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Concept, History and Classification of Black Tourism

Introduction and methodology

Tourism mostly involves traveling to an environment that is outside and distinct from one’s common habitation and for various reasons and aims. These range between leisure, recreation and to engage in commercial activities. From the humble beginnings of the early 1800s where only the wealth could afford rare trips to exotic destinations, the concept has grown into a worldwide industry with an estimated earnings of US$944 million in 2008 (WTO, 2009). Indeed, tourism has seen a much wider acceptance than most other consumer activities, evidenced by the over 900 million international tourist arrivals for the same period; this does not factor in the sheer number of local tourists carrying out the activities inside their own countries.

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Currently, tourism continues to form a vital part of the economies of many countries in the world; with some, such as the United Arab Emirates and Thailand (among others), having large parts of the national economies based on one form or the other class of tourism.


The large part of tourism is based on the conventional concepts of the destination and/or the activity which the tourist engages in on arrival to the destination; however, there has been a rise in alternative forms of tourism one of them being dark tourism. Each year, many tourists visit the ever-increasing number of dark tourism sites scattered around the world; and get to experience the environment in which death or disaster took place. Such sites many be the actual sites where such events took place, such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum opened in 2000 at the site of the camp where 1.5 million people died at the height of the Second World War at the hands of the Nazi Germans and the Culloden battlefield in Scotland where the Battle of Culloden took place in 16th April 1746. Alternatively, such maybe a location away from where the incident took place but connected to it and/or housing artifacts recovered from the site of the incident; in this case, a holocaust museum would be a good example.

Dark tourism is becoming increasingly popular with old and new sites reporting increased numbers of visitors every year. The concept is, however, yet to receive universal acceptance and classification; and may be seen by some quarters as an aberration of human curiosity. However, the fascination with death is not a preserve of the minority in the society; large number of people continues to visit sites which a strict classification would identify them as being dark; such would include historical battle fields and war memorials.

Classification of tourism

The world tourism organization defines a tourist as a person who leaves his/her normal environment for another destination in which he/she will stay for a period exceeding 24hrs but that does not exceed a period of one consecutive year; and in which activities carried out do not attract any remuneration. Currently the WTO classifies tourism as; Leisure and recreation [recreation, cultural events, health, active sports (non professional), other leisure and holiday purposes]; Business and professional (meetings, mission, incentive travel, business, other); and other tourism purposes (studies, health treatment, transit, various). The basis for this classification is the type of activity carried out by the tourist in the destination.

Many alternatives to the contemporary classification of tourism have arisen to challenge the universally accepted norms. Some of the new developments in tourism, commonly referred to as adjectival tourisms include; agri-tourism; culinary; cultural; ecotourism; heritage; medical; nautical; religious; space; war: and wildlife tourism. These have developed to serve niche markets specialize into one form or the other. The market size for these types are however not very large. Indeed, this is not an exhaustive list of the possibilities of niche-targeted tourism products; and new adjectival tourisms continue to arise every day.

Dark tourism

Dark tourism as a distinct form has seen a steady increase in both the number of tourists visiting dark sites; and the amount of income circulating in this sub sector (Foley and Lennon, 1997). However, the sub-sector represents a small division within the scope of tourism in the world; additionally, a clear distinction between dark and conventional tourism has not been made. As such, some visitors may combine aspects of both classifications during their travels, thus making it harder to decide where to classify such visitors. Death tourism refers to the situation whereby visitors specifically tour areas associated with human death or disaster. A clear distinction has to be made in regards to all the visits to dark site; and to what constitutes dark tourism. As such, a family visiting the site whereby one or several of their members died does not constitute dark tourism.

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Thanatourism is a more specific form of dark tourism involving the visitation of site associated with violent death; the word is coined from the mythological Greek personification of death, Thanatos. Thanatourism is motivated mainly by the desire to experience the environment in which a specific person (or people) died; and is mostly seen in cases where such deaths occurred in a particularly violent or gruesome manner. This form of dark tourism is driven mainly by the desires of the traveler rather than the allure of the destination as is seen with other forms of tourism. As such, while such a destination may remain the same over long period, the arousal of such interests in potential visitors continues to attract visits; and such site have little pressure to refresh themselves. On the other hand, such sites have to go the extra mile to ensure that such experiences are as authentic as possible.

Thanatourism sites can be classified into five categories; travel to places where death has occurred, for example in Nazi death camps; travel to site where death will occur, for example public executions; travels to sites where artifacts of death are stored and/or displayed, for example to holocaust museums; travel to gravesite, burial grounds and memorial parks; travel to reenactment festivals, for example war reenactment.

Dark tourism has earned its place as a significant sub-sector of the tourism industry; and it is only prudent to pay proper attention to it. This significance can be shown by the large number of people visiting sites that are easily classified as dark every year; a good example is the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. As many other sites are opening up or being created by world events, this sector may offer the much-needed expansion of the industry.

Analysis of dark tourism

Tourist motivations

Studies into the motivations of tourists (to any destinations) have not been conclusive; and many gaps still exist in the literature exploring what drives an individual to leave his/her comfort zone and try to experience life in a different environment albeit for a brief period. Among the aspects that have come up during these explorations is the identification of push and pull factors that have been generally accepted as the factors that result in the practice of tourism. On one hand, push factors are identified after the study of the tourist; and are the occurrence or circumstances that predispose the tourist to travel. On the other hand, pull factors are motivators which attract a potential traveler to the destination; and are therefore parameters of it thereof (Dann, 1977: 186).

The tourism industry is dominated by activities and destinations whereby the pull factors are greatly emphasized over the push factors; this is based on the assumption that a tourist visits a certain destination in order to do or see things (Crompton, 1979: 421). This would mean that the major or sole factor attracting a tourist to a certain destination is the environment and/or attributes which the site offers and advertise. Push factors are, however, equally or more important than pull factors for any given destination; as such a traveler chooses a destination not-only for what that destination offers, but also how that destination satisfies a specific psychological need (Uzzell, 1984: 80: Poria et al, 2001: 1047). In dark tourism, the pull factors play a major role in influencing a visitor to leave his/her home and go to a site associated with death and/or disaster. For example, the need to commemorate and pay respect may influence some to pay a visit for instance to a war memorial. This, however, does not remove the need or motivation of the destination to provide some pull factors that will finally push the visitor over the line. For example, a war memorial may include special guide tours or commemoration festivals as part of the package of the visit; as such while a visitor will fulfill his/her push factors in visiting the site, s/he will also benefit from education and better insight of the incident(s) that made the site what it is in the first place. Such tours are commonly seen in holocaust museums where they not only aim at commemorating the events, but also educating current and future generations.

However, most of the visitors who visit dark site do it manly for personal reasons; these range from commemoration of experience underwent either by themselves, family members or friends; affirmation of individuals cultural identity; as an act to appease a guilty conscience; and out of simple curiosity. Whatever the reason for such a visit to a dark site, the motivation to expose oneself to the environment of death and disaster can be influenced by one or a combination of the following.


Potential visitors often feel that they have a cultural connection with the dark site; and have a personal need to visit such sites to define or reinforce their cultural identity. For example, descendants of a war veteran may feel compelled to visit a site connected to the respective conflict; so as to perceive their connection with such a veteran despite not having met (them) personally. In this case, it is easy to classify the travelers between those who have a high probability of making repeat visits to the site and those who do not. A passage of a large amount of time and space usually result in disconnect between the heritage of an individual as represented by the site; and the need to fulfill a psychological need; such people demonstrate a low probability of returning to the site. On the other hand, close association in time and space almost always ensures repeat and even regular visits to a dark site.

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Some of the visitors to dark site are drawn to them due to their historical significance; for such site, the visit usually forms part of the itinerary involving visits to friends, relatives or general vacation; and not as the primary destination for the traveler. Such visitors do not exhibit particular attachment to the site or the events that took place therein; but rather visit the sites due to their reputation as worthwhile stops during the stay in the particular city or region.

On the other hand, there is smaller groups of historical dark tourist; these visit the site on “official’ capacity; either as part of an activity of a study; shooting of a film or documentary; or as an educational tour. History, as a push factor for dark tourism is not particularly strong; and most visits are incidental rather than planned; and are rarely repeated.

Survivors’ guilt

Among war veterans who survived a certain war or battle, there is common need to go back to a particular battlefield or memorial cemetery. While the purpose to visit such a site would range from the need to commemorate, remember or mourn their fallen comrades, an aspect of guilt is very likely to be present in some of them. This is also seen in victims seeking to revisit the site of a disaster (later after they recover).

The sentiments of such survivors’ guilt are also, however, affected by the ‘tone” of the site; for example, does the commentary during the tour seek to place particular blame on one party of the conflict or not; or does it accuse some parties of neglecting responsibilities that would have averted a disaster. In this case, potential visitors who may be part of the groups carrying the blame will easily be discouraged from ever paying a visit to the site.

Survivors’ guilt as a push factor for dark tourism is greatly affected by the passage of time; since it can only exist so long as either the survivors are alive, or the context of the event is still relevant in the concerned society. Lack of these two factors result in the fading of a site since it was dependent on guilt as its main motivation.


Some dark site attract visitors whose major motivation is curiosity or novelty; as much as these sites may have a profound meaning for a good section of the visitor, for others, the fascination is only with the circumstance of the events that made the site dark in the first place. The factors which drive curiosity as a motivation for travel include interruption of the (travelers’) routine, escape from the ‘normal’ environment, the search for thrill and adventure; and escape from boredom. In some instances, some parties may be offended by what at times results in the desecration of sites supposed to be somber or sacred by curious visitors. On the other hand, some of the dark destinations are specifically targeted to elicit curiosity from potential visitor; thus acting as a pull factor for tourism.

Insight into the phenomenon of death

Death and dying elicits different responses in different individuals; for some, a need to understand the phenomenon of dying may lead them to visit sites associated with death of individuals or groups of people. Some of the people who would be more inclined to visit areas which would offer a better comprehension of the phenomenon include medical professional, terminal patient and their relatives; and religious leaders. A small number of visitors can attribute their visit to dark site to an uncanny fascination with death and related subjects. The ability to confront and understand death can be aided by pictures; films and narratives describing or portraying actual death or reenactments of it; or artifacts associated with death including murder weapons, execution toll; or human bodies preserved whole or in parts.

The pull factor of curiosity in death does not form a major factor in determining visitation of dark sites; this however varies from one site to the other; and from one event to the other. However, it is an aspect of dark tourism that cannot be completely ignored.

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The need to reconnect or remember a past event in the life plays an important part of the push factors aiding dark tourism. As with survivors guilt, nostalgia is only possible if the persons who experienced a certain event are still alive and able to visit the given place; thus is eroded by passage of time and/or space.


As mentioned before, some of the dark sites have profound historical significance to distinct groups of people or whole country. Indeed, many scholars spend significant amount of time carrying out studies of documents, site and artifacts related to a tragic or deadly event. Among the major motivations for the study is to understand how, for example, people can result to such cruel practices such as genocide, mass murder, terrorism and war. Secondly, there is almost a universal sentiment to allow measures to ensure that events like that do not happen again in the future.

One the other hand, dark sites offer fertile grounds for research into very specific disciplines such as military strategy, engineering, anthropology et-cetera.

Remembrance and commemorations

Among the most powerful tool of motivations to dark tourism is remembrance or commemoration of a certain event and its victims. It is however prudent to mention that what is remembered is often manipulated by the prevailing powers and authorities, cultural values & practice and historical framing. As such, whole segments of protagonists and/or events may be omitted or ignored so as to set an appropriate tone for the prevailing social situation.


Dark tourism offers a very interesting insight into the way the human psyche respond to the question of death, disaster and grief. Such responses range from macabre curiosity to grief and regret. Additionally, it offers an excellent example in the potential to develop tourism outside the limits of what is conventionally accepted.

Research limitations

Dark tourism is an emerging field; as such there is limited number of studies aimed specifically at the sub-sector as a unique and distinct form of tourism. Additionally, due to its relatively new distinction, there are no precedents to which the various parameters can be compared to, and any new information can only be used as a basis for future more comprehensive studies.

Reference list

  1. Crompton, J.L. 1979 Motivations for Pleasure Vacation. Annals of Tourism Research 6: 408-424.
  2. Dann, G. 1977 Anomie, Ego-enhancement and Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 4: 184-194.
  3. Foley, M., and J.J. Lennon 1997 Dark Tourism – An Ethical Dilemma. In Strategic Issues for the Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure Industries, M. Foley, J.J. Lennon, and G. Maxwell, eds., pp. 153-164. London: Cassell.
  4. Poria, Y., R. Butler, and D. Airey 2001 Clarifying Heritage Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 28: 1047-1049.
  5. Quick overview of key trends. UNWTO World Tourism Barometer (World Tourism Organization) 7 (2). 2009.
  6. Uzzel, D.L. 1984 The Alternate Structuralist Approach to the Psychology of Tourism Marketing. Annals of Tourism Research 11: 79-99.

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