Dark tourism: should people make a profit on death and tragedy?

Dark tourism is nothing new, but with the rising trend of social media, the debate seems to heat up. The local industry is anticipating the dark tourism demand by organising tours and taking tourists to places where bad or even lurid things happened. But should they really? And can we label tourist attractions that are built on death and criminal events as “responsible tourism”? In this blog, I’ll tell you more about the dark sides of dark tourism and what I believe needs to change.

“Dark tourism? I don’t even know what that means”

Dark tourism is a form of tourism where tourists visit sites where suffering and death has taken place. This can be either through a museum, an attraction or an exhibition. So, if you’ve ever been to a war museum (and who hasn’t), you’re a dark tourist yourself! Some people take dark tourism a step further though and base their entire holiday on visiting places associated with death and tragedy. For some this might seem as a lugubrious way of spending their free time, for others it’s the perfect way to trail off the beaten paths and experience things that are uncommon.

“In dark tourism nothing is taboo, and people love it” – David Ferries

Dark tourist Netflix documentary

To learn more about the matter, David Ferries made a Netflix documentary on dark tourism as he travelled around the world to visit so-called dark tourist spots. He doesn’t delve in the motives of dark tourists too deeply but gives the viewer an interesting overview of the place of dark tourism in the current tourism industry. During his visit in Medellin, for example, we see locals making money from the terror Pablo Escobar created. In Northern Mexico, David participates in an extreme simulation tour where tourists can become illegal immigrants crossing the American border in a 6-hour excursion. In Johannesburg he bikes through the slums guided by a local to take a peak in the lives of the poorest black communities in South Africa. He also visits several nuclear tourism destinations such as Fukushima and Kazakhstan where he, together with other dark tourists, defies high radiation with danger to their own lives. and bikes through the slums of Johannesburg with a local guide.

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Ethical dilemma

Above examples are only a selection of the destinations David Ferries has visited, but I feel they clarify and represent the concept of dark tourism quite well. David has a nice way of explaining the popularity of this tourism segment, stating: “You don’t think so much about the impact until you are right in the middle of it”. But how ethically acceptable is dark tourism? And is it okay to take advantage of dark and terrible events that have caused people pain and suffering? And what about the tourists? Are they travelling to learn more, to create awareness and to reflect on what has happened? Is it plain curiosity? Or do they want to show off on social media? And if so, why would that be wrong?


Personally, I feel there is nothing fundamentally wrong with visiting tragic sites as long as it’s done with the right intentions. There’s a difference between tourists that travel to learn more about a land’s history and tourists that visit so-called dark sites to post pictures on social media to show to their friends. The same goes for tour developers. While there are tour operators with a sensitive and respectful approach towards the dark events, there are also ones that create a show by making events over-dramatic by making up facts and circumstances.

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The dark side of social media

Nowadays, social media makes it easy to share pictures of holiday destinations. These pictures are seen and shared all over the internet. But the problem with the internet is that opinions are formed within the blink of an eye. This means that if tourists post pictures of interesting dark sites, on Twitter or Facebook, followers may believe that’s all there’s to it. Medellin? Drug city! Johannesburg? Slums! In this case, other tourist sites are overlooked, causing tourists to massively turn to the dark side without considering the stunning view, the modern art or even better: the daily life of the locals.

It’s a common thing

So, if you’re planning on being a dark tourist on your next holiday (and believe me, that’s okay), make sure you’re a self-conscious one. Look around, learn, and most important: respect the site and the people showing you around. Be curious, ask questions and look beyond the sensation of tragedy. This way, there’s nothing wrong with visiting war zones, nuclear sites and murder spots, as they keep history alive and teach visitors about what happened in the past. At the same time, dark tourism done respectfully ensures income for local communities. And that’s a good thing on its own.

When do you think dark tourists (and those who offer it) take it too far? Join the discussion on Facebook!

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