancing infrastructure, generating income, and conserving key heritage sites, but it also plays a vital role in education. Furthermore, a paper published by the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism suggests that it can also facilitate reconciliation as it tends to stir a range of deep emotions, providing opportunities for remorse and forgiveness if handled correctly.

As for where to start? Both Vietnam and Albania are as safe and tourist friendly as they are fascinating, and know the resilience it takes to rebuild after a particularly turbulent past. In the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam, the struggle for independence began long before American soldiers arrived in 1965.

Here, the locals lived, fought, and thrived through invasions by Chinese emperors, the Khmer Rouge army, Japanese imperialists, and French colonists. We suggest crossing off all the essentials on your first trip: hiking across the rice paddies of Sapa, sailing around the limestone karsts of Halong Bay, and browsing the labyrinthine lanes of Hoi An’s Old Town. Do contemplate the human capacity for cruelty at its dark tourism sites, too.

‘Not only can dark tourism serve as a catalyst for enhancing infrastructure, generating income, and conserving key heritage sites, but it also plays a
vital role in education’

In the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, for example, tourists can take a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels for firsthand immersion in a 155-mile network of subterranean tunnels that served as the Viet Cong movement’s base of operations against the US Armed Forces in 1968. And if you find yourself struggling in its claustrophobic warrens and underground chambers, take a moment to reflect on the fact that they’ve been enlarged for the general public.

tourist at entrance of cu chi tunnels in Vietnam
A tourist at the entrance of Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam

Elsewhere, the brutality of war takes centre stage at the War Remnants Museum through exhibits such as US armoured vehicles, photographs of the My Lai Massacre, and a guillotine used by the French. It’s also at this museum that you can view a powerful exhibition compiled by legendary war photographer Tim Page.

The tiny Balkan country of Albania, meanwhile, remains under the radar despite occupying prime real estate in the Mediterranean. Located south of Montenegro and north of Greece, it boasts beautiful beaches, delicious Balkan cuisine, and the kind of hospitality that restores one’s faith in humanity. It’s also yet to be overrun by mass tourism, so visitors can still enjoy authentic cultural experiences and unspoilt landscapes across the country.

What makes Albania noteworthy, however, is its highly unusual past. There are an estimated 14.7 bunkers per square mile, translating to somewhere between 175,000 and 750,000 of these concrete mushrooms in existence. Personifying the paranoia that defined the reign of tyrant Enver Hoxha from 1944 until his death in 1985, they now stand as a testament to his isolationist sentiments. 

Lessons From The Past

anti-nuclear bunker in Albania has now been turned into art gallery called Bunkart
An anti-nuclear bunker has now been turned into an art museum called Bunk’Art.

Hoxha perpetually feared that Albania would come under attack, thereby withdrawing the country from international politics and economic trade agreements. In fact, it wasn’t open to tourists until the fall of communism in 1990. And here’s the kicker: not a single bunker was ever used since Albania was never attacked. Today, many of them have evolved into social and cultural spaces like lounges, pizzerias, livestock shelters, artist studios, museums and more, showcasing the ingenuity that can arise when acknowledging historical reality. History – as we all know – repeats itself, and philosopher George Santayana said it best: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

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