Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
Since its emergence as a recognizably modern practice in the early nineteenth century, tourism has been associated with a range of sub-practices, some of which are seen as forms of niche tourism (Novelli 2004). The postmodern era has, for example, witnessed the proliferation of various forms of ‘extreme pursuits’ (Huggan 2009), a number of which have linked tourism to sites of death, suffering and deprivation. Some forms of these practices have attracted widespread opprobrium for their perceived violation of ethical standards. ‘Slum tourism’ (Frenzel et al. 2012), involving, for example, visits to the townships of South Africa or the favelas of Brazil, is explored by Lydie Salvayre in Les Belles Âmes (2000), and may be seen as the contemporary manifestation of earlier, especially nineteenth-century urban journeys to witness abject poverty (Ross 2007; see also London 1903). ‘Disaster tourism’, that is, travel to sites of natural or man-made catastrophes, has also lent itself to creative engagement, such as in the photo-essay of Ambroise Tézenas (2014) or Andrew Blackwell's travelogue Visit Sunny Chernobyl (2012). Dark tourism is a more general umbrella concept for travel to sites, such as battlefields, prisons, slave forts and concentration camps, associated with death and suffering.
The term ‘dark tourism’ (also dubbed ‘thanatourism’ when it relates specifically to death) emerged in the 1990s in the work of several UK-based scholars of travel including Graham Dann, Malcolm Foley, John Lennon and Anthony Seaton (Foley and Lennon 1996; Seaton 1996; for an overview, see Asquith and Forsdick 2017; Light 2017; and Stone 2013). Much early work focused on typologies of the practice and explored the ways in which the heritage and leisure industries could adapt to a growing public appetite for this type of travel. Whereas Seaton saw historical continuity between contemporary dark tourism and early practices of thanatopsis (the contemplation of death; on this, see Seaton 1996), others have seen evidence of a predominantly postmodern phenomenon as Western societies respond to the medicalization and marginalization of death via this development in the leisure industry (Rojek 1993).
It is arguable that travel writing described dark tourist practices long before the phenomenon was identified with this term.