From spooky to devastating: The rise of dark tourism

Nov 10, 2019

Those who can remember the news reports from April 1986, when reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, perhaps can’t help but be a little bewildered by the fallout zone’s unlikely rebirth as a tourist attraction.

This summer, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine (also a screenwriter) decreed the 19-mile fallout zone around the Chernobyl power plant should be promoted as a “tourism magnet.”

The drama “Chernobyl” — which debuted on HBO in the U.S. this May — has certainly given a boost to tourist traffic in the area, for better and worse turning the Ukrainian disaster zone into the poster child for the phenomenon that has come to be known as dark tourism — a trend that’s been loosely defined as travel to destinations with a history of death or tragedy.

“Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine’s brand,” Zelensky said, according to CNN. “It’s time to change it.”

This arguably macabre transformation has certainly been sped along by HBO and Instagram. But Chernobyl has actually been open for tourism for two decades — last year alone, some 63,000 people poked about the fallout zone — and some newly-trendy dark corners have attracted the curious for even longer than that.

Is this OK? And how dark does dark tourism get?

You could tune into the Netflix show “Dark Tourist” for some indications, but in the end it’s pretty subjective. Obviously, some places are darker (more moody, gloomy or downright gut-wrenchingly devastating) than others, though there are many widely-accepted dark tourism hotspots that are objectively less sinister than others.

According to a 2018 Kiwi.com study, searches for destinations linked to “a dark period or gloom” increased 307% from 2017. So while the allure of the darker side of history is strong, there’s also a risk of treating a sacred ground too much like the Haunted Mansion at Disney if we all aren’t thoughtful and careful.

If we are considerate, visiting destinations that remind us of the worst of humanity can be incredibly important. If we learn from history’s hardest lessons, maybe we won’t repeat them.

With that in mind, if you’re one of those people thirsting for a travel experience at the intersection of history and darkness, consider one of these destinations. They are hair raising, disturbing and, above all else, often incredibly significant places to remember.

Chernobyl in Ukraine

This year’s Oscar for best dark tourism performance should undoubtedly go to Chernobyl, not only because of HBO and Zelensky’s cheerleading but also because of a recently-inaugurated $1.7 billion metal sarcophagus installed over the No. 4 reactor.

That should make it safer to visit, but remember the power plant is not yet fully decommissioned. Fallout zone visitors are given dosimeters so they can keep tabs on radiation levels — there are still some hotspots where radiation levels are a thousand times over naturally-occurring levels, so this spot is not for everyone. You can also visit the ghost town of Pripyat, a city of 50,000 before the disaster that was completely evacuated the day after.

Chernobyl. (Photo by Francisco Goncalves/Getty Images)
Chernobyl. (Photo by Francisco Goncalves/Getty Images)

Hiroshima in Japan

On Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, resulting in the obliteration of much of the Japanese city.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial. (Photo by Thanan/Getty Images)
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial. (Photo by Thanan/Getty Images)

Now, more than a million people visit the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park (Heiwa Kinen Kōen) each year. The vast park is located in an area that was the heart of Hiroshima’s downtown before the bombing attack.

Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland

These grounds are a stark reminder of the horrors of Nazism and human apathy. It’s impossible to mention the ground zero of modern genocide here without a fair amount of handwringing — the optics of any kind of commodification of the Holocaust, unintended or nor, are just not good. And yet it can’t be denied that a visit to the memorial and museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau is a powerful experience that can teach people about the atrocities of the Holocaust in a way that no textbook can.

The Auschwitz Concentration Camp Memorial. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The Auschwitz Concentration Camp Memorial. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Just remember, Aushwitz is a place to, above all else, learn from the past and pay your respects: There is nothing more offensive or insensitive than taking selfies or photos for Instagram here. The youngest recommend age for visiting this location is 14.

Picpus Cemetery in France

Most visitors to Paris are aware the iconic Place de la Concorde wasn’t always so peaceful — back in the days of the French Revolution, it’s where monarchs and others literally lost their heads. But there was another guillotine on the edge of town in more or less constant action during the Reign of Terror in June and July of 1794, and its many victims were carted away to a mass grave here in the 12th Arrondissement.

The Picpus Cemetery. (Photo by Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Getty Images)
The Picpus Cemetery. (Photo by Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Getty Images)

The Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix chapel has a wall inscribed with the names of 1,306 decapitated French men and women (including 23 nuns) who lie in two adjacent burial pits. Less ingloriously, if rather improbably, the Marquis de Lafayette is also buried here. Just look for the American flag.

Hohlgangsanlage 8 in Jersey

This World War II attraction is literally dark (save for the artificial illumination) as it’s basically a miniature city located inside a mountain on the isle of Jersey, in the English Channel. The site is as spooky as the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.” The Jersey War Tunnels were dug into the hillside by slave workers overseen by the Nazis who occupied Jersey during the war. The Germans called this underground hospital and defense complex Hohlgangsanlage 8. You’ll likely call it creepy, but it’s pretty fascinating, too.

The Jersey War Tunnels. (Photo by Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
The Jersey War Tunnels. (Photo by Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Skull Cathedral in Italy

Otranto is the easternmost town in Italy, which once made it vulnerable to the Ottoman Empire, who in 1480 didn’t show up to have a tea party. They sacked the city, remained in control for 13 months, and any Christian who would not renounce their faith was summarily beheaded. When the massacre was complete, 813 locals had been slain, and today their bones are on prominent display behind immense glass panels inside Otranto’s 1,000-year-old cathedral.

The Skull Cathedral in Otranto. (Photo by Hal Beral/Getty Images)
The Skull Cathedral in Otranto. (Photo by Hal Beral/Getty Images)

According to some sources, the martyrs had been hiding in the church crypt, but in any case today the ossuary makes for bone-chilling history lesson.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia

A visit to this heart-wrenching museum, located in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, illustrates the genocidal campaign of the Khmer Rouge regime as overseen by Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population perished — upwards of 1.8 million people.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the Toul Sleng Prison. (Photo by Manuel ROMARIS/Getty Images)
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the Toul Sleng Prison. (Photo by Manuel ROMARIS/Getty Images)

The museum is housed in a former “security prison” and macabre exhibits include cabinets full of human skulls. This is separate from the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial south of Phonm Penh. Cambodian citizens may visit the museum free of charge.

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China 

Officially, it’s called the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders. And if that sounds like a politically-freighted title for a memorial, that’s because it is: Some 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Nanjing Massacre in December 1937. The Chinese memorialize this atrocity with understandably ardent dedication.

The Memorial Hall of the Victims of inn the Nanjing Massacre. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
The Memorial Hall of the Victims of inn the Nanjing Massacre. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

The exhibition hall itself is partly underground, with skeletons and bones on display in a section shaped like a coffin. The memorial is some 300,000 square feet in total, admission is free and crowds are a fixture (except Mondays, when it’s closed).

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York

For anyone who remembers walking through the steaming rubble of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero, in the fraught days and weeks after Sept. 11, seeing the National September 11 Memorial is a deeply emotional experience. Actually, it’s bound to be emotional for just about everyone.

The 9/11 memorial at One World Trade Center. (Photo by Grant Faint/Getty Images)
The 9/11 memorial at One World Trade Center. (Photo by Grant Faint/Getty Images)

The twin reflecting pools, each nearly an acre in size, are where the Twin Towers once stood. As the memorial’s website soberly describes, “The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil, and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history.”

Featured photo by The Points Guy.

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