What is “dark tourism”?

A question I get asked regularly is “what is dark tourism”?

Many people conflate dark tourism with sex tourism, exploitation, and other challenges related to overtourism.

According to Stone, Seaton, Sharpley and White, dark tourism is “the contemporary commodification of death within international visitor economies.” The distinction here is death, which is why the phenomenon is also referred to as thanatourism from the Greek ‘thanatos’ or personification of death.

An example of dark tourism is a visit my daughter and I took to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, included as part of a group tour of the country.

VietnamCuChi
My daughter being lowered into one of the tunnels by a re-enactor.

This network of underground tunnels just outside of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was used during several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, serving as the Viet Cong’s base of operations.

We visited the Ben Dinh site, featuring reconstructions, re-enactments, with tunnels widened to accommodate visitors. Guests are taken through the tunnels (if desired) and shown various components of life during the war. I was taken aback by the shooting range where guests paid by the bullet to fire M16s.

VietnamCuChiTrap
How do you explain to a child that this was used to kill people? Ingenious, but terrifying.

Ahead of our visit I did the best I could to debrief my then seven-year-old on the Vietnam War. Our guide was a former solider who walked us through the areas and provided colour commentary. But if I’m honest my daughter mostly knows this as “the place I went in the tunnels from the world war” (she doesn’t understand the difference between conflicts). And I had been reluctant to visit the site from the start.

So who are Stone, Seaton, Sharpley and White? They’re the co-authors of the definitive reference text for the study of the phenomenon of dark tourism. Their newly-released text (click here for more) examines dark tourism and visitor sites of death or disaster in order to better understand issues of global tourism mobilities, tourist experiences, the co-creation of meaning, and ‘difficult heritage’ processes and practices.

I was privileged to work on a chapter with Dr Geoffrey Bird of Royal Roads University and Natalie Thiesen of Tourism Winnipeg. We argue that marketing plays a major inventive role in tourism world-making, the shaping of culture and place. Additionally, we consider how marketing can be consciously, responsibly, and appropriately employed in politically charged sites of memory. Our section starts on page 645 – this truly is THE handbook for the subject, and it’s the size of a phone book (if some of you remember those).

VietnamStatue
One of the statues demonstrating life at Cu Chi during the war. A rosy picture.

Having now experienced a dark tourism attraction, I’m struck by the popularity and Disneyfication of what is a profoundly disturbing place to me. Tour groups jostled each other to get a position climbing on a tank for photos. Our guide’s dialogue was fascinating but at odds with the story we were being presented. My daughter was encouraged to scramble through the tunnels as if it were a game, not really grasping the severity of the conflict or how many lives were lost.

One of the principles of dark tourism is that the visitor and the site co-create meaning in the moment of the experience. Overall I was grateful for the chance to visit a challenging site, but wish I had been better prepared to work through it with my child.

Are there any ‘dark tourism’ sites in your community? And if so, how are they approached?

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