While the concept of tourism in areas of historic tragedies is far from being a modern phenomenon, it was only recently that the term dark tourism was created and regarded by academics. Dark tourism was first written about by two men, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, in their 2000 book that investigated “tourist interest in recent death, disaster, and atrocity.” In 2011, Dom Joly published what would become one of the first reflections of such travel in his book called The Dark Tourist (Gilbert 2018).
The reason this subgroup of tourism has called the attention of many scholars, though, is the fairly recent growth in the demand to visit sites like Chernobyl, North Korea and the like. Only in the late-20th century did consumers begin to intentionally choose dark tourism sites as vacation destinations, and the amount of tourists seeking “fatal attractions,” as sociologist Chris Rojek has called them, has only continued to grow (Gilbert 2018).
Foley and Lennon have speculated that there are a couple of chief explanations as to why the fad has seen such success. The first is that this category of sightseers is attempting to make a connection with history in order to understand it. The second proposition is that death tourism is a “subconscious desire to get closer to death for people from Western cultures that are increasingly removed from it” (Gilbert 2018).
Whatever the reason for the spike in visits to nontraditional tourist sites, Latin American countries have been enjoying a growth in tourist revenue thanks to dark tourism. The Netflix show Dark Tourist follows host David Farrier as he experiences a few locations across Mexico and Colombia. One of the newest attractions that he covers is Caminata Nocturna, or the Night Walk, located near the Mexican-American border in recreational park Parque EcoAlberto. The three-hour tour is a 12 kilometer obstacle course in which tourists pay to simulate a border crossing, including fake patrol agents, drug cartel members, coyotes and guns with loaded blanks, all intended to give participants the most realistic experience possible (Corderoy 2017).
While some have criticized the tour for perpetuating the “illegality” of Mexican immigrants, the Hñahñu Indians who own and operate the Night Walk argue that they created it to help dissuade younger members of their community from risking their lives for the American dream; such a goal is paramount for the Hñahñu, having lost 70 percent of their community to emigration. After opening the tour in 2004, the community has been able to offer viable jobs at home, since the Night Walk has become one of the largest employers in their town (Corderoy 2017).
Such economic success is also apparent in Medellín, Colombia. Although the city has enjoyed impressive growth without revenues stemming from Pablo Escobar’s cocaine empire, many locals are making a living by offering ‘narco tours,’ which follows the chronicles of the kingpin throughout history. However, much like the Night Walk, such tours are condemned by many as a glorification of Escobar’s lifestyle and an erasure of the realities many locals faced. One such critic, Colombian journalist Jorge Caraballo, told Spanish-language NPR that he found the tours offensive, saying that the city needs to talk “about what happened but not by this narrative that some people are making money from, but from the victim’s perspective” (Padgett 2018).
This potentially dangerous depiction of Colombian and Mexican history extends beyond local tourist attractions, as well. The popularization of narconovelas or narcotelenovelas has grown not only in Colombia, which is widely considered the birthplace of the subgenre, but also on a global scale. After the international success of Sin Tetas no Hay Paraiso, multiple other narconovelas have followed suit, especially thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix’s investment in the genre. One example is Netflix’s Narcos, which was acclaimed for its historical accuracy (Cano 2015).
Much like the narco tours and dark tourism sites, narconovelas face a high amount of criticism for glorifying the “achievements” of drug traffickers. Sebastián Marroquín, Escobar’s oldest son, shared in an interview with El País that Narcos fails to “show the moments of loneliness, fear, anxiety and terror,” saying that his father was much crueler than depicted and that the show focused on a luxurious lifestyle dreamt up by its creators. He advocated for producers “to be responsible when telling this story” and respect the thousands of victims in Colombia affected by his father’s involvement in the industry (Cué 2016).
Despite concern surrounding dark tourism in all of its various forms, many scholars, like Dr. Philip Stone, the executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, suggest that the question of whether dark tourism is right or wrong should be based exclusively on the motives of tourists themselves. He offered the examples of Auschwitz and the Rwandan Genocide Memorial, explaining that “people go to really understand what happened and are genuinely moved by it,” although in some cases it is evident tourists may not grasp the importance of their destination (Coldwell 2013). Such sites may even prove to be necessary in reconstructing the memory of victims at certain points in history. It is considered an oversight of Russian history, for example, that gulag victims have yet to be memorialized. Similarly, there was outrage in the United States that a site dedicated to slavery was not opened until 2014 (Reid 2016).
Although dark tourism runs the risk of seeming insensitive or promoting stereotypes, it might serve as the key to offering outsiders a real look into the realities of Latin American countries. Of course, it is essential that those entrusted with sharing these stories do so in a respectful manner and include perspectives that aren’t necessarily as lucrative as others.
Gilbert, Sophie. 2018. “The Disaster Zone of Netflix’s Dark Tourist.” 26 July. The Atlantic. Available to read here: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/07/the-disaster-zone-of-netflixs-dark-tourism/565946/ [Accessed 9 November 2018].
Corderoy, Julia. 2017. “This bizarre Mexican tour simulates illegal border crossings.” 29 September. News Pty Limited. Available to read here: https://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-ideas/weird-and-wacky/this-bizarre-mexican-tour-simulates-illegal-border-crossings/news-story/a7acf7f7c80ae37510b531b839bd34c5 [Accessed 13 November 2018].
Padgett, Tim. 2018. “Medellín’s Narco Tours: Legitimate History Or Offensive Glorification Of Monsters?” 4 June. WLRN. Available to read here: http://www.wlrn.org/post/medell-ns-narco-tours-legitimate-history-or-offensive-glorification-monsters [Accessed 13 November 2018].
Cano, Maria Alejandra. 2015. “The War on Drugs: An Audience Study of the Netflix Original Series Narcos.” Trinity University. Available to read here: https://digitalcommons.trinity.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1023&context=infolit_usra [Accessed 13 November 2018].
Cué, Carlos E. 2016. “‘My father was much crueler than the Pablo Escobar you see on Netflix.’” 28 September. El País. Available to read here: https://elpais.com/elpais/2016/09/28/inenglish/1475055674_817222.html [Accessed 13 November 2018].
Coldwell, Will. 2013. “Dark tourism: why murder sites and disaster zones are proving popular.” 31 October. The Guardian. Available to read here: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/oct/31/dark-tourism-murder-sites-disaster-zones [Accessed 3 December 2018].
Reid, Robert. 2016. “Is ‘Dark Tourism’ OK?” 26 April. National Geographic. Available to read here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/is-dark-tourism-ok-chernobyl-pripyat-disaster-sites/ [Accessed 3 December 2018].