How to Write About Dark Tourism
Updated: May 20, 2020
As a freelance travel journalist with an interest in European history, I’ve haunted more than my fair share of cemeteries and memorials. And I’m in good company.
Visiting sites associated with death and disaster, also known as dark tourism, has never been more common. For travel writers, it’s important to reflect on how to write about these destinations in an informative but ethical way.
Cemeteries are headline attractions in cities like London, Buenos Aires and Paris, where 3.5 million annual visitors walk among Père Lachaise’s moss-clung tombs. It’s common for vacationers in Kraków, Munich and Prague to go on day trips to concentration camps (respectively Auschwitz, Dachau and Terezín). Even before the HBO series, there was a steady stream of visitors joining guided tours to the Chernobyl fallout zone.
For content writers, dark tourism presents a dilemma. Travel writing can take a variety of forms but the onus is usually on inspiring the reader, leaving them eager to experience a place. It requires care to enthuse a reader about a dark tourism destination without commodifying the site of a tragedy.
1. Don’t Shy Away From Dark Tourism
In many cases, there’s a moral imperative to encourage people to visit sites of tragedy. Most tourists arrive at dark tourism sites to pay their respects and deepen their understanding of historical events. The dark tourism phenomenon keeps monuments and museums in business, and by their very existence these venues continue the fight against denialism and historical revisionism.
Tourism marketers and content writers shouldn’t be squeamish about covering sites associated with death or tragedy. There’s an appetite for information about dark tourism (which translates into bookings), and an opportunity to meet that need with content that is thought-provoking and informative.
2. Beware Calls to Action
Calls to action are very common in travel content. A writer working in the tourism promotion space wants to inspire their reader to ‘go now’, and might urge them that a particular destination ‘shouldn't be missed’.
But when writing about dark tourism destinations, calls to action require extreme caution. ‘Don’t miss Auschwitz on your next Poland trip’ sounds uncomfortable, but I’ve read variations of that wording with unnerving frequency.
Rather than urging the reader to go now, invite them to learn and reflect. Choose adjectives wisely when describing the impact of visiting a dark tourism site. Above all, refrain from describing it like you would a movie. The Saw series is ‘gripping’ and ‘blood-curdling’; the experience of touring a Cambodian torture chamber deserves more dignified language.
3. Keep Victims Front of Mind
I noticed that in a recent article I wrote about cemetery tourism, my editor at Lonely Planet added some softening words to the intro. It’s a small but significant edit, gently reminding the reader that we understand most visitors to cemeteries are mourners, not tourists.
That’s the crux of writing well about dark tourism: placing the victims of tragic events at the heart of what you are doing. A good rule of thumb is to imagine the victims or their relatives reading what you’re writing. Would that make you triple-check your facts? Do you feel the urge to trim a glib remark from the text?
Considering the victims will also encourage you thoughtful about when to indulge in description and when to pull back. Researching dark tourism destinations as a travel writer, I’ve encountered many disturbing details that left me nauseated. But a piece of writing is not more compelling for being full of graphic passages.
4. Include Graphic Details Sparingly
Historians do important work by conserving records of the various unpleasant ways in which humans do harm to one another. But that isn’t the travel writer’s job. Written content about dark tourism should not be a catalogue of gory details learned at the site.
Facts and figures are appropriate. Certain kinds of content, like long-form articles, are enhanced by examining an aspect of the site in unflinching detail. But be cautious if you notice that your writing is turning into a roll-call of grisly details.
This is especially important when you are referencing dark tourism in a broader piece of writing. On a travel writing assignment in Kaunas, Lithuania, I visited the Ninth Fort. I felt physically nauseated by what I learned at this former prison and execution site, but few of the details made it into my final article about Kaunas for The Independent. I explain that this war museum complex can be graphic, but I place my emphasis on the importance of conserving this history at the site.
Careful use of explicit detail is also important for the overall flow of your writing. Swerving from ghoulish images into a more upbeat section of text is jarring at best, or insultingly abrupt at worst.
5. Workshop Your Witticisms
If ever there was a time to kill your darlings, it’s when writing you're about dark tourism. It is more than possible to write about dark tourism with wit and flair, but the stakes are very high if you get the tone wrong.
Atlas Obscura is an online travel resource that is by no means limited to dark tourism, but a many of the sights in its listings are darkly inclined. The tone occasionally dips into irreverence, but it’s always well-judged. Atlas Obscura’s entry about India’s Skeleton Lake is occasionally graphic in content and it has been crafted in the shape of a mystery. Because of the unknown identities of the human remains, and their age, the mystery format works well. By contrast their entry on the Holodomor (‘Great Famine’) Memorial in Kyiv, Ukraine—a much more recent tragedy—plays it straight.
Deft management of tone doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even if you don’t usually work in a collaborative way, it’s worth sharing your drafts on dark tourism before hitting publish.
6. Look Forward, Not Just Back
If you write about dark tourism with an unrelenting focus on past atrocities, you're only doing half of the job.
The reader needs a mental break from the events and places you're describing. If the content allows, dip into the first person and consider the effect that visiting the site is having on you. Consider including detail about the behaviour of other tourists, which can speak volumes about the complexity of a place and the value of visiting.
Don't attempt to shoe-horn in an upbeat final sentence. But no dark tourism site exists in a vacuum, so remember to reflect on the present context. Who lives in the nearby town, and what role do local people play in remembrance? It's important to ease away from the past, ever so slightly, to reveal to your reader their human connection to this time and place.
Want further reading? Check out a couple of articles I wrote about dark tourism:
Cemetery tourism: an ethical traveller's guide to graveyards - Lonely Planet