‘Dark tourism’ is a travel trend that has been gaining popularity since the early 90s when the term was originally coined. From Ground Zero to the abandoned city of Pripyat, dark tourist sites across the globe have recently seen a sharp rise in the number of visitors they attract, mostly thanks to the popularisation of TV shows and movies depicting real disasters. While many tourists value the opportunity to immerse themselves in historical hardships through exhibitions and visits to dark sites, others question the ethics of the dark tourism industry.
For most people, being able to visit a site where an ancient catastrophe has occurred is a chance to learn about the world we live in and the events that shaped it, but there is no doubt that we, as humans, have a morbid fascination with all things grizzly and gruesome. As a result, the lines between education and voyeurism have become blurred within the tempting pit of dark tourism.
There is no shame in being fascinated by death and destruction; I myself had a tricky time trying to convince my French teacher to squeeze in a visit to the catacombs on a school trip to Paris a few years ago. What matters most is how tourists behave in order to show respect for the dead, as well as those affected by the tragedy in question.
In recent years, complaints about visitors posing for inappropriate selfies at dark sites have become the most common criticism about the behaviour of tourists. There is no denying that social media has encouraged the poor conduct of tourists at sites where they are expected to display a level of respect for the dead.
In perhaps the most disturbing example of this, youtuber Logan Paul filmed a newly deceased man at the famous Aokigahara ‘suicide’ forest in Japan, back in 2018. Footage of Paul posing in front of the corpse was uploaded to his channel which had over 15 million subscribers at the time, many of whom were young children, highlighting the potential danger of social media fame and the twisted paths that new generations are ready to walk to achieve this.
But its not just the behaviour of the tourists themselves which casts doubt upon the morality of dark tourism; many view the industry as capitalising off the deaths and suffering of millions of people.
Many dark tourism attractions, such as the London Dungeons, set up tours with live actors and themed rides in a bid to become more mainstream; it could be said that the authenticity of the site is lost during this pursuit of commercialisation. It must be noted, however, that many companies who own dark tourism sites do , in fact, donate a percentage of their profits to charities who work to preserve the site and raise awareness, such as the mine tours in in Potosí, Bolivia.
A visit to the site of a historical disaster is a profound and educational experience for tourists worldwide, many of whom generally treat the site with the respect and humility it deserves. While some question the ethics of the industry, it is important that dark tourism exists, at the fate of losing sight of moments in history that have shaped the modern world.