Dark tourism (also black tourism or grief tourism) has been defined as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy. More recently, it was suggested that the concept should also include reasons tourists visit that site, since the site's attributes alone may not make a visitor a "dark tourist". Thanatourism, derived from the ancient Greek word thanatos for the personification of death, refers more specifically to peaceful death; it is used in fewer contexts than the terms dark tourism and grief tourism. The main attraction to dark locations is their historical value rather than their associations with death and suffering.
While there is a long tradition of people visiting recent and ancient settings of death, such as travel to gladiator games in the Roman colosseum, attending public executions by decapitation, and visiting the catacombs, this practice has been studied academically only relatively recently. Travel writers were the first to describe their tourism to deadly places. P.J. O'Rourke called his travel to Warsaw, Managua, and Belfast in 1988 'holidays in hell', or Chris Rojek talking about 'black-spot' tourism in 1993 or the 'milking the macabre'.
Academic attention to the subject originated in Glasgow, Scotland: The term 'dark tourism' was coined in 1996 by Lennon and Foley, two faculty members of the Department of Hospitality, Tourism & Leisure Management at Glasgow Caledonian University, and the term 'thanatourism' was first mentioned by A.V. Seaton in 1996, then Professor of Tourism Marketing at the University of Strathclyde.
As of 2014, there have been many studies on definitions, labels, and subcategorizations, such as Holocaust tourism and slavery-heritage tourism, and the term continues to be molded outside academia by authors of travel literature. There is very little empirical research on the perspective of the dark tourist. Dark tourism has been formally studied from three main perspectives by a variety of different disciplines:
Scholars in this interdisciplinary field have examined many different aspects. Lennon and Foley expanded their original idea in their first book, deploring that "tact and taste do not prevail over economic considerations” and that the "blame for transgressions cannot lie solely on the shoulders of the proprietors, but also upon those of the tourists, for without their demand there would be no need to supply."
Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley from the Department of Tourism and Leisure Management of the Lancashire Business School at the University of Central Lancashire, UK have looked through the lens of the market place at dark tourism; they have coined the term 'product of dark tourism', and discuss its supply, demand, and consumption by the 'dark tourist'. Stone and Sharpley have published prolifically in this area, although not conducted empirical research, and founded an Institute for Dark Tourism. In 2005 Stone suggested that "within contemporary society people regularly consume death and suffering in touristic form, seemingly in the guise of education and/or entertainment", and sounded a call for research on "Dark Tourism Consumption" to "establish consumer behavior models that incorporate contemporary socio-cultural aspects of death and dying." In a 2006 paper Stone discussed "the dark tourism product range", arguing that "certain suppliers [of dark tourism] may [...] share particular product features, perceptions and characteristics, which can then be loosely translated into various 'shades of darkness'." His typology of death-related tourist sites consists of seven different types, ordered from light to dark: dark fun factories, dark exhibitions, dark dungeons, dark resting places, dark shrines, dark conflict sites and dark camps of genocide.
In 2008 Stone and Sharpley hypothesized, that coming together in places associated with grief and death in dark tourism represents immorality, so that morality may be communicated.
Studies in these fields aim at understanding the motivation and the meaning for both visitors and local developers of dark tourism locations, the social and cultural context of dark tourism and its consequences. A simple shrine evolved into a sanctuary after the so-called "tragedy of Cromañón" on 30 December 2004, when a fire due to a pyrotechnic flare in the Buenos Aires nightclub 'Republica de Cromagnon' killed 194 people trapped by closed emergency exits. the author speculated that "sanctuary, that not only resists being recycled in the form of a tourist attraction, but also still inspires a deep sadness in public opinion", and that "a sense of community reduced the gap between society and officials". This is not backed up by evidence even though the author claimed to have collected "information in the field,...too large to be described in this piece" akin to "diverse ethnographies conducted in this sanctuary". The same author hypothesized in 2012 that "dark tourism could be a mechanism of resiliency helping society to recover after a disaster or catastrophe, a form of domesticating death in a secularized world." The detailed exploration of the aftermath by a socio-linguist, discussed in however interesting, does not explain the genesis of the sanctuary, nor why it has not become a tourist attraction.
Whether a tourist attraction is educational or exploitative is defined by both its operators and its visitors. Tourism operators motivated by greed can "milk the macabre" or reexamine tragedies for a learning experience. Tourists consuming dark tourism products may desecrate a place and case studies are needed to probe who gains and loses.
Thana-tourism and slum-tourism have been described as re-interpreting the pastime according to the needs of financial elite. It has been speculated that nationalism and tourism operate as an instrument not to fragment a nation.
Recently, philosopher Maximiliano Korstanje coined the term thana-capitalism to refer to a climate of social Darwinism aimed at fostering the survival of the fittest. In this climate of struggle, only few win and the rest loses. It explains our obsessions for consumers' news or images related to terrorism attacks, trauma-scapes, disasters and so forth. Korstanje writes that the society of risk has set the pace to a new society thana-capitalism, where the main commodity is death. Not only we consume death everywhere in cultural entertainment industry, but we reinforce our superiority by witnessing the others' suffering. This allegory is based on the myths of Noah's Ark, which is considered by Korstanje as the first genocide. In this mythical event God divided the world in two, victims and witnesses. This logic of supremacy of those who lives over who dies is reinforced by Christ's crucifixion. Nowadays, a new segment of tourists travel to zones of mass death known as areas of Dark or Thana Tourism. Since in secularized societies death is a sign of weakness, consuming the other's death alludes to hopes for visitors to be in trace towards "the hall of chosen peoples".
Chris Hedges described the "Alcatraz narrative as presented by the National Park Service" as "whitewashing", because it "...ignores the savagery and injustice of America's system of mass incarceration". By omitting challenging details, the park service furthers a "Disneyfication", per Hedges.
Destinations of dark tourism include castles and battlefields such as Culloden in Scotland and Bran Castle and Poienari Castle in Romania, former prisons such as Beaumaris Prison in Anglesey, Wales, the Jack the Ripper exhibition in the London Dungeon, sites of natural disasters or man made disasters, such as Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine and the commercial activity at Ground Zero in New York one year after September 11, 2001. It also includes sites of human atrocities and genocide, such as the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, the sites of the Jeju Uprising in South Korea and the Spirit Lake Internment Camp Centre near La Ferme, Quebec as an example of Canada's internment operations of 1914–1920.
On Bali "death and funeral rites have become commodified for tourism ..., where enterprising businesses begin arranging tourist vans and sell tickets as soon as they hear someone is dying." In the US, visitors can tour the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC "with an identity card which matches their age and gender with that of a name and photo of a real holocaust victim. Against a backdrop of video interpretation portraying killing squads in action, the pseudo holocaust victim enters a personal ID into monitors as they wander around the attraction to discover how their real-life counterpart is faring."