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It’s interesting that some of the most popular tourist destinations worldwide are those associated with death and tragedy.

Most people have been a tourist at some point in their lives. And most of these people aren’t even aware that what they’re participating in is called dark tourism.

Even though I’d never considered it, many places around the world that I’ve visited fall into this category: the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and A-Bomb Dome in Japan, Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the ruins of Pompeii in Italy, and the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania.

With the terrible history behind these places, why do people still make the journey?

Researchers at the UK Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire found that people feel compelled to visit sites like Auschwitz or Ground Zero in New York as it makes people face their own morality.

Director Philip Stone said that visitors want to find meaning in these places of suffering, and that people try to empathise with the victims.

“Dark tourism can enlighten an understanding of how contemporary societies deal with and represent their significant dead. Ironically, therefore, dark tourism is concerned with death and dying, yet through its social scientific study and its empirical practice, dark tourism tells us more about life and the living,” said Dr Stone.

“It’s a way for a secular society to reconnect with death,” he said.

Despite this, Dr Stone also says that places such as these are always going to have an uneasy relationship with tourism.

“Four hundred years ago they were innocent people who were killed. Now they’re a tourist destination,” he said, adding that there is a blurred line between memorialisation and tourism.

Intention seems to be the defining line between visiting a site for the right or wrong reasons. It’s the difference between going to a site to further your understanding of an incident or event, to pay your respects to those involved, or going just to take a selfie and indulge your morbid curiosity.

Personally, I’d like to think I fall into the first category. But it makes me think – when we visit these sites, are we really doing it for the right reasons?

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