Volume 34, Issue 1 p. 51-60
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Violence and Recreation: Vacationing in the Realm of Dark Tourism



Department of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin–Madison
5240 W. H. Sewell Social Science Building
1180 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706

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First published: 05 May 2009
Citations: 69


Tourist destinations are typically conceptualized as sites of leisure. However, in recent years places associated with human misery and death have become the focus of sizable touristic interest. This practice, called dark tourism (Lennon and Foley 2000), involves visiting destinations at which violence is the main attraction. Dark tourism includes both places with violent legacies and those at which violence is an ongoing reality. It encompasses a wide variety of visitor motivations—educational, memorial, or recreational. In this article, I take a cross-regional approach to a diverse group of dark tourism sites, from Rwanda and Argentina to the United States and Brazil, considering their aesthetics and the experiences of visitors to contribute to the theoretical exploration of the relationship between tourism and violence.

The figure of the tourist has long been derided in academic literature as a shallow thrill seeker, a consumer of inauthentic images of foreign lands, content to mistake simulacra for true knowledge of the cultural other. Although tourism of this type undoubtedly continues to thrive, tourists are increasingly searching for different experiences. Such experiences range from so-called “voluntourism,” wherein tourists volunteer to build houses or conduct other service-based projects, to “reality tours,” which claim to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the daily lives of (usu.) poor and disenfranchised hosts.1 These experiences reveal that many of today's tourists are no longer content to loll on the beach or gather around the hotel bar with other visitors. Rather, tourists increasingly seek to understand other cultures and histories in ways that transcend the sanitized version of reality that tourism has traditionally offered. Consequentially, places of human misery and death have become the focus of sizable touristic interest, whether standing on their own as destinations or as a part of larger itineraries. This practice, which Lennon and Foley have called “dark tourism” (2000:3) and that is also called trauma tourism (Clark 2006), involves visiting destinations at which violence is the main attraction. Such tours are usually undertaken in the name of social justice and historical awareness; tourists report that they go on dark tours because they may learn more about violence in the hope of preventing future atrocities or ending current ones. However, the tension between social justice and the consumption of violence may also undermine the witnessing project that some forms of dark tourism claim to offer.

In this article, I consider several dark tourism destinations. I first describe common representational themes, including how destinations are organized and the types of activities offered. Second, I discuss sites where ongoing human suffering is presented for tourists' contemplation, drawing especially on my own work on favela (shantytown) tourism in Rio de Janeiro. Finally, I explore the theoretical implications of dark tourism, asking what it might suggest about the connection between tourism and violence more widely.

Although I treat dark tourism as a category of analysis here, such representations of violence are clearly historically and experientially unique from place to place and from visitor to visitor. Sites have different levels of organization and institutionalization, and the processes through which they come to be toured vary as well.2 For my purposes here, I consider primary sites of dark tourism, that is, places where acts of violence actually occurred (e.g., assassination sites, locations of mass graves, detention centers). Secondary sites, such as genocide museums in geographically disparate places, are not considered dark tourism destinations, in spite of the fact that their subject material is often indistinguishable from that of museums or monuments located at the actual sites of atrocities. This distinction is important because it underscores the importance of place in developing landscapes of interest to travelers. Primary sites hold a special power; they are believed to be locales where the veil between a violent past and the present can be transcended.3

Dark tourism destinations elicit widely different responses in their visitors, depending on the subject positions that each visitor brings to the site. The experience of dark tourism sites, then, is not uniform or objective, but subjective and extremely individual. Consider the potential difference between survivors, family members, and those with no direct connection to victims.4 For example, visitation to Ghanaian slave castles would be experienced differently depending on the position of the tourist; African Americans visiting to learn about the plight of their ancestors, Anglo-Americans whose families held slaves, and Ghanaians would embody a diverse range of subject positions, expectations, and experiences (Bruner 1996; Richards 2006, 2007). Tourist behaviors are also influenced by perceptions about the legitimacy of the violence being presented. For example, a WWII memorial site that honors the Allied forces, generally considered to have fought a righteous war, might be received differently than a memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing, an event regarded by most Americans as a senseless act of terrorism.

Dark Tourism and the Imagination

Tourism relies heavily on expectation and the imagination. As is the case with other, tamer forms of tourism, the media plays a foundational role in igniting the initial sparks of interest for a traveling public. Violent and disastrous events are often broadcast live into our living rooms. Kleinman and Kleinman write about the mediation of violence in the current era: “Images of trauma are part of our political economy” (1997:8). Such images comprise a large portion of both news and entertainment media. Thus, travelers begin as armchair tourists, as the news camera performs a sort of cinematic reconnaissance for future trips (Lennon and Foley 2000; Rojek and Urry 1997). Such ubiquitous media treatment of tragedy influences the substantive content of tourists' narratives about an event, and prompts viewers to embark on imaginative voyages, or pretours, if you will. Imaginary tourism transcends the visual and includes fully somatic fantasy about what places of violence might smell or feel like. These images and expectations may or may not match later firsthand experience, and this creates a situation in which dark tourism sites also hold the potential to disappoint or to bore.5

Travel literature, which plays a key structuring role in tourism, has its roots in the colonial era and can stimulate the creation of imaginary travel, forming, according to Spitzer (1949), the “second pilgrim” (Campbell 1988)—the reader at home who is able to journey vicariously in the words and images of the travel narrative. Modern tourist literature, which I see as encompassing not only books but also blogs and newspaper articles, documentaries, photo logs, commentary on tour websites, and so forth, contributes to the experience of being on tour and affects people's concrete experiences.6 In addition to providing important practical information about vacationing, travel literature also hints at proper protocols and behaviors at different sites. This approach is especially evident in blogs and online travel guides, wherein tourists provide both commentary and reflection about their travels.7 Posts often outline appropriate behavior at dark tourism destinations: one should not eat, one should be quiet and reverent, one should take pictures but only tasteful ones. Dark tourists with whom I have spoken have frequently discussed how they felt they should behave, and how alarming it was to watch others behaving in ways they considered disrespectful.8 For example, on a recent group tour in one of Rio de Janeiro's shantytowns, several tourists were ignoring the witnessing and social justice aspects of the tour and using it instead as an opportunity to chase off the previous night's hangover, gulping cocktails and beer at every chance. The tour guide and the other tourists in the group were put off by this behavior, viewing it as both disrespectful and antithetical to the educational goal of the tour.

Witnesses or Voyeurs?

Dark tourism intersects nicely with Riches's (1986) image of violent action, in which the victim, perpetrator, and witness reflect different conceptual positions, forming a triangle with violence at its center. Dark tourism is most explicitly concerned with the position of witness, through which the adjacent subjectivities of both perpetrator and victim are interrogated. Sites encompass witnessing on two primary levels: the interpretations given by the creators and administrators of the site and consequent witnessing by tourists, who bring their own individual meanings to bear on the site as well. This is not to suggest that there is necessarily an alignment between these two forms of witnessing; rather, there is frequently a disjuncture between the site designers' intended goals and visitors' interpretations, as designers often have little control over how tourists actually use the site.9

As scholars have duly noted, witnessing violence is extraordinarily complex, and special attention is required to avoid turning a voyeuristic eye toward human suffering (Nordstrom and Robben 1995; Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004; Whitehead 2004). I would argue that the nuances of such a difficulty come sharply into focus in the case of dark tourism, as combining commercialization with witnessing often results in the creation of spectacular, fantastic displays—displays that are unlikely to do justice to the pain of others. Furthermore, there is an obvious tension between undertaking important witnessing work and following a vacation itinerary. How might tourist activities before and after visitation to dark tourism sites frame the experience (e.g., going to dinner at an expensive restaurant, seeing a cultural performance, going clubbing). Dark tourism will, in some cases, result in the transformation of violence into one more attraction, wedged in between more typical tourist activities.10 When atrocity becomes a recreational attraction, visitors are themselves inflicting further violence as they search out unique and “authentic” experiences. Ethically, we must question whether tours undertaken in the name of social justice or global awareness are actually experienced as such or whether they might instead work to mask the recreational, voyeuristic allure of violence. At times, dark tourism can produce “recreational grief” (West 2004:11), a form of grief in which mourning the deaths or afflictions of others becomes an enjoyable pastime.11 For example, the fetishization of the death of JonBenét Ramsey in the United States and its feature role in tabloids and television shows demonstrate the ease with which violent events can become oversaturated and incorporated into recreational media consumption.

Dark tourism sites also reveal how violent events undergo retrospective evaluation within their given social contexts. These are often places where discourses about historical identity and memory are grappled with, either through the construction of a monument or through the erasure of evidence from a site.12 The former is well illustrated by the controversy over the design and construction of the 9/11 memorial. The magnitude of the event for Americans only heightened the friction over the process of memorialization, and showcased concerns about how this darker side of history and memory was to be “appropriately” presented to the public—however, there was never much question that the event itself required a memorial (Sturken 2007). In contrast, consider a more controversial moment in U.S. history: the use of World War II Japanese internment camps, most of which are in ruins. Other such examples of erasure or antimemorialization include the treatment of homes of notorious murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer, which are frequently torn down, in a telling act of obliteration (Foote 2003). Thus, as societies, we clearly choose which places we want to memorialize. Because not all violent events capture tourists' imagination or develop into full-fledged attractions, those that do reflect certain power-laden discourses about how violence intersects with history and memory.

Dark Tourism Destinations

Dark tourism sites can be separated into several categories, with defining features of site structure and tourist experience unique to each. The most common type of site is interpretive and historical, whether it is located at the primary scene of an atrocity or at a geographically unrelated place. Often taking a museum form, such sites present a narrative and an event-based view of violence, leading the tourist through the history and details of a specific tragedy. An “in-context” approach (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998), that is, a curation approach that is heavily contextualized through labeling and narration, characterizes such displays—and works to render violence as explainable and knowable through education and information.13 To narrate is to concretize or to tell some particular version of history. It's much like putting a dream into words; it changes and solidifies it, giving it a particular meaning that tends to exclude other interpretations. This certainly happens with all kinds of curation of the past, but dark tourism takes something as unintelligible as genocide and attempts to explain it, order it, and, at times, render it aesthetically pleasing or even beautiful. The experience of violence, as explored in the ethnographic work of numerous authors (Hinton 2005; Kleinman and Kleinman 1997; Nordstrom and Robben 1995; Whitehead 2002), is anything but ordered or understandable.

Interpretive sites anchor tourists in a witness position, distant in space and time from more visceral elements, which, if present at all, are safely contained in a museum case behind a protective pane of Plexiglas. This more traditional approach has been adopted at such popular destinations as the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the former book depository from which Oswald fired on President Kennedy, some parts of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Rwandan genocide memorial in Kigali. In contrast, Escuela de Suboficiales de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), which was one of the main torture and detention centers in Argentina during the Dirty War, includes minimal interpretation, as most of the rooms stand empty. However, the lack of textual interpretation is not indicative of a lack of context, but, rather, suggests that the narrative is so pervasive that it is not necessary to render it explicit through labeling.14 This is also the approach at many of the Holocaust camps; the displays of objects associated with the genocide, such as empty Zyklon B canisters on display at Auschwitz, act as mnemonic devices, allowing visitors to access a store of preinscribed information about a given place and event.

Dark tourism attractions, which are located at the place of the original violence, often depend on an “in situ” technique, whereby displays are given context through the re-creation, maintenance, or restoration of the habitat in which they “naturally” occurred (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998). This technique is common at assassination sites, such as at the location of Trotsky's death in Mexico City or at Birla House, where Mahatma Gandhi was killed. Such places still hold the tourist at arm's length from actual confrontation with violence. “In situ” dark tourism freezes time; temporal stagnation is signaled by the use of antiquated, period-appropriate objects, which, while lending an air of realism, might actually work to distance the tourist from the event.

The attempt at maintaining the site as it was at the moment of violence also suggests how touristic authenticity is employed. Authenticity has been a longtime concern of tourism scholars, who see the tourist encounter as influenced by guests' expectations—expectations that hosts and curators strive to meet (MacCannell 1976; Smith 1989). The use of original objects, such as weapons or torture devices, is simply an extension of this dynamic. The desire to present an authentic representation for tourists can also create conflict in cases where the original site has been destroyed or has simply deteriorated over time, or when the implements of death are not readily available for use in displays. In such cases, the ethical implications of replication must be considered.

I would like to move from these more clean and organized displays to several other types of sites, which are of great interest not only because of the complexities of representation that they introduce but also because of the reactions that they seek to generate in visitors. These are sites at which violence has been unaltered and unsanitized; visitors are confronted with its raw brutality. This style of site is typified by the representational treatment of the Rwandan genocide. In Nyamata and Ntarama, local churches hold the deteriorating remains of thousands of Tutsi civilians. Tourists can walk through the buildings where some of the largest massacres took place, gazing at the human bodies that have been left to rest in the places and positions of death (Gourevitch 1998; Guyer in press). Large holes in the walls and ceilings allow visitors to peer at the horrors within. Guided tours are available from survivors, many of whom know their entire families lie inside the belly of the church. In this case, the tourist is brought into closer proximity with violence, but still remains tourist-as-witness. Although such tourist sites never move the visitor completely into the position of perpetrator, in the Rwandan case the perpetrator is much more visible, an almost ghostly presence, who might have been standing in the same place as the tourist when he opened fire.15

Yet another variety of dark tourism involves tourist experiences in which mimesis is omnipresent. Actors or, more frequently, the tourists themselves act out or replicate the original violence. Several examples will suffice to give a better sense of how such mimesis functions to immerse the tourist more fully in another place or time. In Lithuania, visitors tour “Stalin World,” designed as a replica of a Soviet gulag, where actors costumed as infamous members of the military police terrorize locals and tourists alike by engaging in mock deportations. Schwenkel (2006:16–17) reports that at the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, tourists pay to crawl through the narrow tunnels as the Vietcong once did and can shoot period-appropriate Soviet-made AK-47s and rent U.S. G.I. uniforms. At the site of the John F. Kennedy assassination, tourists pay to reenact the president's murder from a new perspective. The tour takes place in a classic replica limousine, and women can don a hat like that worn by Jackie Kennedy on the day of her husband's death. As a period-appropriate soundtrack plays, tourists ride along the actual route that the Kennedys took; as they pass in front of the book depository, the sound of shots is heard. The driver steps on the gas and rushes to the hospital, where the original radio broadcast announces the president's death. Such a tour clearly encourages the tourist to move from the position of witness into that of victim, and therefore offers a type of pungent bodily experience that gives tourists an engagingly powerful, albeit constructed, perspective on violence.

As Desmond (1999) has argued effectively, the notion of touristic experience should be expanded to include a wide range of embodied aspects. I would agree that tourism is important in generating knowledge, wherein an event, history, or a famous person's life and death can be internalized and inscribed within the being of the visitor. At the same time, in the case of dark tourism, this experience makes the suffering of the other just that—radically other. As Taussig (1993) has outlined for the colonial era, the experience of the other is an important defining experience, integral to Western modernity. Yet if, as he suggests, to mimic is to mark oneself off ontologically from the other, then what do we make of tourists' mimicry of victimhood? Does the distance created by reenactment render victims' suffering remote, or does its embodiment help visitors to understand violence better?

Experiencing Violence as a Recreational Pursuit

Although most dark tourism is centered on visiting places where violence is a legacy firmly located in the past, some is centered on sites where the focus is on violence still in progress, or where the potential for violence is the primary draw. Thus, this is not trauma that has temporally ended and needs reconciliation in the present; rather, it is violence that is current and live. For example, in South Korea, tourists can visit the demilitarized zone and, at a nearby U.S. military base, play a round of golf on what has been called “the world's most dangerous golf course” because it is surrounded by hundreds of unexploded land mines. Thousands of people toured post-Katrina New Orleans, where tourists could look out bus windows at breached levees and gawk at residents returning to the slim remains of their houses. At the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, crowds attend the annual prison rodeo, the central attraction of which is watching prisoners-cum-rodeo riders inflicting bodily harm on one another and being thrown to their near deaths by wild horses (Schrift 2004).

I am currently conducting research on favela tourism in Rio de Janeiro, a violent place in two ways: first, through what Scheper-Hughes (1992:ch. 6) refers to as “everyday violence”—racism, poverty, marginalization, lack of opportunity. This is violence that operates on a structural level, but which has physical and emotional effects as well. This type of violence is directly observable in the favela and thus obvious to tourists. Poverty is communicated through dilapidated housing, open sewage, and the marked difference in skin tone between the residents of the city's Zona Sul and those on the hillsides. In addition to such structural violence, favela life is also defined by a constant threat of physical violence. Drug traffickers are in continual tension with both police and rival gang factions, and stray bullets kill innocent bystanders. Furthermore, favelas maintain a tense relationship with the Brazilian government, having been formed precisely out of what Arias (2006) has argued to be a certain violent, exclusionary, and exploitative relationship with the state. Even as I write this, a group of tourists are riding motorcycles up through the narrow alleys and paths beneath my window, thrilled at the sight of Uzi submachine guns cradled in the arms of teenage drug traffickers. Although organized tour companies in the favela maintain that the tours are about social justice and claim to be raising tourists' awareness of poverty, racism, and class discrimination, it is hard to determine whether tourists truly engage with these goals or whether they are attracted by the titillating potential for danger, personal injury, or even death.


Conceptualizing dark tourism means tackling the relationship between tourism as an educational, recreational leisure practice and violence, in all its myriad forms. Part of what is intriguing about dark tourism is the tension between what is conventionally conceived of as recreational travel and the interest in witnessing the hard realities of life. Leisure and violence are practices that traditionally have been seen as antithetical.16 In addition to facing challenges of representation in the construction and narration of sites, dark tourism occupies a tense intermediary zone between voyeurism and social justice. Even tours that maintain a strong goal of bringing greater awareness to tourists face the problem of reception. It might be possible to set the tone of the tours, to control the types of messages consciously cultivated, or to influence the performance of guides, but it is not easy to control the reception of such activities by tourists, who come with their own motivations and expectations. Thus, dark tourism remains an ambivalent pursuit. Tourist motivations are increasingly colored by the prevalence of travel writing, itself a shifting body of literature, as travelers themselves increasingly circulate information via the Internet. Dark tourism will likely always include those just looking for cheap thrills, as well as those seeking to bear witness to both past and ongoing violence.


  • 1 A good example of reality tours can be found at the San Francisco–based tour company Global Exchange (http://www.globalexchange.org).
  • 2 Sites develop differently. In some cases, the location of the atrocity was the site of spontaneous memorialization or visitation. Tourists constructed their own memorial out of the objects they brought with them (e.g., teddy bears, flowers, letters). In other cases, the site did not receive many visitors until something of interest was constructed, like a museum. Destinations also vary by size. Auschwitz, for example, receives thousands of visitors a year, whereas small-scale memorials, such as roadside crosses (Everett 2002), may receive only a dozen people.
  • 3 For more on the power of place and dark tourism, see Sturken 2007:ch. 4.
  • 4 When considering large-scale national tragedies, such as September 11, 2001, one has difficulty conceiving of anyone who is not connected in some way to the tragedy. Even those who do not have a direct relationship with victims share in a cultural and national memory of the event.
  • 5 On a favela tour recently, a tourist told me that she felt both disappointed and bored by the content of the tour. The favela was “too nice,” she did not see any armed gangsters, and the guide's narration was uninteresting.
  • 6 Most of the web postings about a certain site include photos, another interesting topic in itself. What do tourists do with the photos they take at sites of atrocity? Are they used to demonstrate that they were there, that they witnessed? Are they used to educate others at home who could not make the journey, or are they put away in a photo album with other souvenirs?
  • 7 For example, the major tour guide publishing companies like Lonely Planet and Frommer's maintain web versions of their guides. Most are interactive and allow tourists to post comments and suggestions that are publicly viewable. Having spent considerable time on these sites, I have noticed that they often take on a blog form, as tourists describe their experiences for one another and post photos from their trips.
  • 8 Again, this ties into the possibility that dark tours may not match up with actual tourist expectation. Especially when tourists expect to see something extremely violent or to experience danger, or desire a transformative experience, they are often disappointed.
  • 9 Neo-Nazi visitation to Holocaust camps would be a salient example here.
  • 10 An Auschwitz visitor to whom I talked told me that he would be unlikely to visit the camp ever again. Once was enough. This suggests that, perhaps unlike many other tourist destinations, which are visited repeatedly, trauma tourists might feel the need to witness only once and not make repeated journeys.
  • 11 West also refers to this as mourning sickness (2004:66).
  • 12 See Foote 2003.
  • 13 This approach necessarily represents violence not as it was experienced, but only through a postpartum interpretation.
  • 14 I do not intend ubiquitous to mean that the interpretations of such narratives are uniform or uncontested. Rather, although the facts or stories themselves are somewhat standardized, the meanings assigned are far from that.
  • 15 Although I do not know of any site that explicitly does so, what would it mean to allow the experience of perpetrator to become more animated—to allow tourists to play at inflicting violence on others?
  • 16 However, an examination of our media suggests that violence is increasingly part of recreation through film and video games.