For many people, a vacation includes sunny blue skies, white beaches, and tropical drinks sipped alongside sparkling aqua water. But a new kind of getaway called dark tourism has cropped up in recent years, and the destinations these tourists seek don’t include fun in the sun.
Dark tourists prefer to spend their vacations visiting sites rocked by death, destruction, and chaos. Dark tourism is gaining popularity as travelers seek out areas that are often described as “macabre”. In fact, dark tourism often gets a lot of flak, with people viewing it as sick voyeurism. They feel it is disrespectful to visit a place where so many people suffered just so they can take selfies. But dark tourists disagree – to them, it’s educational and enriches their understanding of the place, its people, and culture.
Why We Love Dark Tourism
Technically, dark tourism isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, and those who may be put off by the idea might actually find that they, too, fall under the category of “dark tourist”. Many people on vacation choose to spend some time at a historical site where tragedy occurred years ago. For example, those on holiday to Amsterdam may stop by the Anne Frank House to take in the home where a teenager and her family hid from the Nazis for two years before being discovered and arrested.
People who travel to New York might take a break from museums and theater to see the 9/11 Memorial and pay their respects to the 3,000 people who the city lost on that fateful day. Despite it being a site of a nuclear disaster, thousands flock to Pripyat to visit the ghost town that was abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
Many would argue that visiting these sites, and taking educational tours of Auschwitz or even the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., are different from dark tourism. But are they, really? When does a tour of a devastated area or location that witnessed gruesome death go from educational to unacceptable?
For dark tourists, a question of ethics comes to mind. The behavior of some visitors often concurs with the idea that a morbid fascination of death draws people to these sites, not a hope of understanding or memorializing. Tourists have been known to capture selfies at somber sites where they are smiling or giving the thumbs-up sign.
Pop singer Justin Bieber made headlines for touring the Anne Frank House and writing in the visitor log that he hoped Frank would’ve been a “Belieber” (a nickname given to his teenage fans). After Hurricane Katrina, so many people rushed to the city of New Orleans to record images of the destruction (not to help rebuild it) that tour buses had to be prohibited from entering the area where crews were working to reconstruct people’s homes.
This utter lack of respect and sensitivity continues to soil the concept that dark tourists truly want to benefit from their travels, not revel in the misery of others.
A recent trend in dark tourism puts these visitors in active war zones, instead of just historical locations. CNN published an article about one man who began to visit war-torn areas after he accidentally stumbled into the Democratic Republic of Congo and faced terrifying threats from weapon-wielding inhabitants. While most people who escape this danger vow never to return to it, this man’s curiosity and attraction to these dangerous, blood-soaked territories became insatiable.
For him, travelling to Myanmar, Pyeongyang, and Syria is about the people he meets. He eschews stereotypes that follow people of certain places (he mentions Somalia specifically) and instead gets to know these people himself. If you travel there, you can learn more, he says. Plus, according to many dark tourists, the people in these war-ravaged zones welcome tourists. It’s a chance to see a friendly face and have some normalcy in their days.
But traveling to a land that is embattled or could face flare-ups of conflict at any moment is an extreme risk. Every day, refugees are fleeing areas like Syria, while tourists actively put themselves in a war zone, for no reason other than it seems like a cool vacation. This brazen attitude certainly lends to the idea that dark tourists just have a sick fascination with death and human suffering, rather than a respect and celebration for those who have lived through hell and come out the other side.
Dark tourists interested in vacationing in war zones now have travel companies that can help them plan these outings. Founded by two travel guides, Untamed Borders provides a destination experience for people who want to visit Pakistan and Afghanistan but might be concerned about navigating the unwelcoming surroundings. Dark tourists benefit from the experience and knowledge of local tour experts, and they get a chance to interact with the people who live there.
According to Untamed Borders, their mission is to “add a positive benefit” to the areas they visit, by funneling dollars into local hotels and small businesses. They hope that the people traveling to these countries will begin to see them for what they are, and lay to rest any preconceived notions of seedy natives looking to take advantage of a bunch of naive tourists.