“Dark” Travel as a Way to Pay Tribute

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We have memorials for people after they die. We build memorials in tribute to the fallen. And then we visit those memorials around the world as tourists in a phenomenon known as “dark tourism.”

But why? Why do we visit places like Auschwitz or the Killing Fields or Pearl Harbor? Why do we pay to walk through museums dedicated to war and terrorist attacksDo we, as humans, have some sort of morbid fascination with death and suffering?

Well, with the exception of maybe a few, I don't think we do.

Oklahoma City

I think we have a curiosity, yes. A curiosity about what concentration camps were really like, or what it was like for victims of bombings and natural disasters. Most of us can't fathom these sorts of things happening to us. And that curiosity is what draws us to sites like Chernobyl or post-Katrina New Orleans or Hiroshima. Or even Ground Zero.

And, in visiting these types of places, we are often moved more than we thought possible. Which is what keeps us coming back.

Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City National Memorial

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York City. Ten years ago, terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center twin towers, bringing them to the ground. And more than just glass and stone was shattered that day.

On Monday, the 9/11 Memorial will be open to the public, with the 9/11 Memorial Museum set to open in 2012. And millions will likely visit this memorial and museum within the next couple of years. Millions will want to see it; to experience it. But not because they are entertained.

An article about dark tourism on Matador Network says the following:

 Rather than offer you a few hours of entertainment, it [dark tourism] ought to provoke and confront you in a profound way. It is a multi-dimensional experience that can have a deep impact on your life.

It's this impact that draws us to dark tourism. It is this impact that leads us to the realization of the sad reality that exists around the world. And it is through this impact that we feel compassion for our fellow human beings.

USS Arizona Memorial

The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

It isn't until we stroll through a national military cemetery that we realize just how many men and women have lost their lives in the name of freedom.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii

It isn't until we drive through the deserted streets of a tornado-devastated city like Joplin, Missouri that we realize that the effects of a natural disaster extend far beyond the front pages of the newspapers.


It isn't until we visit a place like Auschwitz or the Killing Fields that we realize how many innocent people have suffered at the hands of their fellow countrymen.


Visiting “dark” or somber sites is important. It helps us realize how lucky we are.

It's a way to make sure we remember. A way to make sure that we never forget.


A street in Christchurch, New Zealand 3 months after an earthquake. "Kia Kaha" means "Stay Strong."


What's your take? Do you think it's important to be aware of the bad things happening around the world, along with the good? Have you ever found yourself playing the role of “dark” tourist?


  • I think its important, it something that will help us remember stuff…

    But I don’t understand why they had to tax people to enter such places. If you ask me it should be free and available to anyone, they really need the money?
    Cristian Balau recently posted..Are there different versions of Battlefield 3

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Interesting point about the entry fee part of it. In some cases… yes, they probably do actually need the money. Consider a memorial museum or cemetery or other such site. Obviously the upkeep of that site is going to cost money — probably a lot of it if they really take themselves seriously. And, as far as visiting disaster-stricken areas, they would most certainly benefit from some tourist dollars coming in.

      But, I don’t like the idea of exploiting these sorts of things for money. There’s definitely a fine line…

  • You are right, it’s not that we have some sort of morbid fascination with death and suffering, on the opposite. I recently visited the killing fields in Cambodia, and that was a very profound experience for me. It is a very tranquil place, nobody hardly speaks, and when they do, it’s usually in whispers. It’s a place where people are forced to think and I think that’s good. I think it’s important that those places exist, so we don’t forget.
    Jarmo @ Arcti Nomad recently posted..Nha Trang and How I Remembered That I Love Diving

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Jarmo. I agree that visiting some of these places can be a rather profound experience. We ARE forced to think. And, like you said, that’s a very good thing. I think we should be challenged like that more often.

  • This is a great post, and I think ‘dark travel’ is necessary for all those who never experienced the horrors of wars, natural calamities, terrorist attacks etc. Especially for the future generations…
    Siddhartha Joshi recently posted..The women of Tarnetar

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I completely agree. And it’s not just about focusing on negative things. I’m probably one of the most consistently positive people you will ever meet. But I think even perpetually-happy people need to be aware of the darker side of life, too. Otherwise, will you really be able to truly appreciate the good?

  • Alouise says:

    Before going to Munich I researched about going to visit a concentration camp and found out Dachau was close by, and luckily my tour group made a stop there. I wanted to go to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to remember the tragedies that happened there. But I also wanted to go to be there. I like history but there’s only so much a high school history text can do. When you go to a site like Dachau you get a better sense of what things were like, in my opinion moreso than what a book or even a film can offer.

    I also went to the Ground Zero te in New York, about six years ago. They were just starting construction on the memorial when I was there. Visiting ground zero was a very different experience than visiting Dachau, because 9/11 was something that happened in my lifetime, it was day I remember rather than being some event that happened years before I was born. But even though I didn’t feel like I needed to be there to make the history more tangible for me (for lack of a better term) I did want to go to pay my respects. It’s important to have memorials like this because people need a way of seeing that history, human tragedies, natural disasters are more than just some words in a book, or on a website.
    Alouise recently posted..The Amazing Moving Forest

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Very well-said, Alouise. I agree that visiting these places is much more powerful that just reading about them in a book, or seeing them on TV. I go for the same reasons that you do.

  • Andrea says:

    Sometimes I get really sad about the world because of these atrocities that have happened. That other human beings could ALLOW them to happen is probably the worst part of it for me. People go on with their lives and try to keep a positive, hopeful outlook – but for me, we haven’t come far enough since events like the Holocaust. This is why it is especially important that people visit these sites and keep a constant reminder that history can repeat (and in some cases is repeating) itself.
    Andrea recently posted..Istanbul is Larger Than Life

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I agree, Andrea. We need to be reminded (perhaps even more often) that history not only CAN, but DOES repeat itself – in atrocious ways.

  • Dalene says:

    I would take a stint of “dark tourism” over any other kind more often then not. For me though, travel is about learning. On our recent trip to Northern Ireland, we spent most of our time learning about “The Troubles” – going through memorials, getting to talk to locals – it beats learning via news or wikipedia hands down. It can be way more enriching then looking at a pretty coastal view.

    Although, those times looking at pretty coastal views are necessary to break up the sadness of visiting darker places… 🙂
    Dalene recently posted..Irish Photo Potpourri

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Travel is definitely about learning. I couldn’t agree more. And yes, seeing these sorts of things first-hand (or, as close to first-hand as you can get) is much more meaningful than watching it on TV or reading about it on a webpage.

      But, like you said, travel can’t be ALL about the bad. Like with anything in life, there has to be balance.

  • I live in New York City and walk past the World Trade Center site on a somewhat regular basis. Maybe it’s because I moved here after 9/11, but, aside from my one visit to the site in 2002 as a tourist that was quite intense, the site has just seemed like a construction site with nothing to see for the past few years. I have a feeling my opinions will greatly change when I visit the memorial in the coming months. Heck even walking past Penn Station yesterday and seeing the American flags outside at half staff glistening in the sunlight gave me chills.

    All that said, I don’t think I could stomach visitng the Killing Fields or a Concentration Camp…
    Aaron @ Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures recently posted..How I Harnessed the Power of Social Media to Get What I Wanted

    • DangerousBiz says:

      This sort of “dark” tourism definitely isn’t for everyone. Some people would just be depressed, instead of moved. I hope to visit the 9/11 memorial/museum sometime within the next few years. I think it will be a very moving experience.

  • Juliann says:

    This is a great topic. I do like “dark travel” and have visited places like Dachau concentration camp and battefields where soldiers have died. I’m not sure what draws us to this. Maybe the idea that we can only start to understand what it must have been like if we can stand in the place where dark things happened?

    I have yet to go to Ground Zero but definitely feel I need to when I go to New York.
    Juliann recently posted..Writing Contest Today

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Juliann. I’m glad you could relate to this topic, too. Not everyone can.

      I went to Ground Zero in 2003, but I can only imagine how powerful it will be once the memorial and museum are completed.

  • Claire says:

    I visited Auschwitz when I was in Poland. It felt like something I just had to do. I visited in March, when there was still a decent layer of snow on the ground, and the enormity of visiting overwhelmed me. Strangely enough, visiting Auschwitz, which is largely a museum was fine, but visiting Birkenau, which has largely been left as is was difficult. I felt wrong just being there. It’s been one of the hardest places I have ever visited.

    I visited Ground Zero on my first visit to New York, about 3 months later than I visited Auschwitz. And it actually felt easier, even though it is something that I saw live on my TV back in Australia. I’m wondering if it was because back in Auschwitz, the hardest part was that people had to live through it for such a long period of time.

    I visit these sites because I think it will help me understand. And it does, but I think that there is still such a long way to go.

    I have booked a visit to the memorial in New York when I visit in a few weeks.
    Claire recently posted..Postcard: From Prizren with love…

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I’ll be interested to see what you think of the 9/11 memorial when you visit. I, too, visit sites like this in hopes that I will be able to better understand. But some things are simply beyond comprehension.

  • Excellent post. I have played the role of “dark tourist” and think it’s very important. I’ve been to Auschwitz in Poland and the Apartheid Museum in S Africa (as well as the nearby townships) and both nearly brought me to tears. Both were acknowledgements of the past, deep learning experiences and a way of reminding oneself of what has happened and what could happen again. I highly recommend this sort of travel if one can handle it (and will post this on my FB page as a reminder).
    Lisa @chickybus recently posted..10 Types of Spammers and Why They’re All Evil Cyber Spawn

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thank you, Lisa. Obviously participating in “dark” tourism is a personal preference — some people simply don’t want to place themselves in these sorts of potentially depressing situations. And that’s okay. But I, too, think it’s really important.

  • Suzy says:

    I do agree that dark tourism is a way to pay tribute to tragedies that have befallen on that place. I do think there is a line though in visiting some of these places to snap a photograph to show people the destruction. In some regard, I would have trouble visiting a place right after a hurricane or tornado as a dark tourist site. These communities are still rebuilding and not looking for gawkers but helpers. On the opposing side, seeing these places and bringing them to light can also help those struggling to get noticed.
    Suzy recently posted..Moonlight Over Greece in Tennessee

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I agree that there’s a fine line to tread when visiting certain sites — especially disaster-stricken sites not long after they’ve been affected. When I visited Joplin and Christchurch, for example, there were times when I felt a bit odd snapping photos. But, after I had processed what I had seen, I was able to present it in a way that reminded others of what had happened in those places. For me, I wasn’t going there to take photos and say, “OMG, look what I saw!” I was going there as an ambassador of sorts — to return home and tell the stories of those places that perhaps had been forgotten since the media attention had died down. But it really is tough in some situations to discern what is beneficial, and what is crossing the line.

  • Carrie C. says:

    I went to Auschwitz back in 2004 and I firmly believe that every world leader should have to visit before they are allowed to rule any country or group of people. I was already aware of how horrific the holocaust was, but seeing the scale of everything, and the literally thousands of suitcases and pairs of glasses for instance, stacked up, really opened my eyes even more to the vast nature of this tragedy. Just to see how many people’s belongings were there, and to know that these people were exterminated, really made me feel even more connected to them than I could simply watching a documentary on the subject. I feel at least for something like this, it is important to really see if first hand in order to understand just how much damage was done and how many people were affected. It was a very saddening and powerful experience, but I am glad I was able to go. I feel just by going, I was able to say to them “I see who you were, I will never forget you, and you did not suffer in vain.”

    • DangerousBiz says:

      This is very beautiful said, Carrie, and I completely agree. We can only understand so much from books and movies. To truly understand the enormity of something like the Holocaust, I think you really do have to go there; to see it through “their” eyes, so to speak.

  • I think part of it is curiosity, but part is also cultivating compassion. Visiting sites like Auschwitz can give you a better sense of what the people there really went through (that a lot of the time you can’t get just through a book or movie). I think that’s a good thing – it helps us relate and learn and figure out how to maybe prevent these kinds of catastrophes in the future… or at least want to try.
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Are tours a good option for budget travelers?

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I totally agree about the cultivating compassion part — I think that’s one of the reasons that I am personally drawn to these types of sites.

  • Maria Pavel says:

    Personally, a part of me feel so sad whenever I see places like national memorial cemeteries because of their sacrifices. However, there’s still a place inside me that feel so proud because the sacrifices caused some changes that benefited many of us.
    Maria Pavel recently posted..How to Pass the CNA Test

    • DangerousBiz says:

      That’s exactly how I feel at memorial cemeteries, too, Maria. Sad that these people had to lose their lives, but incredibly lucky that they thought my rights and freedoms and country were worth fighting for.

  • I think the only “dark tourism” I’ve ever experiences was visiting Arlington Cemetery. Although I do want to visit a concentration camp, although beyond the curiosity I’m a history nut so I’d through that into my reasoning.
    Cornelius Aesop recently posted..Flinging Photos: Paraty, Brazil

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I think everyone has slightly different reasons for wanting to visit this sort of site. But that’s what makes “dark tourism” so interesting to me!

  • Jade says:

    Interesting ideas about “dark tourism”- In an odd way, I think it is helpful for pictures and posts to come out about these types of places because it can inform and educate people who might not have known it existed or the depths of the destruction. Hopefully inspiring change and peace.
    Jade recently posted..China’s Forbidden, Unfinished Crystal Palace

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Jade. I agree that I think it’s good for people to write about these sorts of places — and not just the “popular” ones like Auschwitz. Educating people and raising awareness about the sorts of things that have happened and are happening around the world can only be a good thing, in my opinion.

  • I think it’s important to understand that it’s a part of history – and it’s important to understand history so we know where we’ve come from and where we don’t want to go. When we visit “dark” sites, the history is more real than if we just read about it in a book.
    Nancy from Family on Bikes recently posted..Enjoying life with less

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I agree, Nancy. History is important to be aware of for many reasons. And I agree that experiencing the site makes that history much more real than just reading about it or seeing it on TV.

  • Interesting article. I have wondered about my fascination with dark places many times. I have visited Auschwitz, Dachua, Tuol Seng, The Killing Fields Memorial, Normandy Beaches, Hiroshima, and a few other places. When I visited Majdanek (another Nazi death camp) in Lublin, Poland, I was staying with a Polish Jew. He asked why I came half way around the world to visit this evil place. It was not the only reason I came to Poland, but I had a hard time describing why I wanted to see this place. Part of it is due to my fascination with history, but I think you touched on some other good reasons in this post.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..Daily Costa Rica Travel Photo and video: The howler monkey

    • DangerousBiz says:

      You definitely have visited a lot of interesting “dark” sites, Ted. But I know what you mean about not really being able to pinpoint the exact reason why we feel drawn to places like this. It’s a difficult thing to explain, and some people will probably never understand it.

  • Erik says:

    I have been to a number of these places and it’s always about respect and attempting to learn lessons from the past. I found that especially true about Auschwitz. It was morbid, but something I would never want to allow to happen again.
    Erik recently posted..A Pacific Sunset

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