David Farrier, in his Netflix documentary, Dark Tourist, doesn’t go into a lot of detail when defining what it is he’s actually investigating. During the first episode of his multi-part series, the laid-back New Zealander defines dark tourism (also referred to as disaster tourism) as “a global phenomenon where people avoid the ordinary, and instead head for holidays in war zones, disaster sites, and other offbeat destinations.” By the third episode, the definition has morphed into a catchier sound bite: “a global phenomenon where people choose to vacation in places associated with death and destruction.” What do we gain, and what do we lose by participating in dark tourism? Are we simply voyeurs of the misery of others?
What is Dark Tourism, and Why are we Drawn to it?
What is Dark/Disaster Tourism?
The term “dark tourism” was coined in 1996 by Malcolm Foley and J. John Lennon, two researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University who were preoccupied with the touristic appeal of sites associated with the life and death (mostly death) of former US President John. F Kennedy. According to Foley and Lennon, dark tourism referred to “phenomena which encompass the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites.” Since then, the concept has expanded both in and out of academia to encompass a plethora of tourist experiences that range from the socially acceptable to the downright transgressive. Today there is grave tourism, the saving grace of many historical cemeteries; Holocaust tourism, the unfortunately named phenomenon that attracted a whopping 2 million visitors to Auschwitz in 2017; and there’s urban exploration or “ruin porn,” the craze that compels photographers to venture into abandoned and ravaged locations (not before getting their tetanus shots, we hope).
Over the years, some locations in particular have become synonymous with the concept of dark tourism. For example, the catacombs of Paris have become quintessential to the practice. They are now both open to the public and appeal to a vast array of visitors—from history buffs to dark tourists hoping to get physically closer to the remains of Paris’ ancient inhabitants. More obscure locations, like the abandoned shuttle hangars in Russia, remain staples of public consciousness and deep interest despite their inaccessibility. After all, it takes a very particular person to brave Russian authorities in order to explore a Cold War space-race facility. (Find the Top Dark Tourism Destinations here.)
We routinely insist on experiencing misery for ourselves in order to believe that misery is real
In his search for “the ultimate dark tourism experiences”, David Farrier provides snapshots to illustrate just how popular the concept of dark tourism really is. One moment David is cradling a statue of Santa Muerte in Mexico City, the next he’s exploring an abandoned arcade in post-tsunami Fukushima. Through eight episodes and 13 countries, he is equal parts unfazed and mystified by his experiences, but he rarely ever stops to examine why he - or anyone, really - would choose to engage with “death and disaster” as part of a vacation destination.
Why are we Drawn to Disaster Tourism?
Motivation is perhaps the central question of dark / disaster tourism. It’s easy enough to define the “what” of dark tourism - people visiting places associating with death and disaster - but trickier to define the “why.” Why visit musty catacombs in Paris and Palermo, when the technicolor beaches of Barcelona are just a stone’s throw away? What could possibly be the draw behind vacationing around death and disaster? A commonly cited framework for dark tourism is by Dr. Ria Dunkley, from the University of Glasgow, who suggests a number of motivations that might precipitate visits to dark tourism sites. The quest for contemplation and introspection, for example, may prompt visits to cemeteries and gravesites, while the need to see evidence of a particular tragic event may compel visitors to Ground Zero. Sometimes, it is a demand for authenticity that prompts visitors to partake in “slum tourism”; other times, it’s sensation-seeking that motivates otherwise placid citizens to stand in front of and hope they get out alive.
There’s nothing keeping middle-and-upper-class Western tourists from learning about death and disaster from the comfort of our homes—but we routinely insist on experiencing misery for ourselves in order to believe that misery is real.
In the novel Half-Life, writer Shelley Jackson explores a fictional America so unable to relate to the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that it drops a series of atomic bombs on itself in an attempt to empathize. It’s a sordid idea, but an apt illustration of a growing lack of empathy amongst well-off Westerners. Detached as we are from many worldwide tragedies, we can’t seem to be able to relate to other people’s suffering until we’ve personally experienced it (and marked it down in our travel diaries as “suitably traumatic”).
And yet it’s unclear what this newfound empathy is supposed to bring forth. In the first episode of Dark Tourist, Farrier joins a border-crossing tour that attempts to recreate the conditions experienced by Mexican migrants making their way into the US. In a brief moment of insight, Farrier chats to his fellow tourists, who nod along and conclude that they are, as a whole, “totally privileged.” But what, then, are they going to do with that insight? Is the acknowledgement of privilege a means to an end (is it going to spur them to political action?), or an end in and of itself?
Dark Tourism: Benefiting from the Tragedy of Others
While every form of tourism carries its own baggage, if you will, dark tourism runs the risk of turning sites of very real pain into backdrops for Western introspection, a sort of Eat Pray Love for the morbidly inclined. Farrier himself, by the end of episode two, has one such moment after visiting Aokigahara, Japan’s most prevalent suicide site. Having seen the site, he claims, he’s happier than ever to be alive.
It’s the perfect ending to any vacation, and one that any tourist is likely to find inspirational: who doesn’t want to return home with a newfound lust for life? It bears questioning, however, how one arrives at it—and how many lives were lost to make it happen.