North Korea. East Timor. Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave that for decades has been a flashpoint for ethnic strife between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
These are not your usual main 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 visit 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 to sunbathe on Mediterranean beaches, said he often travels alone.
“She wonders why the hell I want to go to these places, and I wonder why the hell she goes to the places she goes,” he said.
Faarlund, 52, has visited places that fall under a category of travel known as dark tourism, an umbrella 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 purposes: escaping reality, relaxing, and recharging. Not-so-dark tourists, who take advantage of their holidays to delve deeper into the dark, even violent corners of the world.
They say traveling to abandoned nuclear power plants or countries where genocides have taken place is a way to understand the harsh realities of current political unrest, climatic calamities, war and the growing threat of authoritarianism.
“When the whole world is on fire and flooded and no one can pay their energy bills, lying on a beach at a five-star resort is embarrassing,” said Jodie Joyce, who manages contracts for a genome sequencing in England and visited Chernobyl and North Korea.
Faarlund, who doesn’t view his travels as dark tourism, said he wants to visit places “that work totally differently to how things work back home.”
Whatever their motivations, Faarlund and Joyce are not alone.
Eighty-two percent of American travelers said they had 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 to visit ‘active’ areas or former war zones. About 30% said that once the war in Ukraine was over, they wanted to visit the Azovstal steelworks, where Ukrainian soldiers resisted Russian forces for months.
The growing popularity of dark tourism suggests more and more people are resisting vacations that promise escape, opting instead to witness first-hand the sites of suffering they’ve only read about, says Gareth Johnson, founder of Young Pioneer Tours, which arranged trips for Joyce and Farlund.
Tourists, he said, are tired of “receiving a sanitized version of the world”.
A hobby that dates back to the days of gladiators
The term “dark tourism” was coined in 1996 by two Scottish scholars, J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who wrote “Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster”.
But people have used their free time to witness the horror for hundreds of years, said Craig Wight, associate professor of tourism management at Edinburgh Napier University.
“It goes back to the gladiatorial battles” of ancient Rome, he said. “People come to watch public hangings. You had tourists sitting comfortably in cars watching the Battle of Waterloo.
Wight said the modern black tourist typically travels to a site defined by tragedy to connect with the place, a feeling hard to come by just reading about it.
According to this definition, anyone can be a black tourist. A tourist who makes a weekend in New York can visit Ground Zero. Visitors from Boston can drive north to Salem, Massachusetts, to learn about the persecution of those accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. Travelers to Germany or Poland might visit a concentration camp. They can have a number of motivations, ranging from honoring genocide victims to a better understanding of history. But in general, a black tourist is someone who has a habit of seeking out tragic, morbid or even dangerous places, whether the destinations are local or as far away as Chernobyl.
In recent years, as tour operators have sprung up around the world promising deep dives in locations notorious for recent tragedy, media attention has followed and so has raised questions about visitors’ intentions, a said Dorina-Maria Buda, professor of tourism studies at Nottingham Trent University. .
Stories of people gazing at New Orleans neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina or posing for selfies in Dachau have sparked disgust and outrage.
Were people driven to visit these sites by a “sense of voyeurism or is it a sense of pain sharing and support?” said Buda.
“Ethically troubled territory”
David Farrier, a New Zealand journalist, has spent a year documenting trips to places like Aokigahara, Japan’s so-called suicide forest, the luxury prison Pablo Escobar built for himself in Colombia, and McKamey Manor in Tennessee, a famous haunted house tour where people sign up to be buried alive, submerged in cold water until they feel like they’re going to drown and beaten.
The trip was turned into a show, “Dark Tourist”, which aired on Netflix in 2018 and was derided by some critics as macabre and “sleazy”.
Farrier, 39, said he often questions the moral implications of his travels.
“It’s very murky territory ethically,” Farrier said.
But it was worth “rolling the cameras” on places and rituals that most people want to experience but never will, he said.
Visiting places where terrible events took place humbled him and helped him face his fear of death.
He said he felt privileged to have visited most of the places he saw, with the exception of McKamey Manor.
“It was disturbed,” Farrier said.
An opportunity to reflect
Even ghost tours — the lighter side of dark tourism — can present dilemmas for tour operators, said Andrea Janes, owner and founder of Boroughs of the Dead: Macabre New York City Walking Tours.
In 2021, she and her staff debated whether to resume tours so soon after the pandemic in a city where refrigerated trucks serving as makeshift morgues have sat in a shipping terminal for months.
They reopened and were surprised when tours were booked up quickly. People were especially eager to hear the ghost stories of Roosevelt Island, the site of a 19th-century closed hospital where smallpox patients were treated.
“We should have seen as historians that people would want to talk about death in times of plague,” Janes said.
Kathy Biehl, who lives in Jefferson Township, New Jersey, and has done a dozen ghost tours with Janes’ company, recalled taking the “Ghosts of the Titanic” tour along the Hudson River . It was circa 2017, when headlines were dominated by President Donald Trump’s tough stance on refugees and immigrants entering the United States.
Those stories seemed to line up with century-old stories of immigrants trying to get to New York on a doomed ship, Biehl said.
It led to “catharsis” for many tour participants, she said. “People were on the verge of tears about immigration.”
Part of the appeal of dark tourism is its ability to help people understand what’s going on “as the world grows darker and darker,” said Franklin and Marshall marketing professor Jeffrey S. Podoshen. College, specializing in black tourism.
“People are trying to figure out dark things, trying to figure out things like the realities of death, dying and violence,” he said. “They see this kind of tourism as a way to prepare.”
Faarlund recalled a 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.
Her boys, then 14, listened intently to the ruthless and brutal stories of the Khmer Rouge-run torture center. At some point, the boys had to go out, where they sat quietly for a long time.
“They needed a break,” Faarlund said. “That was quite mature of them.”
Afterwards, they met two of the Khmer Rouge survivors, frail men in the 80s and 90s. The teenagers asked if they could hug them and the men agreed, Faarlund said.
It was an emotional trip that also included visits to temples, including Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and meals of frogs, oysters and squid at a roadside restaurant.
“They loved it,” Faarlund said of her family.
Yet he doesn’t see them coming with him to see people re-enact the crucifixion in the Philippines.
“I don’t think they want to go with me on that one,” Faarlund said.