What is dark tourism and can it ever be ethical?

26 October, 2022|Types of travel|
What is dark tourism and can it ever be ethical? The Travel Psychologist

Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Auschwitz, Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl are places that you will have heard of. These locations and our knowledge of the tragedies that occurred are etched in our minds in a much more solid way than our high school trigonometry. It is natural for death and disaster to ignite human curiosity, and for our minds to remember stories related to this. But what motivates us to visit these sights and is this a good thing?

According to Dr Lea Kuznik in her chapter ‘Fifty shades of dark stories’:

Dark tourism is a special type of tourism, which involves visits to tourist attractions and destinations that are associated with death, suffering, disasters and tragedies.”

There are a number of factors that motivate people to visit dark tourism sights (Kuznik, 2018). These range from curiosity and horror to empathy, remembrance and education. For those who were involved in some way with the tragedies, nostalgia and survivor’s guilt may also be important reasons to visit.

I’ve visited a few sights myself that would be considered dark tourism. The most memorable was Pearl Harbour in Hawai’i. It was a strange experience to visit such a tragic place especially when it was part of a day tour of the island and included much more light-hearted activities like visiting a pineapple plantation. I found myself feeling very subdued. I was especially surprised to see families taking selfies together. Whilst I don’t want to judge, it struck me as a little insensitive.

Whilst what I witnessed was a fairly minor transgression. Dr Nitasha Sharma (2020) a Lecturer in Dark Tourism at the University of Alabama, points out that tourist behaviour can be much more disrespectful and inappropriate:

“There are numerous examples of tourist transgressive behavior reported in the media that have sparked moral outrage time and again. Examples include: tourists touching the dead bodies at Trunyan cemetery in Bali; tourists holding an inflatable sex doll at the 9/11 Memorial in New York; tourists taking selfies on the railway tracks at Auschwitz; tourists taking photographs with inappropriate poses at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; tourists indulging in artwork or graffiti and defacing sacred monuments and buildings, and other acts of vandalism.”

Why might people behave disrespectfully when visiting dark tourism sights?

Sharma (2020) explained that tourists may disengage from their usual values when behaving disrespectfully, and this can happen by the following processes:

· Reconstruing the conduct so that it is not considered immoral (e.g. “it’s not that bad”)

· Minimising personal involvement (e.g. “I wasn’t that involved” or “others were doing worse”)

· Misrepresenting or discounting the negative consequences (e.g. “It didn’t hurt anyone”)

· Blaming or devaluing the recipients of the unethical act (e.g. “they’re just too sensitive”)

As well as the above, being on a trip can make individuals feel less identifiable than in their usual day to day lives, or they may feel a sense that the usual rules don’t’ apply. This is of course incorrect, but can give us an insight into why people may behave in such a way that we may struggle to understand.

The way that a dark tourism sights have been marketed and ‘sold’ can also be important for how people behave. In order to understand this further, I interviewed Dr Sharma. She explained that one of the problems with dark tourism is the commercialisation of death and tragedy. I’m sure we can all think of examples of when ghost tours or similar have been sold as a fun and light-hearted entertainment.

Dr Sharma also explained that Eastern traditions are often ‘exoticized’ for a Western tourist audience. This involves traditional rituals being portrayed as different or unusual in a way that is romanticised, and marketed for entertainment value. As thoughtful tourists it is important for us to recognise that ultimately this is disrespectful.

Can dark tourism ever be responsible? 

I think so; as an example I would consider Berlin’s history museums and memorials to be respectful and sensitive forms or dark tourism. These aim to educate and provide opportunities for remembrance. The information provides insight into the political context that contributed to the tragedies in a way that educates openly and does not glamourise or aim to entertain. The memorials humanise by telling the stories of people who died in the tragedies, and it hits home that these were real people. This helps us to understand and appreciate the magnitude of what happened.

What should I consider when visiting a dark tourism sight?

According to Dr Sharma “Since dark tourism sights often deal with taboo and polarizing topics which can be sensitive for certain stakeholder groups, the first step is to be respectful and sensitive towards the history of the sight, the victims and the communities involved.

This involves actions like carefully following signs, rules, and regulations at the sight and being careful of one’s body language. For example, if a sight prevents photography, it is advisable that tourists follow that strictly. While sometimes it is okay to take photos as a reminder of painful memories, it is insensitive to step on sacred sights, monuments and objects or pose for selfies. In a nutshell, I would say that tourist behaviour at dark tourism sights must involve the 3 A’s : Acknowledge, Awareness, and Act Responsible.

(a) Acknowledge the history of the sight and trauma of the victims 

(b) Acknowledge one’s own privilege and positionality while encountering death rituals or traumatic events that are culturally different from your own

(c) Be aware of the rules, regulations, rituals, and customs associated with the culture and the dark tourism sight in question, and

(d) Act in a responsible manner.” 

What a perfect way to sum up this topic. There are genuine reasons to visit dark tourism sights, but acknowledging the tragedy, being self-aware and behaving responsibly are key to being respectful when we visit.


Dark tourism: when tragedy meets tourism | National Geographic

Dark Tourism | Psychology Today United Kingdom

Kuznik, L. (2018). Fifty shades of dark stories. In Mehdi Khosrow-Pour, D.B.A. (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology (Fourth Edition). (pp.4077-4087). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Sharma, N. (2020). Dark tourism and moral disengagement in liminal spaces. Tourism Geographies22(2), 273-297.

Sharma, N. (2022). Acknowledging the Shades of Grey: The Past, Present and Future of Dark Tourism in India. In Indian Tourism (pp. 125-142). Emerald Publishing Limited.

If you liked this article please check out our previous post What is food tourism and why is it growing in popularity?