Dark Tourism: Seeking Out the Dangerous and Derelict

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An abandoned classroom within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where nature has reclaimed the  structures. Photo by Gerd Ludwig, via National Geographic


If you like visiting weird, macabre, or creepy places when you travel, you might be a dark tourist. Dark tourism is a travel trend that has gained a lot of attention in recent years as people flock to places associated with tragedy, death, or mystery. In the late 1990s, this concept was officially introduced by two academics, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, in their booked titled Dark Tourism. In this book, Lennon and Malcolm address the fascination that draws tourists to morbid locations, like the concentration camps from World War II. This wish to experience first-hand the tragedies of the past seems twisted and morose, but it has sprouted into an entire sub-industry in the tourism business. This year, Netflix released a TV series titled “Dark Tourist,” in which New Zealand journalist David Farrier visits odd travel locations all over the world, including abandoned cities and sites of nuclear disasters, to explore the reasoning behind this desire to experience the most unsettling sites in the world.

The dark tourism trend isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Morbid or unconventional  places have always attracted visitors who want to experience something a little (or a lot) different than their daily lives. Ancient Romans watched gladiator games in which someone (or some animal) almost always died. European ossuaries like the Parisian catacombs and the Capuchin Crypt in Rome have been tourist sites since the 1700s. Thousands of people flocked to carnivals to gawk at sideshow performers with physical abnormalities throughout the 1800s and 1900s. These examples show that people have always had a fascination with death and obscurity, and that dark tourism existed well before the 21st century.

Today, there is a wide range of dark tourist attractions. Not all dark tourists crave the same experience, and some of the most extreme travelers go to enormously dangerous places, like active warzones. So, how do you categorize these different areas of dark tourism? Where do nuclear explosion sites and abandoned cities fit into this trend? There hasn’t been much official distinction made between these different subcategories of dark tourism. Dark-tourism.com, a site that specializes in the topic, separates dark tourist destinations into several categories, including nuclear tourism, disaster area tourism, genocide tourism, and grave tourism. Other sources include war tourism and slum tourism as other types of dark tourism.

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The Paris Catacombs, photo by Andy Delcambre via Flikr (source)

The popularity of morbid attractions leads to the question: is there anything off limits to dark tourist? Is there any place so dangerous or so sacred that people wouldn’t turn it into a tourist attraction? Active war zones are perhaps the most obviously dangerous areas that someone could visit, but nuclear sites like Chernobyl or Fukushima still have elevated levels of radiation that could lead to life-threatening health problems. Although I would personally never visit these locations, extreme dark tourists still try to get their fix at these places, leading me to believe that nothing is too holy or too scary for someone hell-bent on visiting a certain site.

Visiting dark tourist sites can often come with an ethical dilemma, depending on their subject. While some sites are educational and informative, some feel exploitative and tone-deaf, and it’s hard to know when you’re crossing that line from curious to sinister. On one hand, the experience could teach you an important lesson about humanity and leave you with a greater understanding of others. On the other hand, you could be paying to gawk at the suffering of others who will never see the economic benefit from your visit.

Although the concept of dark tourism has existed unnamed for hundreds of years, this section of the tourism industry has really exploded in the last few decades. Since there aren’t a lot of official sources on this topic, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between “dark tourism” and normal tourism. Not all dark tourist sites are so macabre or dangerous as concentration camps and nuclear sites; some are just plain odd. In travel, I think there’s always a desire to experience a different part of humanity. While some travelers get that fix through art, food, or culture, dark tourists want to find and experience the strange and morbid parts of humanity that they don’t see in their everyday life.

Article by Elizabeth Rhodes. Find Elizabeth on TwitterInstagram, and her website. Also, check out our article on Mo’orea, the hidden gem of Polynesia.