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Literature review

This literature review is written by Akshara Walia as part of her NHTV Master in Tourism Destination Management.


Dark tourism- also known as ‘Thanatourism’- is a thriving phenomenon which has generated considerable interest within the tourism industry. The term was first coined by Foley and Lennon (Stone Sharpley, 2008), and has been generally described as “tourism involving locations associated with death and great suffering” (Gibson, 2006: pg. 47). This literature review will attempt to understand and analyse the various motivations and perceptions of tourists visiting these dark sites.

The fundamental motive for visiting dark sites is being explored in modern research. According to Stone and Sharpley, “visitors are seen to be driven by differing intensities of interest or fascination in death” (Stone Sharpley, 2008: pg 6). Hence, it can be perceived that visitor motivations are not homogenous.

The motivations of visitors can be further explored through the differentiation in degrees of dark tourism. Due to the varied and uniquely different nature of dark tourism products, the term dark tourism itself is vague and ambiguous (Stone, 2006).

The existing literature on the motivations for dark tourism is fragmented (Stone, 2011). To bridge the gaps in existing literature, a deeper insight is required relating to the definition of dark tourism itself.

Relating to this perspective, seven suppliers of dark tourism have been identified ranging from ‘light’ to ‘dark’ dark tourism (Stone, 2006). These were described as a “spectrum of supply outlined with a subsequent seven type categorisation of dark tourism suppliers” (Stone, 2006: Pg. 157). They include dark fun factories, dark exhibitions, dark dungeons, dark resting places, dark shrines, dark conflict sites and dark genocide camps. Thus a range of tourist experiences has been created from the lightest shades (haunted houses at amusement parks) to the darkest (Auschwitz). This sub categorization of dark tourism enables a broader perspective into the motivations of visitors depending on the ‘degree of darkness’. For example, the motivations of a tourist on a Jack the Ripper tour in London will differ from those of a tourist at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.

Literature Review:

Traditionally this form of tourism has been studied on the premise that visitors of dark sites- also known as ‘dark tourists’- are fascinated with the concept of death. Modern society’s fascination with death has indeed spurred the phenomenon of dark tourism (Stone, 2006). Gibson further explored this premise within the paradigms of serial murder related tourism- an emerging genre of dark tourism, particularly in the United States. According to his findings, wound culture theory- which stems from an innate fascination of death- is directly related to the growing interest in serial murder tourism (Gibson, 2006). A prime example is the Jack the Ripper Tourist Experience in the United Kingdom which is focused on entertainment purposes despite an inclination towards the macabre (Gibson, 2006). However, Thanatourism extends beyond a dark fascination with death and studies have shown that this is not the only motivation for visiting dark sites. Several factors take precedence over this alleged fascination and were subsequently identified. They have been summarised below.

Personal Heritage:

The most commonly cited reason has been to obtain a sense of emotional heritage. Based on this motivation, it can be argued that the incentives for visiting dark sites are similar to those visiting a regular heritage site (Biran Poria Oren, 2011). Focusing on the sub category of battlefield tourism, visitor motivations stemmed from a sense of moral or cultural obligation to the dead and as a result, a visit to a dark site manifests as a ‘pilgrimage’ owing to a sense of heritage (Dunkley Morgan Westwood, 2011). These visitor motivations were identified to be based on a sense of personal heritage owing to the participation of their relatives and kin in the First World War (Dunkley Morgan Westwood, 2011).

The same phenomenon was observed with respect to slave tourism where visitors were drawn to the Slave Castles in Ghana irrespective of transnational boundaries owing to shared cultural roots and a desire to identify with these sites and the events that transpired there (Mowatt Chancellor, 2011). The motivation to visit sites connected with the personal heritage of the visitor was the highest and most significant reason to visit these sites (Biran Poria Oren, 2011). Hence the motivations in this case arise from a sense of personal and cultural connection and the site is treated as a heritage site.

It was also noted that visitors with heritage based motivations considered themselves to be ‘representative pilgrims’ and felt that they were paying homage to the dead on behalf of other people who could not be there physically (Dunkley Morgan Westwood, 2011). The same phenomenon was observed amongst visitors of Slave Castles in Ghana who saw themselves as less of tourists and more as witnesses to history and travellers on a pilgrimage (Mowatt Chancellor, 2011) irrespective of transnational boundaries and united by a common ethnic history. As a result a collective, communal feeling of shared heritage also acts as an incentive and strengthens the desire to visit dark sites.

The ‘see it to believe it’ phenomenon:

Other motivations with these sites were identified as ‘a sense of validation’ or a desire to understand the magnitude of the situation and even further (Dunkley Morgan Westwood, 2011). This phenomena of ‘see it to believe it’ is among the most common motivations for Thanatourism (Biran Poria Oren, 2011).

Tourists felt the need to validate the tragedies of these sites for themselves and reflect on the scale and magnitude of the happenings. Visiting these sites is an exercise in self education which is focused on internalized understanding of the dark history of these sites. This motivation may or may not stem from a sense of personal or cultural heritage. However, it has been identified as a major inducement for Thanatourism.

Detached Interest:

Detached interest is a motivational category encompassing a span of motivations related to educational reasons, incentive to visit a famous site and even recreational purposes.

There were also visitors who were interested in the strategies and logistics of War itself, owing to detached military interests (Dunkley Morgan Westwood, 2011). These ‘War hobbyists’ are part of a growing sub culture in contemporary society and their motivations to visit do not stem from a sense of personal loss, validation or relation to the dead but as an observer of the War itself.

General interest in ‘famous dark sites’ was motivated by the fame (or infamy) of the site in question, and a general curiosity about death (Biran Poria Oren, 2011). This motivation is directly related to the level of information available regarding the site as it pertains to the ‘famousness’ of the site. In addition, this factor was also linked with the desire to ‘learn and understand’ in terms of a historical context. In the case of Auschwitz, the educational aspect was one of the highest motivators to visit (Brian Poria Oren, 2011).

On the same note, a study conducted by Braithwaite and Leiper (2010) pertaining to the Death Railway on the Kwai River showed that while some tourists were induced to visit for emotional and cultural reasons, a considerable proportion of tourists visited the area for recreational purposes and with the intent of experiencing something novel but with no real knowledge of the tragic history of the River (Braithwaite Leiper, 2010). This particular case highlights the importance of knowledge and information relating to dark sites with respect to the motivations of visitors. The recreational tourism in this case had arisen owing to a lack of information about the wartime tragedy of this site (Braithwaite Leiper, 2010). Due to the lack of information, tourists remained unmindful of the dark past of this site. Nature based tourism was also cited as a motivation to visit Korea’s Demilitarised Zone sites by some of the tourists despite the war related history of this site (Bigley Lee Chon Yoon, 2011).

Hence, it can be ascertained that tourist motivations also depend on the information available regarding these sites. Motivations vary on the basis of marketing efforts and destination management creating a ‘pull’ for the tourists as was observed in the case of Korea’s War Tourism (Bigley Lee Chon Yoon, 2011). Thus, the knowledge about a site and the level of fame effect the motivations of tourists as well.

Reflection of Mortality:

Another view has also emerged that focuses on the collective need for reassurance relating to death. It has been suggested that dark tourism has flourished owing to the perspective of death in contemporary society (Stone Sharpley, 2008). The inevitable nature of death exerts a sense of dread and isolation within every individual. In the same vein, dark tourism has emerged as a way for people to ‘observe death from a safe distance’ in a socially sanctioned environment. It has been stated that “a melancholic fascination exists within post-conventional society, for some individuals at least, to witness the work of the Grim Reaper up close and personal, but within the apparent safe confines of tourism.” (Stone, 2011: Pg 3). It is the distancing of modern society from the reality and inevitability of death that has resulted in a rising demand for the consumption of dark tourism as a means of sanitizing the death experience (Stone Sharpley, 2008).

Stone further exemplifies this through the case of Body Works- a touring cadaver exhibit which has garnered significant interest in recent years. According to the findings, tourists were compelled to visit this exhibition in order to ponder their own mentality (Stone 2011). Thus dark tourism becomes an exercise in reflection and empathy, and motivates tourists to visit as a means of dealing with the inevitability of death.

This premise is applicable to the collective public and as a result, homogenizes the incentive for visiting dark sites into a singular motive- to reconnect the self with reality by observing the finality of death.


The range of motivations for visiting dark sites and Thanatourism in general is considerable. Motivations vary on the basis of personal heritage, an urge for validation, educational reasons, reflection of death and in completely different case even entertainment or general interest.

However, a number of factors affect the motivations of visitors and these are yet to be fully explored. These factors have to be considered in order to correctly analyse the motivation for visiting dark sites.

It is clear that cultural relevance and personal heritage remain the most significant reason for visiting dark sites and tourists with a cultural relation to the site show the highest degree of motivation in visiting. However, a point of interest that has emerged is the feeling of shared responsibility and obligation that these visitors perceive. As ‘representative pilgrims’ they feel that their visit is not only for their own benefit, but is on behalf of others who could not be present physically. As observed among tourists of African descent at the slave castles in Ghana and among descendant of victims of the First World War, this sense of collective heritage is also a motivation to visit these sites

The ‘degree of darkness’ of the site in questions is a factor that has yet to receive due consideration in research as a factor affecting visitor motivations. The ‘range of darkness’ is a significant facet in deciding visitor intentions and incentives. Some sites simply touch on the concept of the macabre to provide an entertainment experience, while others are sombre remnants of tragic histories of war and genocide. Dark fun factories are frequented for reasons that are completely different from those for visiting prisoner of war camps. Thus visitor motivations differ in accordance with the ‘degree of darkness’ along the dark tourism spectrum. This aspect has to be explored in the context of analysis of visitor motivations.

Another aspect that has to be considered is the attraction of dark sites for subcultures of tourists. Battlefield tourism for example, is an emerging tourism avenue not only among those with personal and cultural reasons to visit but also amongst a subcategory of tourists who are interested in the militaristic aspect and logistics of war. These tourists have a general interest in the happenings but are not emotionally inclined. Hence, new and emerging subcultures may also find something of relevance in these sites despite no personal motivations for visiting. These emerging subcultures are a niche market and they have to be taken into consideration during marketing and promotion.

Another factor affecting the motivation to visit was the ‘fame’ associated with the site. Effective dissemination of knowledge and information about the sites history enables tourists to understand the tragedies that occurred and empathise with the victims. In contrast, it was shown that if the information available was limited tourists may not be able to understand the dynamics of the historical situation. As in the case of visitors at the River Kwai, their reasons for visiting may not be related to the site at all but instead be based on recreational purposes (Braithwaite Lieper 2011).

All these factors need to be considered while analysing the motivations of dark tourists as well as in marketing and knowledge dissemination of these sites in order to effectively manage tourism for such destinations and their unique appeal for tourists.

In conclusion, dark tourism’s appeal lies not within the realms of the dead and forgotten but in a sense of cultural legacy, desire to understand and reassurance and closure with respect to death. Hence, it is an embodiment of living desire to sustain and preserve history for future generations, empathise with those who suffered injustice and a hope to come to terms with the mistakes of the past.



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