Dark tourism: chasing the macabre

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Alexander Blecher

Max Kelly
Deputy Editor-in-Chief

Dark tourism, also known as grief tourism or black tourism, is an ever-growing phenomenon in which sightseers chase grotesque or macabre destinations, often places associated with suffering and tragedy. These dark places are wide-ranging and encompass human and economic disasters, as well as sites of atrocities and genocide.

The Chilean town of La Noria is not one of the most well-known dark tourist destinations but it is perhaps one of the most intriguing. Located within the sprawling 600-mile Atacama desert, the village became a successful salt mining town after its creation in 1826. However, the effects of the Great Depression rendered the town invaluable and it was eventually abandoned. The deserted land has open graves containing skeletons of the inauspicious residents. Visitors have reported hearing screams and shouts with no discernible source, whilst photographers have captured ghostly images.

Other dark tourism hotspots include sites of catastrophic nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl in Pripyat in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan. Four separate tour companies run excursions into Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, while so far in 2018 around 94,000 visitors have visited the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Less depressing but still incredibly macabre sites are also popular dark tourism destinations. The Sedlec Ossuary, 43 miles from the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague, is a renowned “bone church” which attracts over 200,000 visitors a year. It is estimated that between 40,000-70,000 skeletons are housed in the attraction. The catacombs that lie underneath Paris, believed to hold the remains of more than six million people, are perhaps one of the most popular dark tourism locations.

Furthermore, the spine-chilling Isla de las Muñecas, Island of Dolls, in Xochimicho, Mexico has a much lesser association with mass death or tragedy but is perhaps the most frightening location to visit. Local legend states that the caretaker of the island, Don Julian Santana, found a drowned child in the canal and was haunted by her spirit. As a result of this, to appease the young girl’s spirit, Santana collected and decorated children’s dolls across the island, which has created a haunting island filled with a foreboding sense of tragedy. Santana was found dead 50 years after he began collecting the dolls, reportedly in the same location where he allegedly found the original child’s corpse.

Dark tourism has also surfaced through despicable acts of human evil. Tourism to sites of the Holocaust such as Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz is consistently high in memoriam of the horrific events that transpired in the mid-1940s. Less well-known sites of atrocities include Oradour-sur-Glane in the Haute-Vienne region of France. 642 inhabitants of the small village where brutally murdered by SS-officers in one day after villagers were rounded into barns which were set ablaze. In 1946, the French government declared the site a national memorial.
Away from the West, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Tuol Sleng genocide museum has become a popular destination. The site commemorates and chronicles the Cambodian genocide in which it is estimated as much as three million people were killed between 1975 and 1979.

As well as being an exponentially growing travel sensation, dark tourism is becoming an academic field of study. The term was coined in Glasgow in 1996, by Lennon and Foley, two faculty members of the Department of Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University. An alternative type of dark tourism called Thanatourism was created at the University of Strathclyde, this concerns tourism that is specifically related to peaceful deaths.

Dark tourism has been criticised by numerous publications and figures as disrespectful. Sceptics of the growing trend believe that tourists are seeking bragging rights or act in discourteous manners, such as posing for selfies at the site. Whatever your opinion is on the increasing focus on macabre and tragic sites will continue to grow and, as long as it is done in a respectful manner, it can be a great experience to reflect and experience these unfortunate and sometimes devastating destinations.