University looks at why the ‘dark side’ is a force to be reckoned with in tourism

12 February 2016

Growing numbers of tourists are defying the sun-seeker image of holiday-making by deliberately searching for the dark side of travel destinations, say University of Derby academics.

Whether remembering the lessons of inhumanity at Auschwitz or celebrating the selflessness of the villagers of Eyam who sacrificed themselves to contain a plague outbreak, more and more people today are visiting places where death, disaster or horror are the main attraction.

Now the University’s tourism department has brought together studies from across the dark spectrum for a new book, Thanatourism: Case Studies in Travel to the Dark Side.

Each chapter looks at case histories ranging from the way travel bloggers wrote about visiting the site of the 1992-95 Siege of Sarajevo to how people who take part in adventure tourism such as mountain climbing view the risks they take. 

‘Thanatourism’ is named after ‘thanatos’, the Greek demon of death, and academics at the University of Derby believe the economic and cultural value of this sometimes bizarre variety of tourism makes its study very timely.

How to make sure the warnings of history are not diluted by the demands of tourism is the theme of University of Derby lecturer Geoff Shirt’s chapter, ‘Museums of Genocide: The tensions between authenticity and the original article.’

Dr Pascal Mandelartz, of the University of Derby and Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, explores the modern trend of Urban Exploration – where thrill-seeking trespassers hunt through derelict bunkers, factories and railway stations.

Tree and houses in Eyam (Peak District)

The Peak District village of Eyam attracts thousands of visitors with its story of brave locals who isolated themselves to stop an outbreak of plague in 1665 infecting neighbouring communities.

However, University Press Officer John Phillips also demonstrates in his chapter how the tale has been used through history as a handy metaphor for topics as varied as immunology, the Miners’ Strike, Mad Cow Disease and international terrorism. 

Much of the research has a dark humour, such as the Goth who revealed why she only holidays in the UK  - it takes too long to take all her Goth gear off for security checks at foreign airports.

But at its darkest, “some thanatourists are literally worse than vultures”, writes one of the book’s editors, former University of Derby lecturer Dr Tony Johnston, now of Head of Tourism at the  Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland, who chanced on tourist photos of a ‘sky burial’ in Tibet, where bodies are exposed to the elements.

“Long since bastardised from its original sanctity, the ‘burial’ was now modified to suit tourist desires,” he says.

“With their cameras flashing, the tourists stripped all dignity away from the deceased as they snapped a pack of hungry vultures tearing apart the flesh of the cadaver. Such chilling images reinforce the need, we believe, to study these phenomena further.”

“Thanatourism: Case Studies in Travel to the Dark Side,” Pascal Mandelartz and Tony Johnston, is published by Goodfellow Publishers Ltd.