Navigating dark tourism with respectful storytelling

American cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., and international locations including Paris, Iceland and Poland offer diverse tourism opportunities, but something each of these locations has in common is the chance to explore the darker side of history.

Dark tourism can be tricky to navigate, however. Historians are concerned that the proliferation of such tours can leave visitors with mistaken interpretations as stories may be told in a way that merely entertains without educating.

“Whenever you depart from the history of a place like Charleston or like New Orleans, and turn it into a ghostly theme park, then you're almost inevitably twisting the history,” College of Charleston history professor Scott Poole told the Charleston City Paper.

The sensitive nature of other locations, such as Auschwitz and Chernobyl, mean extra steps should be taken to ensure respectful behavior.

“Whether you’re visiting a destination for the sake of its darkness or to learn about its history, keep in mind that the content is sensitive, and the people connected to it are human,” Natalie B. Compton writes in the Washington Post.

To learn more about the ins and outs of the travel sector, we spoke with The Tour Guy co-founder and Chief Product Officer Brandon Shaw. The Tour Guy recently began offering an after-hours tour of the Capuchin Crypts and Rome Catacombs.

Shaw tells us the key is to inform through engaging and respectful storytelling.

“All of our tours are created to learn in an engaging, but fun way with an educational foundation covering many different moments in history,” Shaw says. “Not all of history was a happy time, however, we can learn a lot from the past -- sometimes with the hope of not repeating it.”

Q: What drew you to dark tourism and what made you decide to include a dark tour among your offerings? 

Shaw: We want to offer a variety of options for all types of travelers. Our goal is to cover as much history as we can, which includes the breathtaking, the inspiring and, sometimes, the darker moments as well.

Q: Why did you choose to offer the Roman catacombs and crypts? 

Shaw: This particular period of Roman history is extremely significant. It would be a shame and a disservice to not offer our customers an opportunity to experience it.

Q: A recent article suggested that some aspects of dark tourism can be disrespectful. Are you seeing any such concerns with your Roman tour? If so, how do you navigate them? 

Shaw: Absolutely not -- since the catacombs are owned by the Vatican, we run all of our tours by their standard. We aim to inform, not interfere. 

Q: Do you think tourism and darkness could be considered incompatible, and should they be?

Shaw: It depends on the tour and who is operating it. At The Tour Guy, our goal is to educate our customers in an interesting and respectful way.   

Q: Who makes a good fit for this kind of tour? 

Shaw: These types of tours are great for customers who want a more complete story of the city they are visiting. 

Q: What makes a destination a good fit? 

Shaw: It all depends on the story. If the story behind the location provides valuable and intriguing insight into the destination, then it’s usually a good fit. 

Q: How do you balance entertainment and accuracy? 

Shaw: We don’t give lectures. Dates, times and names are boring and dry. We are storytellers. Our goal is to provide a colorful picture of anecdotes and facts to our customers so they are more engaged.

Q: What are some of your favorite dark destinations? 

Shaw: Paris and Rome.

Q: Do you have plans to add similar tours in Rome or other cities? Do you see this as an area of growth?

Shaw: As we continue our global expansion, we are always looking for interesting stories to tell our customers whether it be celebrating a benchmark in history or learning about a darker period of time.

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