Guides walk under the moonlight at El Tejar cemetery, in downtown Quito, Ecuador. Picture: AP
Guides walk under the moonlight at El Tejar cemetery, in downtown Quito, Ecuador. Picture: AP

3 ways to navigate the etiquette of dark tourism

By Natalie B. Compton Time of article published Nov 8, 2019

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Washington - When the fall weather creeps in, so, too, does an urge to seek out ways to terrify ourselves. Some of the scary fall activities we partake in can be casual and festive, such as visiting a "haunted" corn maze. 

Others are more serious, dipping into the realm of what has become known as dark tourism.

Although the term hasn't yet made it into the dictionary, it's largely defined as travel associated with somber events.

"It is sometimes claimed that the one element that unites all dark tourism is that it has, in some way, to do with death," founder Peter Hohenhaus said in an email. "But that's quite abstract, and I do not think this is the main motivation with regard to those individual places (it certainly isn't for me). Also: Not all dark-tourism sites are necessarily linked with death."

Some of the most popular dark-tourism sites in the world are Alcatraz, in San Francisco; Auschwitz, in Poland; Checkpoint Charlie, in Berlin; and Chernobyl, a site in Ukraine where tourism had been exponentially increasing since 2010, and then took off after HBO released a TV series on the disaster.

Whether you're visiting a destination for the sake of its darkness or to learn about its history, keep in mind that the content is sensitive, and the people connected to it are human. Embarking on dark tourism can be different from other types of travel, requiring a different set of manners to keep in mind.

Here's how to navigate the etiquette - no matter how dark.

Don't touch gravestones at cemeteries

The most common macabre fall tourist activity is the cemetery visit. October is high season for historic resting places, like Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, NY. It's a nonsectarian burial ground, but it should be visited with the same respect as a religious site.

While Sleepy Hollow welcomes the boost in tourism, it emphasizes showing respect when touring the active cemetery's 90-acre grounds.

Learn about religions outside of their Hollywood cliches

To better arm yourself with cultural sensitivity, familiarize yourself with the history of places you visit. What you think you may know from movies and folklore is probably not the true story. This rings true for travellers who take voodoo tours in New Orleans. 

Rethink selfies

We can feel disconnected to destinations where dark histories happened long ago, such as Salem, Massachusetts. Best known for its harrowing witch trials between 1692 and 1693, the town attracts up to 1 million tourists in October to its own population of 42 000. 

But certain destinations remain seriously morbid and should be treated delicately. If venturing to a real dark-tourism attraction is on your fall bucket list, tread lightly.

Step One is to reconsider the selfie. Hohenhaus urges readers to visit difficult heritage sites with respect, not like a touristy beach.

"Dark tourism and wielding selfie-sticks do not happily go together," Hohenhaus said.

Artist Shahak Shapira made headlines when he launched his Yolocaust project, wherein he digitally edited tourists' selfies at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, to include images of Holocaust victims in the background in order to shame the photo-takers.

The Washington Post

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