Dark tourism, also known as grief tourism or thanatourism, refers to the practice of visiting places associated with death, suffering, tragedy, or macabre events. These destinations often have historical, cultural, or morbid significance due to events such as natural disasters, war, accidents, acts of violence, or other instances of human suffering. Dark tourism attractions can include sites like war memorials, concentration camps, disaster areas, cemeteries, prisons, former battlefields, and locations linked to infamous individuals or events.

Dark tourism appeals to a wide range of interests, from historical education and cultural understanding to a fascination with the morbid and eerie. Visitors may seek to better comprehend the past, pay their respects, or simply experience a sense of thrill or intrigue associated with these sites.

This business which incorporates tourist transportation and tour guides arranges tours to places associated with tragedy and death for individuals and groups.

Examples of dark tourism sites and attractions include:

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland, which serves as a memorial to the Holocaust.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, a symbol of the atomic bombing during World War II.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, commemorating the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

The Catacombs of Paris, which house the remains of millions of people underground.

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, known for its history as a maximum-security prison.

The Killing Fields in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands during the late 1970s.

While dark tourism can provide a valuable educational and reflective experience, it also raises ethical questions about the commercialisation of suffering and the potential for disrespect to the memory of those affected by tragic events. It is essential for tourists to approach such sites with sensitivity and respect for the historical and cultural significance they hold.

Message on early “Real Kommunity Tours” website


I was faced with the latter dilemma when I brought up Chernobyl dark tourism with my Ukrainian friend. He didn’t like the idea at all, as he still suffered from a goiter from the event (radiation exposure to the thyroid). But I want to share with you a story that deals with an apartheid-era matter in our community and indicates that it does not mean to be exploitive, even to the victims and the people they leave behind. And it can even help people heal, earn an income, provide people who were watching from afar with an experience they would not otherwise have had, and provide them with answers as well.

Early example of apartheid dark tourism

I will include a framework for a plan using a local example. The success of this business relies solely on geography – are you close enough or near a place with a tragic history that people from other countries interested in dark tourism will be interested in visiting. South Africa has plenty of those.


I met Gerard Waterwitch over 15 years ago at the time he was working as some kind of caretaker at a local primary school in Athlone but his goal was to start his own tourism business – RKK Afrika Tours – a tour guide that took people to the anti-apartheid sites of significance in the Athlone area: Trojan Horse MemorialRobert Waterwitch and Coline Williams memorialAnton Fransch battle site and around the site in Hazendal where Ashley Kriel was cornered by the security police and tell their stories. Not only did he grow up during that era, he was the uncle of Robbie Waterwitch and lived in the same house.

Real Kommunity Tours website mockup

Gerard was in process of trying to get a vehicle. He would have been the guide, he had a personal connection, he spoke of life before and after Robbie’s death.

Gerard was also bitter he accused the ANC of selective memory and for forgetting the local sacrifice of the Cape resistance and wanted to do his own thing and tell things his way. From his narrative, the story of a young man inspired by the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. He would be able to earn an income to better his and his family’s life while keeping his nephews memory alive. The main question that was haunting Gerard was “did Robbie die for this?” The grievance was that outside of a few token gestures the ANC was too busy feeding at the trough to properly honour the memory of people who sacrificed their lives for the struggle against apartheid. He could not even get Robbie’s former comrades – now flush with money – sponsor the vehicle for the tours. He felt he needed to tell Coline’s, Ashley’s, Robbies and Anton’s story to remind people of their sacrifices.

Gerard would pass away in 2011 in a freak accident in Hermanus. In 2014 Marianne Thamm in The Daily Maverick would publish an article The heroes ANC forgot to remember: Robbie Waterwitch and Coline Williams, 25 years later. Robbie’s former comrades were too busy to attend a ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the event.

Requirements
This business requires:
* Tourist transport with appropriate PDP driving permit. To drive on a public road in South Africa transporting passengers for an income you must have a professional driving permit (PrDP). The permit is issued in addition to an ordinary driving licence.
* Tour guide


Planning

Research & Immerse

We use “research and immerse” as part of our action plan’s planning stage both to test the business plan and your viability and to become knowledgeable in your offering and market. But you literally need to be knowledgeable in your subject. As a tour guide you need:

Knowledge: Tour guides are well-informed about the destination they are guiding visitors through. They have in-depth knowledge of the history, culture, and significance of the place.

Storytelling: Guides often use storytelling techniques to make the information more relatable and memorable for their audiences.

Answering Questions: Tour guides are prepared to answer questions from tour participants and provide additional information as requested.

Implementation

As a guide you need to tell a good story or have a good way to tell a story, Gerard obviously had a good story because he had a person connection, first hand knowledge about one of the people, their temperament etc. from living with the person and about that weapons were removed from the house afterwords (corroborated by the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” see below) and that the ANC claim that that weapons were not returned to them but to the enemy (the inference being that there was an apartheid spy within that grouping). So there was some interesting stories to tell.

TRC Final Report

VOLUME 3

CHAPTER 5

SUBSECTION 38

PAGE NUMBER (ORIGINAL) 459

PARAGRAPH NUMBERS 230 to 231

230 Firstly, the Commission finds that youth activist Mr Geoffrey Brown was an informant for the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Brown, who was also involved in Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) political structures, was a close friend of Robert Waterwitch and met with him virtually on a daily basis. Brown was handled by National Intelligence Service (NIS) member Johan Hattingh and, under the guise of writing political analysis pieces, received large sums of money. Brown received his last grading one month before the incident. He claims he was an unwitting agent; Mr Hattingh’s testimony concurs with this.

231 The day after the fatal explosion, Brown was involved in removing weapons and explosives from Waterwitch’s home. These were not handed over to the Ashley Kriel detachment but rather to persons uninvolved with military structures and others outside of their discipline. These weapons are still not accounted for although it is known that the AK-47 taken from the Waterwitch house was used by a Mitchells Plain activist who was part of an unofficial ‘security detail’ for President Mandela when he visited Mitchell’s Plain.

Itinerary

In this case the three sites in question was:

  • Trojan Horse memorial

This video has a good overview that a guide can use to base their storytelling on.

  • Robert Waterwitch and Coline Williams memorial

  • Ashley Kriel safe house (this is a residential house so maybe a part of his documentary could have been shown)

 

ACTION KOMMANDANT TRAILER 2016.1 from Nadine Cloete on Vimeo.

Anton Fransch battle site in Church Street, Crawford (upper Athlone) also a residential house

The itinerary options would look something like this:

You can use Google Maps to plan the itinerary and moving the destination up and down. In this case I know that Gerard called their house “Robbie’s Rest” in his plan and I cannot recall what exactly whether that would be the start or the end (most likely the end?).

Regardless here is how you can work your itinerary in such a close environment

Start at the house end at the memorial:

Start at the memorial end at the house:

Other configurations

Furthest to house:

House to furthest:

Example local tour itineraries (ToursByLocals)
Robben Island, Table Mountain and City Tour

Safari in West Coast, Cape Province

Example International tour itineraries (Viator)

The dark side of Florence – Mysteries and Legends
Go beyond the boring group walking tours and head straight for the good stuff: the dark side. On this walking tour, you’ll meet up with your local guide and explore Florence’s lurid past, hearing tales of ghosts, scandalous murders, wild betrayals, and strange curiosities, all connected to gorgeous spots around the city. No guidebooks here—and yet every story will be 100% true. Easy meetup with your guide at Piazza della Santissima Annunziata See the Piazza del Duomo, Via del Campanile, Piazza della Signoria, and so much more Learn wild, strange, and dark tales behind some of the city’s most iconic sites Get access to a local guide for insider knowledge, tips, and more.

Evening Walking Tour: The Dark Side of Antwerp
Visit Antwerp’s lesser-known sites at night—without the worry of getting lost—on this guided walking tour. Instead of showcasing the city’s predictable tourist hotspots, this tour tells you more about the city’s darker side, and stories that don’t feature on traditional walking tours. Along the way, hear about medieval legends, the dark side of the diamond trade, the secrets of the Red Light District, and stories linked to a former prison. Get off the tourist trail with this tour that focuses on Antwerp’s dark side No need to follow a map: A guide takes care of the navigating Learn about a medieval prison, the gem trade, and the Red Light District A walking tour takes you to places that bus tours can’t access.

Selling

While its good to put your flyers in local tourism offices and tell local hotels that get regular tourists about your business.


Some nostalgic designs to base your flyers on

One of the best places to advertise a business like this is a platform that connects travelers to tour guides. For a comprehensive list see Websites to Find Local Tour Guides – Worldwide

Who would be interested (Target Market)?

Now Dark Tourism can serve various purposes depending on the perspective of the guides you could be biased or you could be neutral. Some people who supported the cause from afar might be interested to see how things are going. For example Gerard accused the ANC of selective storytelling and downplaying the Cape resistance at the time. Most locals where you go will be biased. The thing is this: Gerard’s point of view resonates with many, activists and people in Europe who marched, donated to the cause against apartheid are watching in aghast as the people and cause they supported when they were young and idealistic has turned into a horror show. They will have seen videos like this on YouTube

Around 2 million people watched this in the first two months it was uploaded

Dealing with the post-apartheid reality

  • “Did Robbie die for this” – Gerard Waterwitch
  • As to whether the hard-won freedom Ashley Kriel lost his life for had made the country a better place, his sisters pause to give it some thought. His sister said she still battles to pay the school fees to send her child to a local government school, and she would have hoped that by now the poor could gain access to free education.
  • Exiled anti-apartheid activist Isaiah Stein who himself was moved from District Six to Athlone under the Group Areas Act said of the post-apartheid reality if “I wrote an autobiography, it would be titled All for nothing”. Ironically the people on the other side of the war also considers it “all for nothing“.

No doubt there will be awkward questions, a lot of the families of people who lost their lives fighting apartheid want nothing to do with the ANC today, in hindsight it does not appear to have been a worthwhile sacrifice. But we are not here to discuss the corrupt and incompetent ANC or the former comrades now tenderpreneurs looting the country.

Skills
How to Become a Tour Guide Today

Safety

In planning any business in South Africa safety and security needs to be considered moreso in hosting international tourists. In dark and unusual tourism this is not a situation unique to South Africa, in 2019 the White Island/Whakaari volcano exploded in New Zealand killing 22 people prompting debate over natural hazard tourism. There will be hazards.

What dark tourism is not

Dark tourism is not “danger tourism” where tourist from Western countries visit war zones or current dangerous place. Township tours where rich and privileged people go in the townships and take pictures of all the misery, I mean “see people living authentic lives with very little and making the most of what they have through community and entrepreneurship” and is also not dark tourism.

Dark tourism is also not tours for educational purposes for example as a children we went to Robben Island on a school trip.

Image credits: Gerard Waterwitch, Michail Miranda, Discott, Google Maps