What exactly is it about graveyards that calls us to visit them, even if we know no one buried there? Why are we drawn to the stories of those who have come before us, and why do we often plan entire weekend destinations around visiting them? Our human fascination with death, sickness or even suffering, is usually pretty normal, to a point. But without a doubt, the fascination is a bit weird, and a bit mysterious. Dark tourism is a fairly new buzzword as of late which describes these tendencies to visit places associated with death or suffering. While it might be a new term, it certainly isn’t a new concept, and we humans have been fascinated by these things and visiting places where death has touched for centuries. Some of us even plan our luxury escapes around it!
Let’s take a deeper dive into what the history of dark tourism is, and what we flock to today, then dig into what makes us interested in this in the first place, and finally lay out how you can participate in dark tourism ethically. Please do be aware that these concepts do involve death, sickness and suffering, so read on at your own risk.
The history of Dark Tourism
The history of dark tourism travels back further than we might think. When we hear the word tourism, we often conjure up images of beach umbrellas and palm trees, luxury farm holidays or selfie sticks and Instagram worthy photos. But if we travel back in time a couple of hundred years, we’ll see that humans have been traveling to see dark and twisted things for ages.
One prime example is public executions. The squares would fill up before a public hanging, or colosseums would fill to capacity to watch a few people eaten by lions or watch a fight to the death by gladiators. We can imagine the local caravan parks of the day filling up around the colosseums with horses and chariots and crude tents. People have traveled to watch death happening for as long as we have been humans!
Death and sickness as a tradition has also been popular in many cultures. In Bali, there is a sacred death ritual that involves rotting corpses in a small village that dates back to 1340, according to locals. In India, the banks of the river Ganges are flooded with those looking to die in a holy place, and bodies are cremated in public with many locals and tourists alike looking on. While these rituals and traditions sound morbid, literally, they are often thought of as a celebration of life by locals. Westernised countries tend to keep death and sickness private, with only family being present, or dying alone altogether. These “celebrations” mean that the whole village may be present for your end, and you will be sent into whatever lies beyond this life with a celebration rather than tears.
Today’s most popular spots for Dark Tourism
While many of us might not wish to visit some of the sites listed above, and others may think they would never be interested in dark tourism at all, you might be surprised at places that you’ve visited or want to visit that still constitute as dark tourism. Let’s go through some of the most popular ones.
Auschwitz is a horrific place that most of the world is not only familiar with, but knows quite intimately through movies, books and history lessons. It stands as an incredibly important lesson, and is not only overwhelming to visit, but also exceptionally difficult to even be near it. Yet, visitors flock to this and other concentration camps and museums from World War II, whether it be to pay respects, gain more knowledge, or simply experience the sombre atmosphere.
Graveyards have long been a source of tourism all over the world. Ghost tours flock to them, and kids dare each other to spend the night in them. While ghosts are often the main reason for visiting a graveyard in the evenings, many people visit purely to be around the sombre atmosphere as we mentioned above, or to visit the graves of famous people before them. Here is a list of some of the most popular graveyards around the world.
The city that was covered in lava and ash in 79 AD draws 2.5 million visitors annually, so it’s safe to say this place of preserved life and death is a hotspot for dark tourism. We are fascinated by this place of death because of the way it has been preserved, like a snapshot in time of Roman life.
This disaster zone of a nuclear power plant is surprisingly seeing a massive increase in tourists. The radioactive material released into the air at the time of the accident meant that the area was evacuated and abandoned, until recently. Now, tourists can stay overnight in a nearby hotel and take selfies with the abandoned structures and streets stuck in a time capsule.
The reason behind Dark Tourism
Is it curiosity? Are we hoping learn a lesson? The truth is, everyone has slightly different motivations for visiting these sites. It seems to be a common thread that we’re drawn to these places for a mix of reasons, but what usually comes out of it is a deeper understanding of the terrible things that have happened there. Many of the school lessons we have learned throughout our education are about these places, but until we visit and walk the same roads that history changing events have happened, it’s hard to fully understand.
Tips for being an ethical Dark Tourist
For one, don’t take a selfie stick to Auschwitz. But there are a lot of other ways to ensure you are being an ethical tourist. If you’re using a car hire to get around, make sure to follow signs and park in designated areas. If you are bringing your family and looking for family accommodation, please have a conversation with your children about what you’re about to see, or consider leaving little ones at home or with a sitter. While camping at a graveyard sounds like a haunting experience, please only camp in designated areas and only if express permission is given. Camping on top of a gravesite is generally highly discouraged!
Whether you’re looking forward to a graveyard tour on your next holiday trip, or you prefer to spend your company with those who are still with us, we hope your next holiday is exactly what you wish it to be!