A man with brown hair, glasses and a beard smiles wearing a pink shirt, brown suit jacket and multi-coloured tie.
Dr. Brent McKenzie

Auschwitz. Sarajevo. Ground Zero.

Each of these places represents a chapter of human history filled with death and destruction, so why would anyone want to visit them as a tourist attraction?

Dark tourism is a growing industry in which tourists visit sites best known for the tragedies that occurred there. Marketing professor Brent McKenzie is looking at how – and why – these sites attract tourists.

The appeal of dark tourism ranges from educational to macabre, he says. Some tourists feel there’s no better way to learn about historic events than by visiting where they happened. “They’re actually looking for a more immersed experienced,” he says. Others may choose to visit a former concentration camp or the scene of an epic battle because of a personal connection.

Death is the underlying theme of dark tourism, says McKenzie, and visiting sites where mass deaths occurred – whether accidental or intentional – gives the living a new perspective on life. “We all die, and it’s one of those things you don’t experience until you experience it.”

Since the late 1990s, McKenzie’s research has focused on retailing in the former Soviet Union, specifically Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. His interest turned to dark tourism after visiting deathly sites in these countries out of curiosity. Some of the museums he visited offered a thought-provoking account of atrocities that occurred during the World Wars, he says, while other sites took a more “kitchy” approach, offering vodka-laden tours in a Soviet-era bus driven by uniformed staff.

Is there a dark side to dark tourism? Mackenzie says some of the merchandising used to market these sites raises ethical questions. Souvenirs such as a snow globe depicting the Twin Towers or a key chain with a replica whistle from the Titanic could be viewed as inappropriate because they’re designed to profit from tragedy.

“How do you market these things? How should you market them?” he asks. “If you go to Auschwitz, should you really be buying some kind of a souvenir at all or should it just be educational material?”

Selling souvenirs and charging admission are an important source of revenue for these sites, which helps pay for staff and maintenance, he adds. The cities in which these attractions are located often depend on tourism to support the local economy.

Some tours in the United Kingdom take visitors into former dungeons and use actors to portray historical figures such as Jack the Ripper. McKenzie says these types of tours blur the line between education and entertainment. “Are people picking up anything about the history of these places or is it purely entertainment? To a great extent, it is [the latter].”

The 2012 centennial of the sinking of the Titanic was marked by people dressing up in clothing from the early 1900s, eating the same meals that were served on the ship and listening to the same music that was played by the ship’s string quartet, all of whom perished in the North Atlantic Ocean.

For his research, McKenzie purchased a souvenir teddy bear that he says “glossed over” the fact that more than 1,500 people died when the ship sank. “There’s nothing that says tragedy anywhere here,” he says of the stuffed animal.

He also attended a Titanic-themed tour in Estonia in which each visitor was assigned a boarding pass with the name of a real passenger on the ship. At the end of the tour, visitors checked the list of survivors to see if they lived. “I died,” says McKenzie.