Tourism’s dark side

Visits to prisons, cemeteries and serial killer tours are growing in popularity, and raising questions about finding the balance between entertainment and respect

“We’re not strange, we simply like history, we’re curious and we like to see for ourselves”

Let’s shine a light on the darkness is the well-known slogan of TV3’s true crime programme Crims. The success of the series reflects the public’s appetite for the grisly details of crimes and the darker side of life. Along with TV programmes and podcasts, there have also been a spate of books on the subject, such as True crime. La fascinación del mal (Ariel, 2021), by the Valencian criminologist Vicente Garrido.

Another example is the work of Barcelona journalist Míriam del Río, who in 2019 published Turismo dark. Destinos con oscuros magnetismos (Firefly), and who recently brought out the sequel Turismo dark 2. Aún más dark (Luciérnaga, 2023). The two books offer almost a hundred proposals for visits in the growing segment of dark tourism.

There are two Catalan sites in Del Río’s first book, Barcelona’s anatomical amphitheatre (in the Raval neighbourhood) and the Hospital del Tòrax in Terrassa, while the second book includes the Hearse Museum in Barcelona. The “even darker” of the book’s title is due to the inclusion of proposals offering a more extreme experience, such as the possibility of spending a night as a prisoner in the Latvian military prison in Karosta. Not all the visits go so far but they all offer experiences that are immersive and educational.

There is a fine line that separates the thrill-seeking tourist from the culturally-aware traveller. “It’s difficult not to fall into morbidity. However, if you treat it rigorously and with respect, there is no place that you cannot visit. It’s true that there are people whose only interest is in the most macabre part. I can’t control that but I can try to promote a responsible type of tourism,” says Del Río.

“The feeling of not being in control, of not knowing what’s going on, draws us in. The darker a destiny, the more it attracts because it is strange,” she adds, concluding: “We’re not strange, we simply like history, we’re curious and we like to see for ourselves.”

One branch of dark tourism is visiting prisons. Barcelona’s infamous Model prison received 261,000 visits between January 2018 and January 2023, the first five years after it opened to the public. According to Pablo Díaz Luque, an economics professor at Catalonia’s open university, the UOC, dark tourism is on the rise: “There are tourists who feel morbidly attracted to visiting the sites of tragedies, but there are also those who celebrate the rehabilitation of iconic places, such as the Model prison,” he says.

The tourism sector knows how to satisfy our desire for new experiences: “There are tourists who visit these dark sites to take a photo, to say ’I’ve been there!’ But there are also people with an interest in history and human stories,” he adds.

Why are we drawn to the dark side of life? Vicente Garrido explains: “For two million years - apart from the last 10,000, when society has existed - our survival depended on knowing how to identify threats from animals or other groups. In modern society, we have replaced that experience with what we could call the fear game: watching scary things from a position of safety teaches us how to manage the anxiety we would feel if our lives were in danger. As this is present in all cultures, the only explanation is that it’s in our genes. This is the impulse behind crime-related tourism. Visiting dark places is a way of learning vicariously. And it’s fun, as our physiology rewards us with endorphins, dopamine... Experiencing simulated risk is rewarding. That’s also the reason why people like extreme sports or getting scared on a roller coaster.”

Feature Leisure

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