Thanatourism: Travel to destinations involving death and tragedy, including battlefields, disaster sites such as Hiroshima, and museums commemorating atrocities. From Greek thanatos (death) + tourism. Also called dark tourism, grief tourism, atrocity tourism, and morbid tourism.
Thanatourism was coined by A.V. Seaton, a British scholar specializing in the study of tourism. In a 1996 paper, “Guided by the Dark: From Thanatopsis to Thanatourism,” Seaton traced the activity of thanatourism back to the Middle Ages; it was revived during the Romantic period of the late 18th early 19th centuries. For the Romantics, Seaton wrote, Pompeii was the ultimate thanatoptic travel destination.
“Dark Tourism,” in the November 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine, explored how Cambodia is turning “its bloody history into a sightseeing boom.” The article opens in Anlong Veng, site of a shrine to the murderous dictator Pol Pot:
The Cambodian government plans to develop this sun-baked, mine-riddled frontier town into a theme park devoted to the Khmer Rouge, the brutal regime that murdered perhaps 15 percent of Cambodia’s population when it ruled from 1975 to 1979. The planned park is of a piece with Cambodia’s larger effort to capitalize on the atrocities of its past—and to tap into a booming global industry in travel to macabre destinations, known as thanatourism.
“Dark tourism” was coined by John Lennon—not the late Beatle but a professor at Glasgow Caledonian University and author of Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. The Atlantic article cites Lennon as asserting that
a global demand for “authentic” attractions has turned thanatourism into an increasingly profitable sector of the tourism business. More than a million people visit Auschwitz annually, while millions more take in the Tower of London. Today’s Lonely Planeteers flock toward the bridge over the Kwai River, synonymous with the brutality of the Japanese army during World War II, and the Wolf’s Lair, where Hitler survived an assassination attempt in 1944. Tour companies offer package trips to Baghdad, Sarajevo, and Chernobyl.
Thanatourism is on sound academic footing, at least in the UK. The Institute for Dark Tourism Research was founded in 2005 at the University of Central Lancashire as “a centre of excellence for dark tourism research aimed at a global audience of academics, students, industry practitioners, policy-makers, and the media.” The iDTR sponsors research, held a symposium, and manages online discussion forums on Facebook and JISCmail.
Thanks to C.J. Hirschfield for introducing me to the iDTR.