Dark tourism: a dark form of tourism

No sunny beach holiday in southern Spain this summer, but a tour of Auschwitz, or a walk through the suicide forest in Japan. More and more people are choosing to visit ‘dark’ destinations like these during their holidays. This form of tourism is also called dark tourism. While many people see no harm in opening these destinations to tourists, not everyone is happy about it. Is visiting these places disrespectful to the victims or respectful?


  • What is dark tourism?
  • Discussion around dark tourism
  • Famous dark tourism destinations


What is dark tourism?

Dark tourism, or thanatourism, is a form of tourism in which people look for ‘dark’ destinations. This is a rather broad concept, but in most cases it concerns places with a connection to tragic events. This could, for example, be a museum about the Second World War, but also a memorial place for those who died there. Furthermore, museums about dictators such as Hitler and Stalin can also be considered dark tourism, but for the really curious it goes much further. For example, you can also visit various concentration camps or even travel through abandoned war zones in the Middle East (in some cases not without risk). Visiting these types of areas in person can be a very interesting and educational experience, although not for everyone. For people who prefer to observe from a distance, Netflix made a TV series on this subject in early 2018. In the series ‘Dark Tourist’, journalist David Farrier visits various dark destinations and explains his personal experiences. Several books have also been written on the subject, such as the book ‘The Dark Tourist’ by Dom Joly, in which he looks for places that the average tourist would ignore.

Discussion around dark tourism

Most people have no problem visiting museums. However, when it comes to the more ‘extreme’ dark tourism destinations, there is quite a bit of debate. Opponents of this think it is disrespectful to use places where tragic things have happened (e.g. mass graves, war zones, etc.) as ‘tourist attractions’ and to make money from them. In addition, tourists are often polluting and can cause irreparable damage to the environment.
Proponents argue that dark tourism is important so that the world does not forget what happened in the past, and that the money earned is desperately needed for the maintenance of these places. Furthermore, not all tourists are disrespectful, and people who are genuinely interested should not be unfairly excluded from such an educational experience. Dark tourism can also be a good boost for local economies. But because situations vary enormously from country to country, it is impossible to call dark tourism as a whole ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Famous dark tourism destinations

Auschwitz was the largest extermination camp used by Nazi Germany. The camp, built in 1940, is located in southwestern Poland. About 1.3 million people were imprisoned in Auschwitz during the Second World War. Of these, more than a million did not survive. Most were gassed, but many also died from hunger, exhaustion and violence. In addition, prisoners in Auschwitz were also used for gruesome medical experiments. It is perhaps one of the darkest places in the world. Today there is a museum in the former extermination camp. Many tourists go here to learn about the Second World War and to see with their own eyes the place where so many people died.
Chernobyl is a place in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine) where a nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, which the World Health Organization estimates killed several thousand people. The accident happened at night, due to an incorrect setting during a test of the generator. An area of about 30 kilometers became uninhabitable due to the radioactive radiation released during the disaster. However, the radiation is decreasing, and it is now possible to enter certain areas again, although this can still be dangerous. Tourists can enter the deserted area with a guide. They often wear a special suit that provides protection against a certain amount of radiation.
Hiroshima & Nagasaki are two other examples from World War II. Two atomic bomb air raids by the United States forced Japan to capitulate. On August 6, 1945, the Japanese port city of Hiroshima was bombed, and a few days later, on August 9, the city of Nagasaki. The American atomic bombs named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ killed a total of around 250,000 people, a number that may later have doubled with victims of radiation sickness and cancer. A museum has been built in both cities where commemorations take place annually. Although large areas are not yet safe due to the radiation, tourists can enter certain areas accompanied by a guide, just like in Chernobyl.
Ground Zero is where the World Trade Center in New York used to be. The two buildings of the WTC – also called the Twin Towers – were flown into by two hijacked planes on September 11, 2001. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed. This attack, carried out by Al Qaeda, killed almost 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000. There is now a monument and a museum where the Twin Towers once stood. Ground Zero is one of the most visited places for dark tourists.
Aokigahara , also called the suicide forest, is a Japanese forest of about 35 square kilometers, at the foot of Mount Fuji. Because the trees are very close together, it is very dark and it is easy to get lost. There are also virtually no paths through the forest. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that people choose this place to end their lives. Dozens of bodies are found in the forest every year, and the Japanese government has even decided to stop releasing numbers to prevent new attempts. Tourists can explore the forest on their own or go with a guide. There are all kinds of caves that sometimes even contain human remains. Aokigahara is one of the few dark tourism destinations where tragic things happen to this day.

Other examples:

  • Anne Frank House (Netherlands)
  • Submarine expedition Titanic (Atlantic Ocean)
  • Semipalatinsk nuclear weapons test site (Kazakhstan)
  • Alcatraz prison (USA)
  • La Catedral, Pablo Escobar prison (Colombia)