For some of us, planning your next trip to an abandoned city with a high danger rate all by yourself might be a last resort. For others, it is the perfect getaway. If you are a thrillseeking adventurer on the move to your next morbid location, than you might be into dark tourism. 

Dark tourism (also black tourism or grief tourism) is tourism that involves travelling to places associated with death and suffering. For example, visiting the former prison island Alcatraz or Chernobyl in Ukraine. The main attraction to dark locations is their historical value rather than the place being associated with death and suffering. In other words, this does not mean that visiting the concentration camp in Auschwitz makes you a dark tourist. It is suggested that the concept should include reasons why someone wants to visit this site.

Not a new travel trend
Dark tourism is not a new phenomenon. For many years now grief tourism has been part of our fascination dating back to our ancestors. Visiting Roman gladiatorial games or watching public executions were part of their daily life. Now however we seek it for very different reasons. Could it be escapism at its finest? The urge and tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities and to seek entertainment by engaging in a dark fantasy could help us cope with our daily life.

The Netflix documentary series ‘Dark Tourist’, presented by journalist David Ferrier, takes us to unusual and macabre tourism spots around the world with death and tragedy as a main theme. It is an educating journey for anyone who loves strange locations, cultures and habits. Living with the dead, voodoo ceremonies and going into warzones are all part of the experience.

Different kinds of dark tourism
There are different types of dark tourism. Firstly there is Grief Tourism, it is the type of tourism we all encountered while traveling abroad. It is when traveling to the scene of a tragedy or disaster, for example visiting the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam or the London Dungeon. Secondly there is Disaster Tourism, visiting locations at which an environmental disaster, either natural or man-made, has occurred such as traveling to south-east Asia after the tsunami crisis. Slum Tourism involves visiting impoverished areas.

A more bizarre kind of dark tourism is Suicide Tourism which takes two forms. The first involves people travelling to a particular destination with the intention of taking their own life at a famous landmark. The second form takes the laws related to euthanasia into account. For example, in several European countries like our country Belgium or Switzerland, euthanasia is not illegal. This means that terminally-ill people can travel there to end their life legally. Lastly, we have Doomsday Tourism with the certain belief that the end of the world is coming. It refers to thinking that you should hurry to visit certain locations which are under threat due to the environment and global warming.

Danger rate
Dark tourism isn’t for everyone. You must make sure you are comfortable with where you are going and why. The main question we need to ask ourselves is: are we traveling to a place to develop our understanding, or simply to tick it off our bucket-list and to put a smiling thumbs up picture on Instagram? If done right, it is a way of paying respect to unfortunate events instead of taking out your selfie-stick for the occasion.

The truth is that there are pros and cons to dark tourism. A positive aspect of encountering black tourism is being able to make a connection to the past. A negative aspect is that these tourism spots are often being used for profit only rather than to educate. It is an exploitation of tragedies.

Health and safety risks are sometimes unavoidable when travelling to certain parts of the world, but they are independent of whether the reason for traveling is dark tourism or not. Some risks are not specific to this form of tourism and can not be excluded, such as a plane crash or an earthquake.

One health risk aspect, however, can be dangerous for your own life. A particular form of dark tourism is nuclear tourism. Chernobyl and Fukushima are radioactively contaminated destinations. These attractions can be visited reasonably safely if you respect the safety guidelines. This means you should not expose yourself to radiation levels for a prolonged period of time.

‘Dark tourism is an important part of our understanding of what is to be human’ – Professor John Lennon

Important message
We are attracted to dark tourism sights because humans have a desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death. It may be a crucial way for us to learn the lessons of the past because it provides an insight into the history and tragedy that happened among these attractions and exhibitions. By giving it recognition, it is a way of preventing these tragedies to ever happen again.

‘If we do not recognize and interpret these events for tourists, it may encourage future generations to ignore or forget these periods of human history. Because dark tourism is an important part of our understanding of what is to be human’, says professor Lennon, a lecturer in dark tourism from Glasgow Caledonian University London. We can not be responsible for the future without understanding our past.

Top 3 dark tourism sights
Nearly every travel destination in the world can be ‘dark’ in some way. Natural disasters, sites of massacres and assassinations, battlefields and concentration camps have a long history with death and tragedy. If you are a newbie taking your first steps when it comes to dark tourism or perhaps already are a skilled dark tourist, there are always new sites to explore. Here is a list of locations for every type of traveller to help you on the way. Click on the green icon to read more about this location.

1) Beginner: Berlin ‘Undergrounds’, Germany

SP2011 (CC0)

2) Advanced: Pompeii, Italy

Hohum (CC0) and Andrea Schaffer (CC BY 2.0)

3. Pro: Aokigahara, Japan

Unknown (CC0) and Wendelin Jacober (CC0)

If you have any questions or need help with suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate and contact the suicide hotline 1813 or via e-mail.

Text by Anne-Sophie Verkoyen, photo © Matthieu Richard via Flickr