David Farrier's popular Netflix series Dark Tourist explores the trend of visiting destinations associated with death, disaster and destruction - but the concept is fraught with ethical dilemmas.

The series has recently come under scrutiny in Japan over footage of Fukushima, an area devasted by a 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear radiation leak.

Japanese authorities are considering action against the episode, which shows Farrier sneaking into an abandoned gaming arcade which is off limits to people and hesitantly eating a meal at a restaurant in the town of Namie.

In Dark Tourist, Farrier also tours the locations of the murders of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, gets his hands on heavy artillery at a Cambodian shooting range and learns about voodoo in Benin.

Advertisement

Dark tourism – visiting places associated with death, destruction and generally unpleasant history – is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, particularly in the age of social media.

This often-voyeuristic trend raises a number of troubling ethical implications – although some believe it's a way for travellers to reflect on history.

However, sometimes it is hard to make that argument when tourists have been observed taking smiling selfies at Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp - which attracts more than a million visitors annually.

In 2016, a group of men were also kicked out of the Ground Zero monument in New York, for taking pictures with a blow-up sex doll during a stag party.

Writing for The Conversation, psychologist and Holocaust educator Daniel Birtran reveals there has been a dramatic increase in the number of peer-reviewed articles on dark tourism in the last twenty years – but the concept is hardly new.

Over one million people visit the Nazi death camp Auschwitz every year. Photo / Getty Images
Over one million people visit the Nazi death camp Auschwitz every year. Photo / Getty Images

The origins can be traced back as far as the 11th century, when people would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the location of Christ's crucifixion, while tourists have long flocked to Gettysburg – the site of the bloody final battle of the American Civil War.

The subject was also explored by British punk band the Sex Pistols in their 1977 single Holidays in the Sun – which was inspired by a taking a "cheap holiday in other people's misery".

"I don't want to holiday in the sun/ I want to go to the new Belsen/I want to see some history/Cause now I've got a reasonable economy," the lyrics read.

Advertisement

Reflecting on the song in a later interview, singer John Lydon said: "Being in London at the time made us feel like we were trapped in a prison camp environment. There was hatred and constant threat of violence.

"The best thing we could do was to go set up in a prison camp somewhere else. Berlin and its decadence was a good idea.

"I loved the wall and the insanity of the place. The communists looked in on the circus atmosphere of West Berlin, which never went to sleep, and that would be their impression of the West."

In recent years, tours to North Korea have been increasingly popular for similar reasons – but many have decried the dangers and ethical implications of travel to the hermit state.

Some have argued that visiting North Korea is inherently unethical, as tours are highly censored and avoid revealing any of the country's human rights violations – and tourists are technically putting money in the pockets of autocrats.

On the other side, student Alek Sigley, who started Australia's first North Korea tour company, argues that more engagement with the outside world is a good thing for the local people.

"A lot of people say tourism and any form of engagement is not ethical, but I don't agree," Sigley says. "To the contrary, I think that engagement with North Korea is the only ethical way.

"How is North Korea going to integrate with the rest of the world if it doesn't have contact with the world?"

American student Otto Warmbier, centre, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea in March 2016. Photo / AP
American student Otto Warmbier, centre, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea in March 2016. Photo / AP

However, the death of young American tourist Otto Warmbier – who was imprisoned at the end of a North Korean tour – proves that visiting the country can be highly dangerous.

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for stealing a political banner from a hotel in 2015. While incarcerated, he fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. He was freed and repatriated to the United States in June 2017, but died six days after his return.

While dark destinations like North Korea, Auschwitz or the nuclear devasted Chernobyl in Russia will continue to draw tourists, Birtran argues that the ethical implications come down to the individual.

"Indeed, the atmosphere at the Auschwitz museum cafe may appear to be Disneyland-like, with visitors casually resting over their cups of coffee or ice creams. In fact, however, it is the attitude or intent of the visitor that ultimately determines dark tourism's presence," he writes.

"Even in Auschwitz, then, a visit per se is not a sufficient criterion for dark tourism. Snapping a smiling selfie at such a site, however, should be of some concern."