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EXPLAINER: Here's what you should know about the 'Dark Tourism' travel trend

By John Patrick Magno Ranara Published Oct 17, 2022 2:06 pm

If you're thinking of traveling around this October, you might be drawn to places with a haunting history of death, torture, and tragedy. Far from the usual sunny beaches and sightseeing spots, some tourist destinations fall under "dark tourism".

In its essence, dark tourism is when you go sightseeing to places where some of the darkest events of human history unfolded. These famous tourist attractions are often visited not because of how beautiful and Instagram-worthy they are, but because of their history following the aftermath of a major disaster or traumatic event.

These include visiting dungeons, resting places, conflict sites, and prisons. One of the most notable examples of this is the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history that killed thousands of people as a result of radiation-induced illnesses.

Dark tourism may not be for everyone, but it's actually gaining popularity among travelers following television shows like Netflix's Dark Tourist and HBO's Chernobyl.

In a report by The Washington Post, Philip Stone, executive director of a dark tourism research institute, said that people are drawn to such grim places because of human nature.

"We’ve just got this cultural fascination with the darker side of history; most history is dark. I think when we go to these places, we see not strangers, but often we see ourselves and perhaps what we might do in those circumstances," Stone said.

Benjamin Canapi, head tour guide of WanderManila, told PhilSTAR L!fe that this travel trend is rising because "it's something unique and novel at this point in time".

Citing Manila as an example of a dark tourism area, he said, "Manila's history is quite dark, so it's not a big leap to shift from your typical history or heritage tour to a dark tourism tour when you're in places like Intramuros and Luneta."

According to Canapi, dark tourism can be beneficial as it gives tourists a chance to learn chapters of history that are not taught the way it should be in schools.

Activities to do

There are a wide range of activities to do when engaging in dark tourism. According to a study published in the International Journal of Tourism Cities, these activities can be divided into two categories: "dark" and "light".

Under the extreme end of the dark section, the activities have an educational and authentic nature in them, wherein tourists actually visit the destinations themselves in order to learn more about its history.

On the other end of the spectrum are the light activities, which is defined by having a more commercial nature. The primary goal of the tourist in doing the activities is not to learn about the place's history, but rather to have fun and enjoy themselves.

Is it ethical?

Generally, when you go to popular tourist spots such as beaches or mountains, you are free to have fun however you want and enjoy the moment to the fullest, but it's a different scenario when it comes to dark tourism destinations.

Since these places are where many people experienced suffering and death, critics commonly deride dark tourism as unethical if tourists do not take the destinations seriously.

One of the main criticisms is that it is a form of exploitation because operators of the tourist spots take advantage of their grim history for profitable gains, thus disrespecting the victims of the tragedy. Others pointed out that it is unethical if travelers visit the area to merely take selfies, scratch it off of their bucket list, or brag about it on social media.

In an interview with CNN Travel, Rebekah Stewart, a communications and outreach manager at the Center for Responsible Travel, highlighted the importance of asking yourself why you're visiting these types of places.

"Before visiting places that are associated with death and tragedy, it's important to reflect upon your intention. Are you visiting to deepen your understanding and pay your respects, or are you going to check a box or take a selfie?" she said.

For Canapi, they always make sure that they are very respective towards the darker chapters of Philippine history whenever they tour their customers in such places.

"There are crazy stories in our history, that's for sure, but we crack jokes when the portion of the tour calls for it, and we are somber and respectful when the situation demands we be somber and respectful. We've certainly never done any tour for the sake of sensationalism and a quick buck. Ultimately, it boils down to intention and respect," Canapi said.

Dark tourism spots in the Philippines

The Philippines has its fair share of tourist attractions that are associated with death and tragedy. Here are some places you may want to visit, but keep in mind to always be respectful.

  • Manila Film Center
    • This national building located near the Cultural Center of the Philippines has a controversial backstory when around 169 workers died after the theater's scaffolding collapsed on them, resulting in workers being burried alive in quick-drying cement. Many activists say that the tragedy happened because the Marcos family, who were in power at the time, rushed the construction.
  • Fort Santiago
    • This sacred and historic site in Intramuros is home to dungeons used by the Japanese Imperial Army to imprison Filipinos during the Second World War. During the conflict, the Japanese sealed the dungeons shut and left about 600 prisoners inside, who all died from hunger and suffocation and turned into decomposing corpses.
  • Camiguin’s Sunken Cemetery
    • From the name itself, this underwater graveyard was the result of the destructive eruptions of Mt. Vulcan from 1827 to 1871, which sunk the community cemetery along with the capital city surrounding it below sea level. A giant cross was built in the middle of the sea to mark this place of rest.