Guide to history of dark tourism, why it matters, associated risks and top destinations

The history of Dark tourism is long and interesting. It was a pronounced phenomenon during the middle ages. It assumed a huge proportion in the Romantic period at the later stage of eighteenth century. Mass cemeteries, gruesome dungeons and public punishment gallows, pillories and decapitation grounds have lured throngs of visitors since ages bygone.

The bloodstained battlefield of water loo drew inquisitive tourists’ attention way back in 1816 and after. It is his primitive instinct that has motivated man to get turned on by the macabre. The grisly scenes left behind by bloodshed, disaster and death perhaps gives him that kick of excitement which is met by visiting these chilling sites. In Pompeii, Italy the intensive damage inflicted by the fuming Mt. Vesuvius upon mankind and property were great attractions of Dark tourism during the Romantic era and is still a big tourist draw.

History of dark tourism:

Auschwitz Concentration camp

In the broader sense, dark tourism can be considered as the oldest form of tourism and also a recent development. Earlier pilgrimages that constituted the only form of travel included various sites of death, burial grounds or assassination sites. People used to travel to pay respect to the departed souls and recollect the memories of long past.

The term “dark tourism” didn’t evolve as a distinct niche. It has been a recent form of tourism evolving in the early or mid-nineties where people took special interests in visiting some of the world’s disaster sites like the Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan and Chernobyl in Ukraine. The term “dark tourism” came into existence in 1996 coined by Lennon and Foley, the faculty members of the Department of Hospitality, Tourism & Leisure Management at Glasgow Caledonian University.

What constitutes Dark Tourism?

Massacres and bloodshed perhaps stirs the animal instinct of human beings.  Let us have a glance at few of the yesteryear events, practices and rituals that has contributed to the history of dark tourism.

Gladiatorial combats in Roman amphitheaters:

roman amphitheatres

The ancient bloody spectacles enacted in the Roman amphitheatres for gladiatorial combats of fight till death were tempting enough. Huge mass of frenzied crowd watched with intense pleasure drawing in delight at the gory sights. Clash of steel rung in the air, and valiant fighters fought single handedly with hungry lions and charging bulls until they kissed the dust.

Public hangings and crucifixion brought forth thrill and joy! The emperors flanked by the choicest womenfolk took pleasure from the scenes of shattering bones and ripping off guts while enjoying the most exhilarating sips of ale. Aren’t these enough clues to establish the fact that Thanatourism  (alternate term for Dark Tourism) has a confirmed historical root?

Assassination site of John Kennedy:

A famous site of celebrity assassinations like in Dallas where John F Kennedy was shot qualifies to be another historical evidence of man’s obsession with Dark tourism destinations.

Ritual of the Central American Mayan Cult:

Central American Mayan Cult

A burning example of Dark tourism was what happened in the Mayan cult in Central American in the Meso American era back in 250 -900AD. Human sacrifice in its most terrifying form entertained the spectators and devout religious followers.

Decapitation and removal of the throbbing heart of the victim was the most common method that was met with loud applause from the cheering crowd. This macabre ritual was usually performed by a team of priests at the top of a pyramid which was in fact a sacrificial temple. Offering was directed to Sun God and other deities to bring in a good harvest or conquest over enemy. The sacrifices had a religious motive and were great crowd pullers.

After the job done, the headless torso was thrown down the steps and collected at the base of the pyramid by the animated spectators set on a strange mix of frenzy, excitement and a passionate religious compulsion. What can be more hideous than the Mayan crowd’s response to a still more awful method of extinguishing human life on a massive scale? This was the historical model of Dark tourism gruesome and tragic.

Weird religious belief of Mexican Aztecs:

However, the central Mexican Aztecs beat the Mayans in cruelty and enormity of carnage. Religious beliefs led to massive human sacrifices, which was enjoyed by people from near and far and from all walks of life. More important the social standing of the victim more boisterous was the spectator reaction!

Cult of human sacrifice of Inca Civilization:

Inca Civilization

Down south in the continent of South America, the primitive Inca civilization thrived along the slopes of Chilean and Peruvian Andes. The cult of human sacrifice was rampant and practiced in public to appease the Sun god and other gods and goddesses.

People gathered around the sacrificial altars with a sacred zeal burning in their eyes. However, post Spanish invasion the rituals faded into oblivion. The citations of cultural inclination in the entire Americas and Europe clearly indicate that Dark tourism and the fun drawn from watching human sufferings were very much alive in the past. Slaves were made to move across countries amid inhuman hardships, death and agony towards an unknown destiny. They did not dare stop in their journey risking the rain of whipping that came down from their ruthless masters. The men and women were made bonded labors to toil and get involved in laborious construction work or were made to work in the field.

The strong and the valiant were destined for a gladiatorial career like in medieval Rome for example. Some of the pretty women were traded in the market in order to live an abused existence. The aged and the children were simply left to perish! All these distresses and its repercussions were relished by an assemblage of viewership indicating Thanatourism is quite an age old trend.

Why dark tourism matters?

Despite its association with the macabre and destruction Dark tourism is a form of tourism one cannot ignore. Whether it is an unethical form of tourist entertainment is purely a matter of debate, but it is a fact that Dark tourism occupies a significant share of tourism industry as a whole. Movement of tourists towards disaster sites generates money improving the economic status of those who lived through the holocaust.

A learning opportunity


More the frequency of tourist visits to the disaster site more exposure would follow, and the site would come under the global limelight with all its prominence and will surely make its presence felt in the world of tour and travel. Catastrophes have struck in the past. Who knows they may strike in the future as well. But the cycle of life has to go on. Future generations of those suffered in a calamity must not sit and brood in gloom and sorrow. There is no way out until they shake off the nightmare

Dark tourism has always been a matter of interest among academic circles. Precisely as to what exactly draws a tourist to a place that had once been a witness to an array of disasters like genocides and large scale human sufferings is still a baffling question shrouded in enigma. Quite surprisingly, there may well be evidences where a tourist fond of calm and pristine locale may at the same time opt for a disaster struck destination or for that matter a devout tourist having an inclination towards religious sites may find Thanatourism site appealing.

Is it the legendary Dr Jekyle and Mr Hyde psychology common to a few stray cases is underway or this bizarre tourist choice can be identified with a large behavioral sample? The entire issue has been focused under the lens, and to draw a conclusion would be too early and hasty decision unless further investigation for the real motive behind Thanatourism is initiated.

From the psychological angle, to know more about tourist preference is a significant criterion to frame strategies and policies, which would support the growth of tourism industry and lend strength to its bottom-line. Even if we delve deep into the minds of tourists turned on by dark tourism, subtle shift in preferences might be noticed.

Some may show interest in sites where a volcanic eruption or a devastating quake might have wiped out human lives and property changing the land topography and the character of local vegetation. Others might be drawn towards destinations stained with mass annihilations and punishment camps. Is it the dormant sadistic side in us that wakes up at the lure of an equally blood stained fodder is a difficult question, but nevertheless it contributes to the future of tourism no matter how intense is the stigma that colors the impression of Dark tourism in the eyes of the cynics and critics.

Assessing the social, political and economical impact


The fact that mass destruction of human life has social, political and economical impact can hardly be overemphasized. History confirms it, and the media shouts on the grossness of the crime and may be praiseful or severely critical of the local administration on how it handled the crisis, be it a historical or recent event. The powerful factor that drives the tourist is-what might have been the mental state of the victims moments before everything blacked out in the most horrible manner.

The call to some tourist is irresistible, and they decide of exploring the fabled site to have a field exposure to the infamous place and it looked like where people died in large numbers. Even some over enthusiasts would likely to hunt for fresh clues and relics, undiscovered as yet that could vouch the dreadful incident that happened long back in the past. Dark tourism is just not another form of tourism. It has a connotation that matters.

How to deal with the risks related to dark tourism


Dark tourism is a different form of tourism, associated with death. It provides an opportunity to people to visit the destinations and places that are associated with death or suffering. Basically, these are the disaster zones, which are little dangerous but it is still becoming popular with people.

Many countries promote dark tourism. Some of them are Italy, Japan, Ukraine, Cambodia, and the United states. These destinations and countries have realized that in past, many disasters resulted in pain and grief but, now they can be put to use for commercial gains. Those disaster sites are becoming very popular with the tourists and they visit the place to know about the disaster and its causes. This has been resulted in promoting the sights as most attractive tourism destinations.

Dark tourism- A different and important side of tourism that cannot be neglected:

Though, it is also known as unethical form of tourism and is a matter of debate, it is also a great way to know about our mistakes from the past. This can help us to take further steps so as not to repeat in future. On the other hand, it also plays an important role to improve the economical condition of the region and the tourism destination. This helps the local government to generate the sources of income for them.

Apart from the thrill and excitement, it also has its different side as people may face various difficulties during their visit to these sites. One has to evaluate the risks related to dark tourism before stepping out. Safety and security of tourists are the major problems that every destination faces. It becomes vital to deal with major problems and some of them are as follows:

Risks related to Dark Tourism:

Risk evaluation

It seems interesting to visit the disaster and sites that has been gone through pain in the past. Some sites are still under critical disaster situations and visiting those sites can be dangerous for tourists. Before finalizing the trip, get the risk factors, preventions and precautions thoroughly evaluated. Will you be able to bear the terrible scenes and narrations related to those sites?

Many tourists enthusiastic of exploring the notorious concentration camps in Poland often felt it would have been better not to visit as the stories had a deep mental impact. People may not be mentally strong enough to go through the history of killing and macabre. These are important things to be assessed.


Safety is the major thing that we have to consider before planning our trip to such places or destinations. Countries or destinations that promote dark tourism bare associated with death and situations that can lead to death. This can put tourists in danger so, it is vital to ensure that your chosen destinations are safe for you.


Many dark tourism destinations have high crime rate, which can be dangerous for the visitor. Therefore, it is essential to hire tourism service provider who can offer best tourism facilities and can make sure that you will be safe during your trip.


People prefer sites that have gone through some chemical disaster or nuclear disaster in the past. It is good to know more about the accident but you may face and can have reaction with that chemical explosion. Nuclear has its effects for decades, which can harm people years after. In order to reduce risks of these types it is better to prefer special guided tours. Experts can help you to deal with this problem and can guide you better.

Getting misguided:

It can be little dangerous to travel to a strange destination as there are people who can con and misguide you. It is better to gather authentic information about the destination. You can also hire a companion or guide who can guide you better and can help you in any problem. Visitors can visit the official information site of the destination to get authentic information. You can also take an advice of experts and can plan accordingly.

Acting responsibly while touring the dark tourism sites can help in dealing with risks related to dark tourism. Each site has its own rules and regulations and adhering to those is a must. One should not behave daringly violating the rules and invite unnecessary trouble which can be life threatening in extreme cases.

Dark tourism is becoming immense popular these days. Safety and security is the main things that every tourist should consider before embarking on their journey.

Top ten destinations of Dark Tourism

Top ten destinations of Dark Tourism


Though weird, the popularity of Dark tourism is on the rise. Exactly what features draw the tourist to sites of death and destruction is a matter of scholarly interest and under serious study. Human psychology is a much researched matter and it is the myriad variations of human mind that some are drawn towards destination of death and massacre.

History bears all the imprints of gruesome human acts, which teaches us repeatedly to care for mankind. While man is helpless to nature’s wrath but it is the collective human effort that helps to rebuild from the massive destruction. Here an attempt has been made to enlist ten most macabre destinations in the world which have won tourists penchant.

1)The Nazi Concentration Camps:

The Nazi Concentration Camps

The Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oswiecim, Dachau and Buchenwald are grim reminders of the horrific persecution suffered by the Jews, Polish and non Nazis and stamped out and reduced to charred remains in the most grisly manner. The gruesome sites conserve the reminiscence of over one million poor souls who met their tragic ends in the most pathetic way. The relics of lethal gas chambers would set your hair erect. Guided tours and well preserved museum across this macabre site have made it a well known Death Tourism destination.

2)Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan:

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan

These legendary cities of Japan bear the scar of atomic bombing. It is a stigma to the human race and yet large crowd of tourists find this Dark tourism destination a place of massive appeal. The Hiroshima Peace Museum sees millions of tourist visits every year. It exhibits the possessions of those poor victims perished under the mammoth impact of the atomic bomb dropped from Enola Gay, the plane back in 1945. The site is presented in two parts exhibiting how the city looked like before and after the bombing.

3) Ground Zero, New York, USA:

Ground Zero, New York, USA

The world shivers at this name. The air raids inflicted on world trade centre and pentagon by the terrorists is perhaps one of the worst crimes committed against humanity. The terror struck on 11th September 2001 led to a large scale destruction of human life and property. A memorial and museum have been set up pulling in a large number of dark tourists every year. People gather to recollect those horrifying moments with a silent prayer that such an incident is never repeated in the history of mankind.

4)Ypres, Belgium:


This strife torn central European site had been a ground for bloodbath that was noted for the most vicious battle fought during the World War 1. Battles fought between the Germans and the allied forces was long and fierce which happened in 1914-15, and the blood drenched ground still appeals the tourists on a global scale. This town has a special mention in the history of first and second world wars. However, the name was difficult for pronunciation and the British army called the place ‘Wipers’, a place lethal enough to wipe out the human race altogether.

5)Khmer Rouge mayhem in Cambodia:


The dictatorship of general Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge regime had released a reign of terror and atrocities among the civilians which erased almost a fourth of Cambodia’s population. Mounds of skulls and dental remains of the poor victims shock the visiting tourists. Phnompenh had earned the name of Cambodia’s killing fields especially Choeung Ek presents a horrible flash back of the spell of panic and terror unleashed in the Khmer Rouge regime.

It was when the urban dwellers refused to move to the rural areas and engage in collective farming, a policy that Pol Pot’s communistic ideals tried to enforce on the civilians. Torture and execution followed the defiance leading to gory outcome, and the place turned out to be one of the destinations of Death Tourism.

6)Old Melbourne Gaol, Australia:


This infamous prison in fact has a dark and hideous past as execution of 135 prisoners took place just here. The Gaol houses the oldest prison in Melbourne. Notorious gangsters like Squizzy Taylor and the bushranger Ned Kelly spent their dark hours within the walls of this dungeon and were eventually executed.

There is an execution area for the tourists to explore and quite ironically enough Ned Kelly’s death mask is on public display. Police city watch house and the magistrate’s court are other attractions of Melbourne Gaol. There is a popular night tour with a hangman to guide you around and explain its history in finer details.

7)Chernobyl, Ukraine:


Twenty seven years after the mishap, the enthusiasts take a tour around the power plant. The tourists get to see the killer reactor and the dead town of Pripyat. A tour around the ghost town brings back harrowing memories of the nuclear calamity in which victims perished.

The tourists may visit the village of Opachychi, meet and have conversation with the re-settlers who were evacuated and moved to their villages. Though the progress of human civilization continues its forward march, this incident will continue to haunt reminding of the lapses and faults to be strictly avoided in the path of growth. Photography is permitted.

8) Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris:

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

This largest cemetery in Paris is surprisingly a crowd puller. Many celebrities lie in eternal sleep under ground in this famous graveyard. The mortal remains of Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, Marcel Proust, Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf are laid to rest here that continue to draw in visitors from all over the world. Tourists gathering here love to recall the contributions of these stalwarts in various aspects of mankind and pay due respect.

9)Pompeii, Italy:

Pompeii, Italy

This ancient Roman city was ruined to ashes in AD 79 when Mt Vesuvius spewed volcanic lava extinguishing a large number of human lives. The plaster casts of victims of volcanic eruption present a touching accolade to those struggled in the last moments of death and agony. Mt Vesuvius is still active and looms ominously over the Bay of Naples.

This event has turned Pompeii is one of the famous tourist destinations in Italy. The catastrophe that occurred in the past is a strong lure and appealing enough for the tourist to make a visit. An estimated 2000 victims were buried alive beneath the molten lava, their bodies forming a permanent cast in the volcanic wreckage. A scene ghastly no doubt but is still a powerful tourist puller.

10)Titanic Museum, Belfast, Ireland:

Titanic Museum, Belfast, Ireland

Not in their wildest of dreams the crew and passengers of Titanic thought it would be their ultimate journey while boarding the world famous luxury liner, which was supposed to be ‘unsinkable’. But fate proved otherwise in the maiden voyage of Titanic, a black saga in the history of marine voyage. This museum has been inaugurated to commemorate the centenary since the luxury cruise ship TITANIC went down under the deep carrying crews and passengers into the depths of abysmal death.

This museum is built in site of the legendary workshop where Titanic was built. The artifacts and vestiges of the sunk ship narrates the tale starting from the ship’s engineering drawing, construction and its culmination into death under the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It is the most infamous ocean tragedy that took affluent passengers on a journey from high end luxury and mirth to the terrifying grips of freezing death!

Key Drivers of Dark Tourism

Activities in Dark Tourism

Things to do post Dark Tourism

Essential components of dark tourism

Do’s and don’ts in Dark Tourism

Budgeting Dark Tourism

Best practices to be implemented in Dark Tourism

Preparations for dark tourism

Is dark tourism for you?

Importance of planning in Dark Tourism

How to get more information on Dark Tourism

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Dr Prem Jagyasi and Team (C)

Dr Prem is an award winning strategic leader, renowned author, publisher and highly acclaimed global speaker. Aside from publishing a bevy of life improvement guides, Dr Prem runs a network of 50 niche websites that attracts millions of readers across the globe. Thus far, Dr Prem has traveled to more than 40 countries, addressed numerous international conferences and offered his expert training and consultancy services to more than 150 international organizations. He also owns and leads a web services and technology business, supervised and managed by his eminent team. Dr Prem further takes great delight in travel photography.

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