On a beautiful summer day in 2016, as I walked with a group of
college students along a well-trodden path sprinkled with needles
and cones from majestic pine trees, our mood was somber and
The chirping of birds and the burning off of the dew on the
grassy hills by the rising sun in this idyllic setting did not
We were cognizant of what had happened here not too long ago.
This place – the
Ponar Forest – is the site where 72,000
Jewish men, women and children from Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius,
and nearby villages were massacred by the Nazis and their
I am an educator of the Holocaust, and my travel course takes
students through Central Europe to a number of Holocaust sites.
The aim is to provide students with a hands-on learning
However, some could well argue that this course is just another
form of “dark tourism” – an interest in locations that are
associated with human suffering and death.
What is so problematic about dark tourism? And are there
redeeming features that make it worthwhile?
Is it voyerism?
First, let’s understand what dark tourism is.
In January 2016, Otto Warmbier, an American college student,
was arrested in Pyongyang, North
Korea, for allegedly stealing a political
propaganda poster. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor
after a one-hour trial. A mere 17 months later, Warmbier was
released to his parents in a vegetative
state. He died a few days after.
Warmbier was on a trip advertised by Young Pioneer
Tours to destinations that, they said,
“your mother would rather you stayed away from.” This tragic
incident vividly illustrates the perils associated with certain
This then is what is referred to as “dark
tourism.” It involves traveling to sites
associated with death, natural disaster, acts of violence,
tragedy and crimes against humanity. It could also
include travel to dangerous political hotspots.
While data about the number of people embarking on dark tourism
are not readily available, there are indications that it is
becoming more popular. Over the past 20 years there has been a
dramatic increase in the number of peer-reviewed articles on
From 1996 through 2010, between three and seven papers appeared
annually; from 2011 to 2016, that number increased to between 14
and 25. My own Google search of “dark tourism” yielded nearly
four million hits.
Some scholars have argued that dark tourism is akin to voyerism: that is,
fulfilling a desire for the forbidden. Other researchers though
have found little evidence that people are interested in death
per se. A commonly reported motive seems to
be learning about past events, a curiosity that
drives an interest in such sites.
Of course, it is hard to say with certainty what the real motives
might be. Studies rely on self-reported data,
and respondents in such studies like to be perceived
in a positive light.This is especially true if the
questionnaire touches on a sensitive subject that may reveal a
disquieting or troubling characteristic.
Ethics of travel to some spots
Nonetheless, there is an important ethical dimension to dark tourism. Take the
case of tourism in North Korea. Proponents have argued that
anti-American sentiment may be decreased by the people-to-people
contact enabled by such tourism, or that such visits may create a
subversive effect. Proponents believe through such exposure North
Koreans may come to appreciate the liberties enjoyed by people in
the developed world and begin to question their own ways of
Indeed, the past decade has opened up North Korea to tourism,
allowing citizens from most countries to visit. Critics, however,
argue that the average North Korean does not interact with
tourists; the guided tours are well-scripted, allowing
engagement with the regime and not the people. Moreover, tourism
legitimizes the regime while enriching it at the same time. In
North Korea, for example, it is estimated
that tourism is a US$45 million per year industry.
The question that emerges then is whether it is ethical to
promote a repressive regime that is repeatedly cited for human
rights violations. This question is germane to all tourist
locations that have questionable human rights records, from China
And what of places of human suffering
from disasters such as
the Chernobyl nuclear power
plant in Ukraine, or from fascist regimes
that are no longer in existence such as
the killing fields of Phnom Penh, Cambodia? Are
they free from ethical constraints?
Few would doubt that it is immoral to benefit from others’
calamities, no matter how far removed these incidents may be from
our present time or place.
So how do we in particular, as Holocaust educators, escape the
trappings of dark tourism?
I strive to provide my students with an educational experience
that pays tribute to the social, cultural and artistic aspects of
European Jewry. For example, we pay a visit to the Polin Museum
in Warsaw, which tells the history of Polish Jews. At the same
time, however, going to the former concentration camps of
Auschwitz, Majdanek or Treblinka does privilege places of human
suffering and death.
How then do we maintain our intended purpose?
An important point of emphasis in our Holocaust travel course is
the need to respect the sites we visit. My students are told
clearly, especially in places of death and martyrdom, that
exhibits and artifacts are to be inspected visually. Never should
they reach out to touch or take anything.
Students can, at times, fail to understand the criminal meaning
of some acts and get into a great deal of trouble. In 2015, for
example, two teenagers were
arrested for taking found objects at
Auschwitz. More recently, another student stole some artifacts
from Auschwitz in order to complete an art project for her
Why intent matters
When places of death and torture are respected from the
perspective of valuing the sanctity of life and not seen as a
source of titillation resulting from a voyeuristic need, then these behaviors, I believe,
will not occur.
Indeed, the atmosphere at the Auschwitz museum cafe may appear to
be Disneyland-like, with visitors casually resting
over their cups of coffee or ice creams. In fact, however, it is
the attitude or intent of the visitor that ultimately determines
dark tourism’s presence.
Even in Auschwitz, then, a visit per se is not a sufficient
criterion for dark tourism. Snapping a smiling selfie at such a
site, however, should be of some concern.