Why Some People Like to Travel in the Dark

Dark tourism is not a rebranded form of spelunking. It entails no bat watching, no guided tours of the Parisian catacombs, no visits to Fairbanks in sunless winter.

It explores the conceptual dark — “death, disaster and the seemingly macabre,” according to the British Institute for Dark Tourism Research (yes, it exists), travel to sites of historically documented tragedy, carnage, malice or any combination thereof. Destinations include Poenari Castle in Romania, the haunt of Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for Count Dracula; Salem, Mass.; and the Tower of London.

But what happens when sites of more recent bloodshed or tragedy are refurbished into attractions for globe-trotters? What does a gift shop at Fukushima, Japan, mean? Does South Africa’s Robben Island really need a restaurant?

“It’s the commercialization of death,” Philip Stone, the executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, tells The Guardian. “Take the Flight 93 crash site. Soon after it happened farmers were selling tours of the field. But now there’s an established memorial. There’s been a process of commercialization from that initial demand to becoming a formal destination.”

It’s a process many find objectionable, igniting heated debates about selfie protocol at Auschwitz and Treblinka; or whether it’s appropriate (and safe) to visit Chernobyl. “I wonder how visitors will react to an attraction that walks a fine line between Disneyfication of a tragedy and dark tourism,” writes Sharon Heal (at the Museums Journal) of the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast is also home to a booming “conflict tourism” industry, focusing mainly on the “Troubles,” a period of sectarian unrest between Catholic republicans and Protestants loyal to the British Crown. It’s a development The Guardian’s Chris Jenkins calls “simply exploitation.”

“Come to Belfast and see our magnificent city,” he writes, “Rejuvenated, regenerated and re-energized. Take a walk through the streets and in the shadows of the division walls. Why not stop to get your photo taken beside a mural of men in balaclavas? If you really want, why not write a message of hope and peace on one of our walls, a truly symbolic sign of human solidarity?” The idea is “deeply disturbing,” he says. Places of violence and profound loss, from which many Belfasters are still recovering, have “become a spectacle, an attraction.”

And yet, for others, dark tourism constitutes a kind of indirect reparation. “Hundreds of Cambodians” now make a living by guiding tourists through the country’s infamous Killing Fields — where more than a million people were executed and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge between 1976 and 1979. “Tourist dollars and capitalism are helping me come to terms with my country’s history – and my own,” one such guide told National Geographic’s Zoltan Istvan when he visited the fields in 2003.

Dark tourism boasts an educational component as well. According to The Atlantic’s Debra Kamin, a burgeoning market of dark-tourism travel agencies will book travelers on excursions to war-torn Afghanistan, “the most restive regions of the Caucasus,” Muammar el-Qaddafi’s old compound in Tripoli, Kiev’s Independence Square and even North Korea (with permission from Dear Leader). “Yes, there are human-rights violations in North Korea, and yes, travel there does raise ethical questions,” she writes, but it may be that allowing the world a peek at North Korea and places like it will draw inquisitive eyes to those same issues, which are in dire need of international attention.

“If I hadn’t gone as a tourist to North Korea, I never would have set up my news website,” Chad O’Carroll, founder of NK News, tells her. “So you have to think about not just the effect that travel has on North Koreans, but also on the tourists.”

Perhaps therein is the root of concerns with dark tourism. What do we find more worrisome about the commercialization of tragic places: that they might lose a bit of their dignity in the process, or that we might lose a bit of ours?

And maybe conflating dark tourism with pure pursuit of profit neglects the fact that humans are curious – and our curiosity isn’t limited to the cheery and life affirming. “There’s no such thing as a dark tourist,” Mr. Stone tells Ms. Kamin. “Only people interested in the world around them.”