Beaches? cruises? ‘Dark’ tourists prefer the gloomy and macabre
By Erika Solomon
North Korea. East Timor. Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave that for decades has been a tinderbox for ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
They’re not your typical top tourist destinations.
But don’t tell that to Erik Faarlund, the editor of a photography website from Norway, who has visited all three. His next “dream” trip is to tour San Fernando in the Philippines around Easter, when people volunteer to be nailed to a cross to commemorate the suffering of Jesus Christ, a practice discouraged by the Catholic Church.
Faarlund, whose wife prefers sunning on Mediterranean beaches, said he often travels alone.
“She wonders why on earth I want to go to these places, and I wonder why on earth she goes to the places she goes to,” he said.
Faarlund, 52, has visited places that fall under a category of travel known as dark tourism, an all-encompassing term that boils down to visiting places associated with death, tragedy and the macabre.
As travel opens up, most people are using their vacation time for the typical goals: to escape reality, relax and recharge. Not so dark tourists, who use their vacation time to plunge deeper into the bleak, even violent corners of the world.
They say going to abandoned nuclear plants or countries where genocides took place is a way to understand the harsh realities of current political turmoil, climate calamities, war and the growing threat of authoritarianism.
“When the whole world is on fire and flooded and no one can afford their energy bills, lying on a beach at a five-star resort feels embarrassing,” said Jodie Joyce, who handles contracts for a genome sequencing company in England and has visited Chernobyl and North Korea.
Faarlund, who does not see his travels as dark tourism, said he wants to visit places “that function totally differently from the way things are run at home.”
Whatever their motivations, Faarlund and Joyce are hardly alone.
Eighty-two percent of American travelers said they have visited at least one dark tourism destination in their lifetime, according to a study published in September by Passport-photo.online, which surveyed more than 900 people. More than half of those surveyed said they preferred visiting “active” or former war zones. About 30% said that once the war in Ukraine ends, they wanted to visit the Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian soldiers resisted Russian forces for months.
The growing popularity of dark tourism suggests more and more people are resisting vacations that promise escapism, choosing instead to witness firsthand the sites of suffering they have only read about, said Gareth Johnson, a founder of Young Pioneer Tours, which organized trips for Joyce and Faarlund.
Tourists, he said, are tired of “getting a sanitized version of the world.”
A Pastime That Goes Back to Gladiator Days
The term “dark tourism” was coined in 1996, by two academics from Scotland, J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who wrote “Dark Tourism: The Attraction to Death and Disaster.”
But people have used their leisure time to witness horror for hundreds of years, said Craig Wight, associate professor of tourism management at Edinburgh Napier University.
“It goes back to the gladiator battles” of ancient Rome, he said. “People coming to watch public hangings. You had tourists sitting comfortably in carriages watching the Battle of Waterloo.”
Wight said the modern dark tourist usually goes to a site defined by tragedy to make a connection to the place, a feeling that is difficult to achieve by just reading about it.
By that definition, anyone can be a dark tourist. A tourist who takes a weekend trip to New York City may visit ground zero. Visitors to Boston may drive north to Salem, Massachusetts, to learn more about the persecution of people accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. Travelers to Germany or Poland might visit a concentration camp. They might have any number of motivations, from honoring victims of genocide to getting a better understanding of history. But in general, a dark tourist is someone who makes a habit of seeking out places that are either tragic, morbid or even dangerous, whether the destinations are local or as far away as Chernobyl.
In recent years, as tour operators have sprung up worldwide promising deep dives into places known for recent tragedy, media attention has followed and so have questions about the intentions of visitors, said Dorina-Maria Buda, a professor of tourism studies at Nottingham Trent University.
Stories of people gawking at neighborhoods in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina or posing for selfies at Dachau led to disgust and outrage.
Were people driven to visit these sites out of a “sense of voyeurism or is it a sense of sharing in the pain and showing support?” Buda said.
Most dark tourists are not voyeurs who pose for photos at Auschwitz, said Sian Staudinger, who runs Austria-based Dark Tourist Trips, which organizes itineraries in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe and instructs travelers to follow rules like “NO SELFIES!”
“Dark tourists in general ask meaningful questions,” Staudinger said. “They don’t talk too loud. They don’t laugh. They’re not taking photos at a concentration camp.”
‘Ethically Murky Territory’
David Farrier, a journalist from New Zealand, spent a year documenting travels to places like Aokigahara, the so-called suicide forest in Japan, the luxury prison Pablo Escobar built for himself in Colombia and McKamey Manor in Tennessee, a notorious haunted house tour where people sign up to be buried alive, submerged in cold water until they feel like they will drown, and beaten.
The journey was turned into a show, “Dark Tourist,” that streamed on Netflix in 2018 and was derided by some critics as ghoulish and “sordid.”
Farrier, 39, said he often questioned the moral implications of his trips.
“It’s very ethically murky territory,” Farrier said.
But it felt worthwhile to “roll the cameras” on places and rituals that most people want to know about but will never experience, he said.
Visiting places where terrible events unfolded was humbling and helped him confront his fear of death.
He said he felt privileged to have visited most of the places he saw, except McKamey Manor.
“That was deranged,” Farrier said.
Buda said dark tourists she has interviewed have described feelings of shock and fear at seeing armed soldiers on streets of countries where there is ongoing conflict or are run by dictatorships.
“When you’re part of a society that is by and large stable and you’ve gotten into an established routine, travel to these places leads you to sort of feel alive,” she said.
But that travel can present real danger.
In 2015, Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old student from Ohio who traveled with Young Pioneer Tours, was arrested in North Korea after he was accused of stealing a poster off a hotel wall. He was detained for 17 months and was comatose when he was released. He died in 2017, six days after he was brought back to the United States.
The North Korean government said Warmbier died of botulism but his family said his brain was damaged after he was tortured.
Americans can no longer travel to North Korea unless their passports are validated by the State Department.
A Chance to Reflect
Even ghost tours — the lighter side of dark tourism — can present dilemmas for tour operators, said Andrea Janes, the owner and founder of Boroughs of the Dead: Macabre New York City Walking Tours.
In 2021, she and her staff questioned whether to restart tours so soon after the pandemic in a city where refrigerated trucks serving as makeshift morgues sat in a marine terminal for months.
They reopened and were surprised when tours booked up fast. People were particularly eager to hear the ghost stories of Roosevelt Island, the site of a shuttered 19th century hospital where smallpox patients were treated.
“We should have seen as historians that people would want to talk about death in a time of plague,” Janes said.
Kathy Biehl, who lives in Jefferson Township, New Jersey, and has gone on a dozen ghost tours with Janes’ company, recalled taking the tour “Ghosts of the Titanic” along the Hudson River. It was around 2017, when headlines were dominated by President Donald Trump’s tough stance on refugees and immigrants coming into the United States.
Those stories seemed to dovetail with the 100-year-old tales of immigrants trying to make it to New York on a doomed ship, Biehl said.
It led to “a catharsis” for many on the tour, she said. “People were on the verge of tears over immigration.”
Part of the appeal of dark tourism is its ability to help people process what is happening “as the world gets darker and gloomier,” said Jeffrey S. Podoshen, a professor of marketing at Franklin and Marshall College, who specializes in dark tourism.
“People are trying to understand dark things, trying to understand things like the realities of death, dying and violence,” he said. “They look at this type of tourism as a way to prepare themselves.”
Faarlund recalled one trip with his wife and twin sons: a private tour of Cambodia that included a visit to the Killing Fields, where between 1975 and 1979 more than 2 million Cambodians were killed or died of starvation and disease under the Khmer Rouge regime.
His boys, then 14, listened intently to unsparing and brutal stories of the torture center run by the Khmer Rouge. At one point, the boys had to go outside, where they sat quietly for a long time.
“They needed a break,” Faarlund said. “It was quite mature of them.”
Afterward, they met two of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge, fragile men in their 80s and 90s. The teenagers asked if they could hug them and the men obliged, Faarlund said.
It was a moving trip that also included visits to temples, among them Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and meals of frog, oysters and squid at a roadside restaurant.
“They loved it,” Faarlund said of his family.
Still, he can’t see them coming with him to see people reenact the crucifixion in the Philippines.
“I don’t think they want to go with me on that one,” Faarlund said.