Pripyat abandoned city Chernobyl
Commentary & Interviews

Dark Tourism Destinations

When people ask me why I visit dark tourism destinations, my answers vary. Sometimes its curiosity, sometimes it’s an obligation to visit commemorative sites, and sometimes it’s to put a historical or political site into context. All of the dark tourist sites I’ve visited have been recommended either by acquaintances or local tourist boards.

WHAT IS DARK TOURISM

The Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire defines dark tourism as “the act of travel to sites, attractions and exhibitions of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre”. 

The concept of dark tourism was coined by Lennon and Foley at Glasgow Caledonian University in the 1990s.

Dark tourism is sometimes called thanatourism although AV Seaton at the University of Strathclyde defines thanatourism as “travel to a location wholly, or partially, motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death, particularly, but not exclusively, violent death.” 

As suffering and death is universal, dark tourism is everywhere. Some sites are intertwined with the history of a place or country.

This post aims to highlight the main international dark tourism destinations. 

TOP DARK TOURISM DESTINATIONS

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

Many Nazi concentration/extermination camps are either museums or commemorative sites. Auschwitz-Birkenau in Southern Poland was by far the largest concentration/extermination camp in Europe and is generally considered the world’s main dark tourism site. It consists of Auschwitz, a former army barracks which houses the main exhibition area, and Birkenau, a camp purpose-built for extermination.

The sites facilitated murder on an industrial scale. My lengthy Visiting Auschwitz post gives both an overview of the visit and a reflection on the thoughts the visit provoked. My interest in social psychology stemmed from my visit to this site.

If you’re only going to read one of my dark tourism destinations posts, let it be this one. Lots of lessons need to be learned from this site.

Auschwitz entrance Arbeit macht frei
Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the entrance to Auschwitz

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine

Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is by far the most complex of the sites on this list. Firstly, you must visit as part of an official tour and provide your passport details when booking, for vetting by the Ukraine authorities. Passports and booking confirmation are checked by military personnel when entering the exclusion zone. A whole host of rules apply when inside the exclusion zone.  

The scale of destruction as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is enormous. The abandoned city of Pripyat is surreal. What wasn’t covered in the tour was the long-term effects the disaster had on neighbouring Belarus so I highlight that in my Chernobyl Day Trip post.

Pripyat amusement park Chernobyl
Abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, Chernobyl

9/11 Memorial, New York

The 9/11 Memorial in New York both remembers and honours those that were killed in the world’s worst terrorist attack. Twin waterfall pools are situated where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood. The perimeter of the pools lists the names of the victims. Footage of the terrorist attacks continue to shock me and, as a result, I found this a profoundly moving site to visit.

9/11 Memorial New York
9/11 Memorial, New York

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam

Anne Frank was a Jewish teenager who wrote a diary while hiding out with her family in Amsterdam during World War II. When the family were discovered, all were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Her father was the sole survivor of the family. He fulfilled Anne’s dream of becoming a writer by publishing her diary.

The house where the family hid is quite small which makes the tour surprisingly quick. But the setting and content of the house has a big impact. Like the 9/11 Memorial, the personal element of this site makes it an emotional place to visit.

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum is one of the most famous landmarks in Rome and is the world’s largest amphitheatre. Built during the Roman Empire era, it was purpose-built for violent entertainment such as gladiator fights, executions and animal hunts. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it had multiple uses.

As stated in my Rome Itinerary post, I felt ill at ease inside the Colosseum. Perhaps the suffering endured is understated at the site. Perhaps the plethora of people taking smiling selfies nauseated me. And perhaps the site is haunted – At one point, the hairs stood on the back of my neck despite the mid-morning summer heat.   

Colosseum Rome
Rome’s Colosseum

Former US Embassy, Tehran

I felt conflicted visiting this site for ethical reasons. US-Iranian relations were at an all-time low during my visit, and most of the people who suffered here during the 444-day hostage crisis were still alive. And suffered they did, although information at the site regarding hostage welfare was largely absent. And what was my entrance fee supporting?

However, it was sheer curiosity that brought me to this site. And the strength of my passport enabled me to visit. I was curious as to how the hostage crisis would be presented at the site. What did the building look like inside? How would I be received at the site? I have documented my visit in my Things to do in Tehran post.

Statue of Liberty mural outside the former US Embassy, Tehran
Mural outside the former US Embassy, Tehran

Berlin

If there is a dark tourism capital, then Berlin has to be it. The German capital had mixed fortunes during the 20th century.

Yet it entered the 21st century as the united capital of a united Germany, with possibly the most vibrant cultural scene in Europe. Berlin is an exciting and atmospheric city, and the best dark tourism multi-site listed here.

Most of the sites I have listed in my Weekend in Berlin post can be considered dark tourism sites. The post also includes a brief history of the city which gives the sites context. Dark tourism sites that I haven’t included in this post include the Stasi Museum, Glienicke Bridge, and the Olympic Stadium.

Checkpoint Charlie sign Berlin
Checkpoint Charlie sign, Berlin

Sarajevo

As Berlin rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Cold War, Sarajevo’s fortunes declined considerably. When Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence, the country and its people were subjected to some of the cruellest treatment witnessed in Europe since World War II.

Capital city, Sarajevo, was under siege from the Bosnian Serb army for 1,425 days, the longest siege in modern history. Relics of this siege are dotted around the city. Have a read of my Sarajevo War Tunnel and Places to Visit in Sarajevo posts for these sites.

Sarajevo is also the site of the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the event that triggered World War I.

Despite Sarajevo’s difficult modern history, I found the city to be incredibly engaging and the people very friendly. Along with a dark modern history, sites in Sarajevo also cover its communist era, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire eras. Like Berlin, Sarajevo is a great city for historians.

Sarajevo Tunnel Museum
Sarajevo Tunnel Museum

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

Approximately 1.5 hours from Prague by train is the pretty town of Kutna Hora. Sedlec Ossuary is a catholic church in the town that has been converted into an open tomb displaying the bones of an estimated 40,000 people. It’s better known as the Bone Church.

This site came recommended by many but it wasn’t for me. The sacred nature of the ossuary went over my head. Instead, I found it unsettling. The number of people taking fun selfies with the bones was breathtakingly disrespectful.  

Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora

Alcatraz, San Francisco

Alcatraz is an island in the Bay of San Francisco. It started as a military fort and was later a military prison. But its status as a maximum security federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, has given it its dark tourism position.

The prison had some notorious inmates such as Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly Barnes and Robert Stroud (aka the Birdman of Alcatraz). It is believed no inmate successfully escaped from Alcatraz. An escape attempt in 1946 led to the deaths of two guards and three escapees.

I found Alcatraz to be an interesting place as did many of the other tourists I spoke to while on the island. I found it equally thought-provoking on the subject of justice and freedom.

OTHER DARK TOURISM SITES

Individual sites that I haven’t visited but are considered dark tourism destinations include the following:

SiteCountryReason for Inclusion
AmritsarIndiaMassacre of peaceful protestors (1919)
Babin Yar, KyivUkraineMassacre of Jewish population during WWII (1941)
BhopalIndiaGas leak – Considered the world’s worst industrial disaster (1984)
Estadio Nacional (National Stadium)ChileConcentration camp during Pinochet coup (1973)
Fukushima  JapanNuclear disaster due to earthquake & tsunami (2011)
Hiroshima Peace Memorial ParkJapanAtomic bomb during WWII (1945)
Nagasaki Atomic Bomb MuseumJapanAtomic bomb during WWII (1945)
NanjingChinaRape and massacre of local population during Sino-Japanese War (1937/38)
PompeiiItalyVolcanic eruption (79 AD)  
Robben Island PrisonSouth AfricaPrison for political prisoners including Nelson Mandela (17th century – 1991)
Srebrenica  Bosnia & HerzegovinaGenocide (1992)
Tiananmen Square, BeijingChinaMassacre of peaceful protestors (1989)

Battlefield tourism is a type of dark tourism that involves visiting war-related sites where the majority of casualties were military combatants rather than civilians. Examples of battlefield tourism include the D-Day Normandy beaches, Gettysburg, Katyn, and the World War I battlefields of the Somme, Gallipoli and Ypres.

DARK TOURISM COUNTRIES

For some countries, the suffering was widespread so dark tourism isn’t restricted to one particular site:

Armenia

31 countries have recognised the targeted robbery, rape and murder of up to 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians from 1915 – 1917 as genocide. Capital city, Yerevan, has a museum commemorating the genocide’s victims.

Cambodia

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge genocidal regime murdered up to 2 million people during its rule from 1975 – 1979. While the genocide was countrywide, Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng torture prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are the most well-known dark tourism sites in Cambodia.

Ghana

Millions of people were forcibly removed from West Africa and placed into slavery in the Americas by European colonialists. A considerable number of these slaves originated in Ghana.

A couple of sites in Ghana that were the departure point for the transatlantic slave trade can now be visited. The most well-known are Cape Coast Castle Museum, St. Georges Castle (Elmina Castle) Museum, and Ussher Fort Museum. Elmina Castle featured in the Samuel L Jackson documentary Enslaved.

Ireland

My own part of the world has plenty to offer the dark tourist. Widespread suffering over several centuries means sites and monuments in almost every town and parish. The marauding Vikings invaded in 795 while the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169 marked the start of British rule.

Suppressed uprisings, Cromwellian massacres, a bloody war of independence, and a famine considered by many as genocide are examples of horrendous events. The partition of the island into the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland (remaining in the UK) in the 1920s led to violence on both sides of the border.

The 1960s-1998 conflict in Northern Ireland has resulted in the region becoming a fruitful destination for dark tourists.

Rwanda

In 1994, up to 800,000 of the minority Tutsi ethnic group were massacred during the Rwandan Civil War in what has since been categorised as genocide. Memorials to the genocide are dotted around the country including Kigali, Murambi, Ntarama, Nyamata, Bisesero and Nyarubuye.

Ukraine

The Holodomor was the famine in Ukraine during 1932/33. A number of countries consider it genocide, claiming it was a deliberate act against ethnic Ukrainians. Others claim it resulted from the mismanaged industrialisation of the Soviet Union.

It is estimated that several million people died during the Holodomor. The film, Mr. Jones, is the true story of the Welsh journalist who reported the story to the world.

IS DARK TOURISM ETHICAL?

This is the million dollar question.

If the sites are respected, informative and/or thought-provoking, then yes, dark tourism is ethical. Seeing the extent of the site can give perspective and historical context.

Not commemorating sites or events may be seen as a suppression of history. On the other hand, sites could be seen as shrines for the perpetrators of atrocities. It’s a delicate balance, and the debate surrounding the development of Jonestown in Guyana is a good example of the ethical issues that arise.

Most sites charge admission fees but if this money doesn’t go into the preservation/educational purposes of the site or is used for nefarious purposes, then ethical issues arise. Slum tours, where there is no engagement with locals, are seen to be profiting from the suffering of others and are considered unethical.

But some dark sites are commercial in nature to begin with and shouldn’t pose ethical problems, hotels in conflict zones being the best example. 

The passage of time is important when visiting a dark tourism site. Visiting an area that has experienced recent suffering could be considered voyeuristic. On the other hand, it could mean supporting struggling local businesses. The local perspective will be the litmus test in this situation.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I couldn’t imagine doing a trip entirely focused on dark tourism sites. I mix visiting dark tourism sites with other activities. For example, the 9/11 Memorial was seen as part of a family holiday to New York for St. Patrick’s Day, Auschwitz-Birkenau was a day trip from Krakow where I was on a city break, while Anne Frank House was visited as part of a cultural weekend to Amsterdam.  

Just as my reasons for visiting dark tourism destinations vary, so do the lessons I learn and impressions I take. Dark tourism can be as challenging as it is enlightening. And I think for that reason alone everyone should engage with at least one dark tourism site over their lifetime.

Dark Tourism Destinations

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