Dark tourism, which is the packaging and consumption of sites associated with death and disaster, has been increasing globally for the past two decades (Foley and Lennon 1996; Sharpley and Stone 2009; Lemelin, et al. 2010; Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010; Biran, et al. 2011; Knudsen 2011; Ria, et al. 2011). Sites frequented by dark tourists can be based on sudden, violent death (e.g. battle sites) or gradual atrocity (e.g. extreme poverty) (Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010; Knudsen 2011). The term ‘dark tourism’ has also been referred to as thanatourism (Seaton 1996; Seaton and Lennon 2004; Best 2007; Stone and Sharpely 2008), black spot tourism (Rojek 1993), morbid tourism (Blom 2007), and atrocity heritage (Ashworth 2004). These definitions have undergone extensive debate in the literature to ascertain their value to the scholarly community and public in general (Moniruzzaman 2010).
Despite the volume of research on dark tourism, the academic community has not yet reached a consensus on a comprehensive definition for this complex, multi-faceted activity. Definitions are typically based on the motivations of the tourist, characteristics of the site visited, or the interactions between these factors. Perspectives of the concept are also controlled within certain academic disciplines. Research which is more flexible, dynamic, and open to innovation is necessary to advance the field of dark tourism research in the context of globalization and authenticity imperatives. More complex research on dark tourism is important for tourism planners attempting to manage visitation at sites of atrocity and local people wanting to better plan and manage its impacts on their tangible and intangible heritage.
This paper begins with a review of the literature on dark versus heritage tourism. Next is an analysis of how globalization, authenticity, and eco-social systems are increasingly relevant to this tourist activity. The objectives of this article are to: 1) compare and contrast dark versus heritage tourism; 2) highlight the complex nature of dark tourism; and, 3) identify how dark tourist researchers have failed to address relevant socio-ecological issues. The final section provides future direction for definitions regarding this term, and the conclusion suggests next steps for dark tourism research.
Current Understandings of Dark Tourism
The categories of dark tourism definitions include tourist motivations (i.e. demand-side), site characteristics (i.e. supply-side), or the interactions between these factors. A review of the literature indicates that demand-side definitions are problematic because travel to places of death and atrocity is predicated on complex motivations (Ria, et al. 2011). In comparison to heritage tourism, the motivations of dark tourists are often construed as being morbid and therefore undesirable (Lemelin, et al. 2010; Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010; Biran, et al. 2011; Knudsen 2011; Ria, et al. 2011). Research on dark tourism sites can also be simplistic when only community impacts are considered, with no consideration of the interaction between the ecological and social realms.
Many attempts have been made to comprehend the motivations for travel to sites of death and atrocity. The broadest classification has divided tourists into those who seek education and entertainment (Foley and Lennon 1997; Ria, et al. 2011), versus those who want to construct a personal identity or have an emotional experience (Tarlow 2005; Bowman and Pezzullo 2009). Dunkley’s (2007) motivation model specifies that tourists travel to dark sites based on the desire to discover new aspects of self, validate their perspectives, fulfill a sense of morbid curiosity, or take on a pilgrimage (as quoted in Ria, et al. 2011). For example, a Canadian male or female of Polish descent may travel to Holocaust sites where their ancestors perished (Poria, et al. 2006b). Studies from this perspective can be simplistic when they dismiss the tourist as a passive receptor of information, rather than an active participant in the experience (Biran, et al. 2011). Classifying tourists also segments them into homogenous groups with no capacity for personal growth or spontaneous interaction with their environment (Knudsen 2011). There have been attempts to expand this limited research further into the realm of tourist perceptions.
An important motivator for visitation to dark tourist destinations is the authenticity of the experience. Tourism began with religious pilgrimages and has remained strongly inclined towards culture as a travel motivator (Ray et al. 2006; Clark 2010). Cohen (1972, 1973) was one of the first researchers to define a tourist as an individual who is curious and self-directed. However, poorly-managed tourism enterprises, cheap package tours, and international growth in mass travel has linked the term ‘tourist’ to negative social and environmental impacts (Cohen 1972). People living in Western countries therefore tend to view conventional tourism as lacking in spontaneity, prestige, educational value, and character-building potentiality (Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010). Dark tourism experiences offer travelers the opportunity to feel as if they are acting contrary to mainstream travel opportunities (Knudsen 2011). Although this situation can make them feel as if they are engaging in a more authentic travel experience than the mass-produced sand, sun, and sea tourism, motivations for travel to dark destinations is still regarded in some circles as being morbid and undesirable (Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010).
Dark tourism definitions based on site characteristics often highlight the negative impacts that it can have on the local community. Sites considered ‘dark’ are those where a performance of death is reenacted for tourist consumption, tour guides lead visitors through sites where death may have occurred, memorials describe the sufferings of the deceased, or relics represent certain tragic events (Best 2007). Each of these sites commercializes past human suffering through tangible or intangible offerings for tourist consumption. This can have variable impacts on community perspectives of tourism; in some cases, locals may feel that tourists are devaluing or disrespecting their heritage (Hou, et al. 2005; Ria, et al. 2011). Reducing this friction, which often results in host discontent or host-guest conflicts, is central to most research on tourism impacts. In particular, studies attempt to identify the ways in which dark tourism can preserve group memory of an event (Hou, et al. 2005; Best 2007; Bowman and Pezzullo 2009). This can be challenging when the event is exploited by more powerful forces (e.g. government) for personal or financial gain (Philip and Mercer 1999).
Definitions of dark tourism can also focus on the connection between supply and demand (Biran, et al. 2011). Such definitions acknowledge and classify the interactions between the tourist’s motivations and the site’s characteristics. According to Biran, et al. (2011) this perspective identifies four different ‘shades’ of dark tourism, including:
- Black tourism, in which tourists are guided by a strong and specific desire to see tangible or intangible evidence of death;
- Pale tourism, in which tourists encounter sites of death accidentally;
- Grey tourism demand, in which tourists are interested in death, but do not realize the death-related significance of the site they are visiting; and,
- Grey tourism supply, in which sites initially established to exploit past atrocities ultimately attract tourists with little interest in death.
These four categories begin to illustrate the complexity of interactions occurring at dark tourist sites. In particular, the categories indicate how the site can interact with an individual’s characteristics. Ria, et al. (2011) noted how the tourist’s experience at a dark heritage site is based on socio-cultural background, emotions, personal morals, and accumulated knowledge. This is because new information provided to an individual is interpreted through the lens of their own experiences and understanding (Ria, et al. 2011). At dark heritage sites, performance is often used to evoke audience emotions, thereby enhancing the melodrama and meaning of the event to visitors (Bowman and Pezzullo 2009; Knudsen 2011).
Performances at dark heritage sites can contribute to the tourist’s attachment to the site (Bowman and Pezzullo 2009; Knudsen 2011). Place attachment is a common term used in tourism studies to refer to the cognitive and emotional linkages an individual has to a certain geographical location (Low and Altman 1992). In dark tourism, the degree of attachment is much greater when the tourist is related to the site in some way (e.g. similar ethnicity or distant ancestors) (Hou, et al. 2005; Bowman and Pezzullo 2009). Tourists with emotional ties to the site can feel guilty for not being involved in the original tragedy; thus, participating in the reenactment can contribute to emotional catharsis (Poria, et al. 2006b; Moniruzzaman 2010; Ria, et al. 2011). This suggests that tourists are important determinants of which resources are marked as dark heritage sites in different countries (Santos and Yan 2010; Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010).
The preceding discussion on the demand, supply, and integrated supply and demand aspects of dark tourism indicate several problematic features of current research efforts. Research which understands dark tourism solely from a demand-side perspective is missing a vital part of the equation. Motivations are difficult to understand, are often negatively portrayed in the literature because of their morbid nature. Examining the concept only from the supply-side is also an issue because it tends to highlight community struggles as the central component to understanding. Integrating supply and demand into the definition of dark tourism begins to draw out the complexity of tourist activities at sites of death and atrocity. However, this discussion continues to focus more on the tourist’s perceptions, rather than advancing into the realm of human-environment interactions.
Current Understandings of Heritage Tourism
Heritage tourism is defined as travel motivated by the cultural traditions of a particular location (Caton and Santos 2007). It is one of the most rapidly growing tourism categories because of its ability to form or strengthen individual identity in a post-modern world (Ashworth 2000; Poria, et al. 2003; Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010). It is typically marketed, sold, and consumed through icons which have specific meaning to individuals (Caton and Santos 2007; Puczko, et al. 2007). Through these icons, individuals are able to gather new information about their history and satisfy their need for greater cultural understanding; these advances allow them to reduce the deleterious effects of impersonal post-modernism on their lives (Silberberg 1995; Hou, et al. 2005; Puczko, et al. 2007; Tomaz and Vesna 2010).
Example sub-sets of heritage tourism include literary tourism, legacy tourism, and industrial heritage tourism (Ray, et al. 2006). Despite the fact that dark or thanatourism is also considered a sub-set of heritage tourism, researchers appear biased towards heritage tourism as the superior travel choice (Ray, et al. 2006). Dark tourism is an emerging and incompletely understood travel niche; however, this fact makes it more important to deal with the issue extensively and comprehensively throughout its current development (Clark 2010). It is therefore problematic that dark tourism is negatively regarded, while heritage tourism is seen as a way to generate positive impacts for local communities.
Heritage tourism is, like dark tourism, understood in terms of demand and supply. Visitor motivations for frequenting heritage sites are typically based on the degree to which the site matches their personal history (Timothy and Boyd 2003; Poria, et al. 2006b). Hou, et al. (2005) found that, lacking a personal connection to the site, visitors will rely more on the uniqueness and perceived authenticity of the attraction to evaluate their experience. Consequently, tourism managers and tour guides can struggle to reach a diverse and potentially unresponsive clientele (Chhabra, et al. 2003; Poria, et al. 2006a). The solution is typically positioning the site in a way which is interesting to all people, yet still personalized enough to reach each visitor on an emotional level (Moniruzzaman 2010). Heritage-related research is therefore focused on generating methods for attracting more and better clientele to the location.
In both heritage and dark tourism, the primary management goal is to ‘involve’ the tourist, which basically requires that the tourist becomes attached to the destination (Hou, et al. 2005). Involvement has four dimensions, including site content (i.e. tangible attributes such as interpretation materials), site activities (i.e. intangible attributes such as performance), the tourist’s cognitive involvement, and the tourist’s perception of the site (Costley 1988; Kerstetter, et al. 2001). Dark tourism has only recently begun to conduct similar evaluations of relevant sites. Consequently, broadly-defined heritage tourism is regarded as a more effective vehicle for enhancing community economic development (Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010).
Although heritage and dark tourists are both driven by similar travel motivations, heritage tourists are seen as having more admirable reasons for travel (Timothy and Boyd 2003). A large contingent of the academic literature lauds the heritage tourist as a valuable visitor to most communities (Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010). Visitors who are interested in consuming past and present cultural landscapes are typically well educated, older, and with greater access to expendable income and free time (Silberberg 1995; Chhabra, et al. 2003). Poria, et al. (2006) identified tourist motivations for visiting heritage sites as learning, connecting with their heritage, engaging in leisure, and bequeathing for children. These definitions ignore the prestige involved in travelling to places which are carefully marketed as an oasis apart from crass consumerism (Puczko, et al. 2007). Poria, et al. (2006a) discussed how there has yet to be a study connecting site attributes, subjective authenticity ratings, environmental quality, tour guide ability, and tourist characteristics in heritage tourism. This research gap should be addressed, with particular reference made to the connections between heritage and dark tourism.
Interactions between Globalization and Tourism
An understanding of globalization is integral to the future of tourism research and management (Barrios 2011). Globalization is defined as the increasing connectivity between all scales of human activity; currently, it is experiencing tremendous growth in response to improved technology and transportation infrastructure (Best 2007; Hermans and Dimaggio 2007). Tourism research should address the issue of globalization because tourist destinations are socially produced spaces which change over time and in response to external forces (Barrios 2011). With strengthened linkages between countries around the world, these processes of community change can be greatly accelerated. Communities which feel that their unique cultures are being threatened by external forces may respond to globalization by either conforming to or rejecting the intruding values (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007).
Globalization has increased the likelihood of friction between locals and foreign tourists. Digital media allows people to experience greater connectivity, proximity, and emotional connection to past events (Knudsen 2011). For both heritage and dark tourism, this can increase visitation to destinations with fragile or sensitive resources (Knudsen 2011). With regards to the former, fragile heritage resources may be destroyed or damaged by excessive tourist visitation (e.g. buildings) (Li, et al. 2009). The latter is more applicable to dark tourism, wherein the event being displayed for tourist consumption may be related to a difficult, and therefore emotional, period in the community’s history (e.g. the slave trade) (Knudsen 2011). This can lead to friction between locals and foreign tourists who are not respectful of this shared community memory.
These are important management issues which must be considered by planners addressing the sustainability of tourism businesses, communities, and ecological resources (Li, et al. 2009). However, stochastic interactions are to be expected in the increasingly complex eco-social systems in which globalization and tourism interact (Biggs, et al. 2010). This makes it challenging to develop appropriate planning measures to balance ecological, social, and economic imperatives (Butler 1999). Future research on the nexus between globalization and tourism, with consideration for the complex nature of these interactions, will help to identify methods for managing tourism in a world of rapidly advancing interactions.
Interactions between Authenticity and Tourism
Authenticity is the degree to which a cultural icon has retained its original character; it is a controversial issue for locals and a feature desired in destinations by foreign tourists (Tomaz and Vesna 2010). Tourism scholars, well aware of the importance of authenticity in the marketing of tourist sites, have been unable to ascertain whether it is a quantifiable, objective concept which can be accurately measured (Ray et al. 2006; Tomaz and Vesna 2010). It is more likely that it is socially and individually constructed through the embodied experiences of the tourist (Santos and Yan 2010).
Embodied tourist experiences occur when the emotional or cognitive features of the experience are also evaluated physically by the tourist (Caton and Santos 2007; Tomaz and Vesna 2010). For example, a tourist may touch the stone walls of a dungeon as they go on a guided tour. Leisure activities with a high frequency of perceived authenticity and embodiment are highly valued by tourists because they encourage reflexivity and self-affirmation (Hou, et al. 2005; Caton and Santos 2007; Santos and Yan 2010; Knudsen 2011). Due to its inherent complexities, research on authenticity is still controversial and debated amongst scholars (Lemelin et al. 2010; Santos and Yan 2010).
Due to the complex nature of authenticity, it is challenging to anticipate what makes certain sites appear more authentic than others and how the various factors involved will interact. Managers manipulate site attributes to increase the appearance of destination authenticity to tourists (Tomaz and Vesna 2010). The two types of authenticity over which managers have a fair degree of control include: 1) existential authenticity, or the feelings the site evokes for the visitors (e.g. ‘this feels different from ordinary life’); and, 2) perceived authenticity, which is the tourist’s evaluative judgment of the site (e.g. ‘this feels real’) (Caton and Santos 2007; Tomaz and Vesna 2010). The tourist’s desire to consume these sites, and the artificial way in which they are marked as heritage sites, appears to contradict the tourist agenda of authenticity (Santos and Yan 2010; Knudsen 2011). Advances in globalization have also spread consumerism and its messages across the globe (Santos and Yan 2010). However, some researchers argue that because tourists are increasingly critical and attentive during their travels, they are able to accept or reject the presented message (Tomaz and Vesna 2010).
The recognition that tourists can be active, aware players in the tourist system has precipitated many researchers to analyze their interactions with other relevant stakeholders. Stereotypical ‘mass’ tourism assumed that the tourist was a static variable; however, dark tourism and heritage tourism are distinctly ‘alternative’ in character (Santos and Yan 2010). Alternative tourism allows participants to feel that they have more control over their experience, from trip planning to the degree of learning involved (Poria, et al. 2006b; Santos and Yan 2010). Pricing policy, educational mission of the site, and sustainable site management should therefore be flexible and evolve based on the learning experiences of the managers (Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010). Rigidity in management, failure to acknowledge that tourists act randomly, and lack of organizational learning could generate management problems. These problems could generate negative impacts on the local community and ecology of the site.
Interactions between Eco-Social Systems and Tourism
It has long been a focus of tourism studies to examine the ecological and social impacts of tourist resorts, activities, and goods (e.g. Butler 1999; Chipeniuk 2005; Stewart, et al. 2005). There have also been scholarly attempts to fully understand the concept of ‘sustainable tourism’ in its many forms (e.g. Hunter 1997). However, researchers are only just beginning to bring this research together and analyze it as a system, rather than a single entity. As has been discussed throughout this article, the complexity of dark and heritage tourism must be acknowledged and addressed in future research initiatives.
Although it is challenging to understand dark tourism within its eco-social context, awareness of complex systems can contribute to more robust management activities. Individual components of eco-social systems interact and give rise to unexpected properties at multiple scales (Biggs, et al. 2010). Consequently, management approaches should be integrated, collaborative, and adaptive (Biggs, et al. 2010). Foreign tourists and local residents should be informed of the inevitability of change and the ability of management to merely guide change along desirable trajectories (Biggs, et al. 2010). Stakeholders should also be empowered to contribute to innovations, as they have sufficient knowledge to inform or advance controversial issues (Biggs, et al. 2010). This bottom-up approach requires leadership, ample fiscal resources, and interactions across disciplinary boundaries (Biggs, et al. 2010). Achieving these goals will require that researchers work closely with dark and heritage tourism managers to increase, support, and validate their existing knowledge.
Ultimately, all stakeholders must alter their ‘frame’ to successfully address the challenges facing dark and heritage tourism. Framing is the individual’s perspective of a situation; altering this internal positioning can allow for the emergence of new ideas (Biggs, et al. 2010). It will be extremely difficult to move these theories beyond the realm of academia and into common practice. This is due, in part, to the barriers of apathy and insufficient dissemination of research (Biggs, et al. 2010). With regards to the former, the resources required to shift management practices towards more flexible and adaptive approaches is beyond the capacity of existing organizational mandates. The latter issue is due to the lack of research sharing between multiple research disciplines and practitioners (Biggs, et al. 2010). Tourism researchers therefore need to move beyond the trivialities of definitions, and begin to constructively build on the complex, real-world issues facing dark tourism.
Findings: Potential for New Perspectives on Dark Tourism
It is acknowledged that definitions are a pivotal and essential component of tourism research. It may be that, by understanding the components of the definition, researchers are building upon existing knowledge. However, it would still be advantageous to draw fewer boundaries around a concept by defining it so heavily; definitions are contextually restricted to a certain time, place, and outlook. Expanding and advancing our understanding may require that a concept is understood as having multiple, and often competing, frames.
In particular, the subtle, underlying meanings of words can contribute to the perspectives of certain concepts. The literature review of this article discussed at length the bias against dark tourism as a negative concept, due in part to semantics (Bowman and Pezzullo 2009). Dark tourism is not explicitly tied to the more positively-perceived heritage tourism in the popular media; thus, it is easy for the general public to develop an abhorrence of the topic and unwillingness to acknowledge it (Bowman and Pezzullo 2009). This could generate unnecessarily negative reactions in communities where sites of past tragedies are marked for tourism development. There may also be less attention and credence paid to the term within the scholarly community, limiting future research opportunities.
This discussion provides a good example of the synergistic effects and related dangers inherent in simplistic tourism research. Tourists perceive destinations through the ‘tourist gaze’ (Clark 2010). This ‘gaze’ is based on societal paradigms, cultural norms, and particular ideologies borne of life experience and personal preferences (Clark 2010). Popular media plays a role in this gaze because it creates expectations or ideas about sites; these expectations can then influence the tourist’s experiences and related satisfaction levels (Tomaz and Vesna 2010). Commercial providers of dark tourism are responsive to visitor needs, and will enhance or hide certain features based on expressed visitor preferences (Bowman and Pezzullo 2009). Thus, the whole system surrounding dark tourism becomes a self-contained and self-perpetuating loop. These loops tend to expend a significant amount of energy and ultimately collapse, reorganize, and continue on in altered form (Biggs, et al. 2010). Researchers who remain oblivious to the impact of their research on popular media and, thus, the real world present a major problem. They must also remain aware of how their information may be taken and misconstrued by various sources.
The converse, when researchers do not interact sufficiently with the community to share their research, can also be problematic. The type of tourism which has been discussed throughout this paper can be referred to as ‘nascent’; it is only beginning to develop as a concept, and is therefore undergoing intense learning, growth, and innovation (Clark 2010). During this growth period, researchers have greater levels of control over the depth, scale, and importance of a concept (Clark 2010). Dark tourism is currently under development, but its negative connotations have deterred many from openly discussing it (Yankholmes and Akyeampong 2010). This could be the primary deterrent towards more complex, systems-based approaches to dark tourism. Researchers could be hesitant to approach communities regarding their dark tourism sites, or unwilling to address the topic at all. Thus, critical components of this term may be yet unexplored by the academic community.
This is contributing to several conceptual and theoretical failures in dark tourism research. An excellent example of this problem is the so-called ‘last-chance’ tourism (Lemelin et al. 2010). The term ‘last-chance’ was coined by the popular media through emotionally-charged books and news articles (Lemelin et al. 2010). The concept suggests that tourists must travel to seascapes, landscapes, and cultural or natural heritage before it vanishes due to climate changes (Lemelin et al. 2010). It is an aspect of dark tourism in which tourists are motivated to visit morbid or depressing locations for future (rather than past) tragedy. The paradox is that these tourists are travelling to destinations in modes of transportation (e.g. airplanes) which emit greenhouse gases and further advance climate change (Lemelin et al. 2010). Additionally, they are gazing on the destination with the firm belief that it will be entirely gone in the near future.
However, researchers have failed to: 1) comprehensively address this topic, and 2) disseminate results to the public. Few studies which evaluate why tourists are travelling to these endangered locations have tested the reliability of their survey tools, thereby potentially biasing their participants (Daniel J. Scott, personal communication, September 14th, 2011). Thus, people may not actually be engaging in ‘last-chance’ tourism and are travelling to the location for reasons other than seeing it before it disappears. With regards to the second problem, researchers have not yet made it clear to the public that it is not the entire destination which will be disappearing; rather, it is only certain features which will be changing over time (D.J. Scott, personal communication, September 14th, 2011). This complex concept must be properly communicated to the public to enhance conservation and management strategies while still maintaining tourist interest in the affected areas.
This section has discussed the implications of dark tourism, not in relation to globalization or other factors as discussed previously, but with regards to the term itself. Defining a term within certain boundaries is problematic for a multitude of reasons; it prevents multiple disciplinary perspectives from joining the conversation about the concept and biases societal perspectives for or against it. This can generate methodological and conceptual flaws in research. These flaws could be challenging to reduce or eliminate. Future research should therefore take care to avoid these pitfalls.
Dark tourism is a growing source of tourism revenues, although this has done little to generate more innovative studies of the topic. The purpose of this research has been three-fold: 1) to outline the differences between dark and heritage tourism, and how this contributes to negative perceptions of the former over the latter; 2) examine the complex nature of dark tourism in the context of globalization, authenticity, and eco-social systems; and, 3) draw together points one and two to identify the current failure of researchers to advance current understandings of dark tourism.
This paper has identified how the negative connotations surrounding the term ‘dark’ tourism have made it a disagreeable subject to be dealt with comprehensively. This is problematic due to the growing patronage at ‘dark’ tourist sites, as well as the failure of research to address the complexity of the issue. There is the possibility that, as a self-sustaining and self-perpetuating system, dark tourism management may collapse and reorganize into a new form. The source of blame for these problems is identified as being the scholar’s insistence on rigidly defining the term within certain contextual boundaries. It is argued that innovative new research may be better served by anticipating change in perspectives (i.e. frames) over time and place.
This research is critical because of the emergence of dark tourism as a nascent tourism form, which has the potential to be shaped by new ideas and information. It is at this point in time that researchers should be stepping away from their focus on the minute, intricate details of definitions. They should be reflexively examining their own biases, and merging into dark tourism new ideas from multiple disciplines and perspectives. Future research should strive to avoid semantic attachments between words and theories, consider the broader context and mitigating factors of dark tourism, and include also a consideration of its future evolution as a dynamic, multi-faceted term.
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