How can I be ethical when visiting dark tourism sites?

9 April, 2024|Types of travel|

How can I be ethical when visiting dark tourism sites? The Travel PsychologistDr Nicola Cann, Educational Psychologist & Regular Contributor

People have always been fascinated by sites and events associated with disaster and tragedy. So much so that there is even a sector of the tourism industry tailored to meet the desire we have to visit these places. Dark tourism has arguably been around for centuries, with early examples including guided tours to watch hangings in England, and audiences flocking to watch Roman gladiator games (Lennon, 2017). Today, dark tourism exists in a more sanitised form, and is growing in popularity. Many of us will have visited Pompeii or Auschwitz, and no visit to New York is now complete without a visit to the 9/11 memorial. 

So why the appeal? It’s natural to be intrigued by sites associated with human tragedy. We visit such places in order to learn and understand, to connect with our own history and identity, and out of simple curiosity (Morgano et al., 2022). Dark tourism sites can also offer stories of hope and solidarity, elicit empathy for victims, and help us to understand the culture of the place we are visiting. 

Whilst some dark tourism sites can feel exploitative, benefits to the hosting community include income from tourism, preservation of historical sites and artefacts, and an opportunity to tell the stories of victims. 

So what makes a dark tourism experience exploitative versus educational? Or sinister versus hope-giving? And how do we, as visitors, make sense of dark tourism from a moral perspective? 

How do we make moral decisions about dark tourism?

Many of us will have found ourselves being caught up in the travel experience and perhaps visiting places that, in the planning stages of our trip, we had ruled out for moral reasons. When I visited Vietnam last year for example I booked a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh, and was encouraged to buy an add-on experience of shooting an AK47 during my visit. Everyone else was doing it, and before I’d really considered my moral position on this I found myself aiming the barrel of my gun towards a target, while a bored looking attendant got ready to reload my gun. 

This example illustrates the power of the social context when we’re making moral choices. Social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2002) emphasises the role of the context over the individual, and suggests that moral actions are the product of the complex interplay between personal and social influences. We don’t make moral choices in a vacuum. 

The way we respond to our social context when making moral choices depends on a number of self-regulatory processes. We make comparisons between our own moral stance and that of the social context we’re in at the time. This can prove especially tricky when we’re travelling as we are outside of our usual social context, and away from the usual parameters by which we judge our own behaviours. This makes us more likely to experience an ethical shift.

We all want to believe that we are good people, so we use a range of self-regulatory processes to monitor our own conduct, adjust it to the social situation, and then justify our behaviour afterwards. This allows us to maintain our belief that we are good people even when we have shifted our ethical boundaries (Sharma, 2021).

Social cognitive theory suggests there are four main self-regulatory processes through which we make moral choices:

  1. Considering the situation to decide how acceptable our behaviour is in that context.

“Maybe I wouldn’t usually do this but in this context it feels ok.”

2. Evaluating how much personal responsibility or involvement we have.

“This feels uncomfortable but everyone else on the tour is doing it so I’ll go along with it.”

3. Judging the consequences of our actions.

“What damage will it do if I visit this place?”

4. Considering the perspectives of the ‘victims’.

“Does this experience feel like a respectful way to represent these people’s stories?”

These self-regulatory processes and moral choices are also informed by the dark tourism setting. Often such places are geared towards a positive tourist experience, so strategies may be employed to minimise our discomfort. For example, subtle use of language can dehumanise victims and shift blame, which will influence our perspective of those victims and our sense of responsibility towards them. Tours that are marketed as exciting and action packed may in fact be distracting us from their more transgressive nature. So in order to make good moral choices we need to pay attention to these contextual factors alongside the self-regulatory processes we’re employing. 

Advice for visiting dark tourism sites ethically

Sometimes a moral shift can lead us to behave in ways we’re not totally comfortable with, meaning we leave our dark tourism experience with an unsettling sense of guilt or confusion. At other times it can be positive, allowing us to be culturally responsive to the situation we find ourselves in. In fact a degree of moral disengagement may be necessary and helpful in order to visit the more challenging dark tourism sites and learn from the experience. 

Here are some ideas about how to give yourself the best chance of making the right moral choices for yourself when visiting dark tourism sites:

  • Do your research. If you choose to visit a dark tourism site, know what to expect so that you can be emotionally prepared. 
  • Actively consider your motivations for visiting and decide what you want to get out of the experience.
  • Understand that you might experience feelings of guilt and discomfort and decide how you will manage this.
  • Know your own limits so that you are less likely to be caught up in the moment and engage in an experience that you later regret.
  • Critically evaluate the dark tourism experience. What language is being used? How are people being represented? What information is not being presented?
  • Take responsibility for your actions e.g. make yourself aware of the rules and customs associated with the culture and dark tourism site you are visiting. 
  • Reflect on your own position and culture in relation to the dark tourism site. Acknowledge and respect any differences.
  • Make sure you visit the dark tourism site in a way that allows you to learn from the experience e.g. going with a reputable tour guide, or with friends who you are able to have challenging conversations with.

If you enjoyed this article check out our previous article What is dark tourism and can it ever be ethical?


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of moral education, 31(2), 101-119.

Lennon, J. (2017). Dark tourism.

Magano, J., Fraiz-Brea, J. A., & Leite, Â. (2022). Dark tourists: profile, practices, motivations and wellbeing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(19), 12100.

Sharma, N. (2021). Dark tourism and moral disengagement in liminal spaces. In Liminality in Tourism (pp. 55-79). Routledge.