Many of us have a natural morbid curiosity. Death, disasters, atrocities, and destruction fascinate us. Every year, millions of people travel to some of the darkest and most tragic sites on earth to satisfy that curiosity as well as to gain a deeper understanding of the events that took place there. This guide outlines some of the most popular dark tourism destinations and explains how to visit them. I’ll also explain exactly what dark tourism is and talk a bit about the ethics, controversies, and motivations of dark tourism.
Table of Contents
- What is Dark Tourism?
- History of Dark Tourism
- Categories of Dark Tourism
- Dark Tourism Destinations
- The Ethics of Dark Tourism
- Why is Dark Tourism Popular?
What is Dark Tourism?
Dark tourism is a relatively new term for a form of tourism that involves travel to a site where death, tragedy, disaster, violence, atrocity, or suffering took place. This could include sites of genocide, assassination, natural disaster, war, terrorism, man-made disaster, etc. Usually, dark tourism sites have some kind of historical significance. They could also be the site of a recent or ongoing tragic event. Dark tourism is also called black tourism, morbid tourism, and grief tourism.
A few of the most well-known and popular dark tourism sites in the world include the ruins of Pompeii, Auschwitz concentration camp, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Paris Catacombs, Gettysburg, Ground Zero, and the 9/11 memorial in New York. Each of these sites relates to death, suffering, tragedy, or disaster in some way.
Most people visit dark tourism sites for educational purposes. Some visit because they pique a morbid curiosity. Others just want to witness large scale destruction and damage. Everyone has their own motivation. Dark tourism and heritage tourism are sometimes closely related. For example, someone may choose to visit Holocaust sites to learn about the events that their ancestors experienced. Descendants of slaves may choose to visit slavery heritage sites. Some consider this a form of dark tourism.
To consider someone a dark tourist, they must visit the site for dark tourism purposes. Some sites have a dark element but aren’t exclusively visited for dark tourism purposes. For example, if you visit Mount St. Helens to go for a hike, you’re not a dark tourist. If you visit to learn about the volcanic eruption and the damage it caused, you are a dark tourist.
The History of Dark Tourism
The term ‘dark tourism’ was coined in 1996 by hospitality and tourism professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley. Their book Dark Tourism explores the origin of the practice of dark tourism as well as the attraction to it. They define dark tourism as “the representation of inhuman acts, and how these are interpreted for visitors”.
Even though the term dark tourism is relatively new, the practice is not. Dark tourism has a long history going back hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. According to John Lennon, the practice may have begun with public hangings in London during the 16th century. He continued saying “there is evidence that people watched the Battle of Waterloo from carriages in 1815.” You could also make a good argument that the gladiator battles in the Colosseum in ancient Rome were an early form of dark tourism.
In recent years, dark tourism has grown more popular than ever. The Netflix series The Dark Tourist and the HBO show Chernobyl brought dark tourism to the mainstream. Millions of people visit dark tourism sites each year. For example, around 7 million people visit the Colosseum per year. Over 2 million people visit the Auschwitz Memorial per year.
Categories of Dark Tourism
Dark tourism sites exist all over the world. Every country has some tragic events in its past. After all, humans have a long history of treating each other badly. War, genocide, slavery, and violent crime commonly occur throughout all of human history, sadly.
A few categories of dark tourism include:
- Disaster sites- both man-made disasters and natural disasters
- Nuclear sites
- Holocaust sites
- Genocide sites
- Monuments, museums, and memorials
- Gravesites, graveyards, and mausoleums
- Assassination sites
- Battlegrounds and war zones
- Political sites
- Prisons and prison camps
- Catacombs and ossuaries
- Sites where famous crimes took place
- Terrorism sites
- Abandonments and ghost towns
- Slavery sites
- Slums and ghettos
There is quite a bit of overlap between dark tourism and other forms of tourism. Some subcategories or related forms of tourism include danger tourism, warzone tourism, slum tourism, and heritage tourism.
Exactly which tourist sites fall under the category of dark tourism is debatable. Generally, paranormal sites like haunted houses are not considered dark tourism. Some people do not consider slums to be dark tourism sites. Visiting active war zones or areas that are occupied by terrorists is also debatable. It’s up to you to decide what is and isn’t dark tourism. There is no formal definition.
Dark Tourism Destinations
There are thousands of dark tourism sites that you can visit. Pretty much every major disaster or tragedy throughout recorded history has a museum, monument, memorial, or tourist site to commemorate it. In this section, I’ll outline some of the most popular dark tourism destinations around the world.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Poland
Located outside of Krakow, Poland, Auschwitz was the largest and most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps. Between 1.1 and 1.6 million men, women, and children were murdered here during the Holocaust. Auschwitz is one of the largest mass murder sites in the world.
Today, the site symbolizes genocide and the evil acts that humans inflict upon one another. It also acts as a valuable education tool to help prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from happening again.
Auschwitz is actually a series of 40 concentration camps rather than one large camp. Auschwitz I is the older and smaller camp where political prisoners were head. Here, you’ll see a terrifying exhibition of some of the inmates’ possessions including piles of suitcases, shoes, and human hair.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is located a couple of miles down the road, is a much larger concentration camp and extermination camp. Here, you’ll find the ruins of the infamous gas chambers, barracks with wooden shelves where prisoners slept, and the train track which was used to haul thousands of people into the camp.
Auschwitz has become a mass tourist site seeing over 2 million visitors per year and over 60 million visitors since the site opened in 1947. This is probably the world’s biggest and most well known dark tourism site. The Auschwitz Memorial is free to enter but you should book in advance. Only a limited number of tickets are available per day because the site is so popular.
Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Site, Ukraine
On April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear meltdown took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine. This disaster caused the death of around 4,000 individuals from radiation-related illness as well as the displacement of over 300,000.
The area is still not safe for people to inhabit, even though some have moved back into their villages anyway. In fact, scientists believe it could take 20,000 years before the exclusion zone is completely safe. The radiation has dissipated enough for tourists to make short visits on guided tours.
Several tour companies offer day trips and multi-day trips to Chernobyl from the nearby city of Kyiv. During the tour, you’ll see the radiation-contaminated Red Forrest and eerie abandoned buildings including the famous Pripyat Amusement Park and a Kindergarten. You’ll also learn about the impact the disaster had on the region.
Keep in mind that there is still a risk of radiation poisoning when visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Radiation levels are still hazardous in much of the zone. Your guide will explain the safety precautions you must take and guide you through the areas that are safe enough to visit.
Chernobyl is one of the world’s most famous and popular dark tourism sites. The recent HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, greatly increased the popularity of the area. Following the release of the show, tourism increased by 30%.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge regime came into power after the Cambodian civil war ended in 1975. The new government was called the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Their leader was prime minister Pol Pot.
Immediately following the end of the war, the Cambodian genocide began. From 1975 to 1979, between 1.7 and 2.5 million people were killed at 300 sites throughout the country. These sites are known as killing fields.
The most famous of these killing fields is Choeung Ek, which is located about 11 miles outside of Phnom Pehn, the capital of Cambodia. It is estimated that around 17,000 men, women, and children were killed at this site. Many were killed violently with knives, scythes, bats, and bayonets. This is the main memorial for the Cambodian genocide.
At this site, you’ll see a memorial Buddist stupa made of glass. Inside the stupa, there are 5,000 human skulls. Many of the displayed skulls are catastrophically damaged, showing the brutal manner in which the victims were killed. The site also includes a mass grave that contains the remains of almost 9,000 people that were exhumed from the surrounding area. Human bones still litter the entire site. Occasionally fragments wash up after heavy rain.
Another famous Cambodian Genocide site is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S-21. This museum is located in Phnom Pehn. Originally, this site was built as a secondary school but was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. Around 20,000 people were imprisoned here during Pol Pot’s reign. Many were tortured and killed. Here, you’ll see prison cells, photos of victims, as well as an exhibit that documents the events of the Cambodian genocide.
National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York
This New York City memorial and museum was built to commemorate and honor the 2,977 people who died in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks as well as the six people who died in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. The memorial sits on the site where the twin towers once stood.
The main memorial, called Reflecting Absence, consists of two 1-acre pools that occupy the exact footprints where the Twin Towers stood. Each pool features a large waterfall. Bronze parapets with the name of each victim etched in surround the pools. The September 11 Museum, located underground, contains thousands of images, artifacts, recordings, and videos. The exhibit tells the complete story of the events of 9/11.
This site is fairly controversial. Partly for the high price of entry ($24) but mostly for the fact that the remains of over 1000 victims were placed in a tomb in the bedrock under the museum. Many people find this disrespectful. Even so, the 9/11 Memorial is one of the world’s most popular dark tourism sites. Over 6 million people visit this memorial per year.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum
This memorial and museum commemorate and honor the city of Hiroshima and the 140,000 people who died when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city on August 6, 1945. It also memorializes the world’s first nuclear attack. The aim is to educate people about the danger of nuclear weapons as well as to promote peace.
The atom bomb, codenamed “Little Boy,” detonated 600 meters above the busiest part of downtown Hiroshima. The explosion essentially leveled the area except for a few ruins. This event marked the beginning of the end of WWII. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. The park was built on the site of the bombing. Today, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park contains a number of monuments as well as a museum and a lecture hall.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is the main feature of the park. The museum educates visitors about the events leading up to the bombing as well as the catastrophic effect the bomb had on the city. You’ll see photos and artifacts from the bombing. A major section of the museum is dedicated to the stories of the victims and survivors.
The A-Bomb Dome is the second most important site in the park. This is the ruins of Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Today, it’s just a shell of a building. This building is significant because it is one of the only buildings that survived the blast. Most structures in Hiroshima were built from wood and burned up in fires that the bomb started. This building was also just 150 meters from the hypocenter of the blast. It has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
A few more significant points of interest in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park include Children’s Peace Monument, Peace Flame, Peace Bells, Peace Pagoda, Gates of Peace, and Atomic Bomb Memorial Mount. You could easily spend half a day wandering around the park viewing the various monuments and memorials.
3 days after the bombing of Hiroshima on August 9, 1945, The United States bombed the city of Nagasaki in a second nuclear attack. Today, you’ll find a number of memorials and museums including the Atomic Bomb Museum, Peace Park, Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum, and more.
Rwanda Genocide Sites (Kigali Genocide Memorial and Murambi Genocide Memorial)
In 1990, a rebel group of Tutsi refugees called the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda. This started the Rwandan Civil War. President Juvénal Habyarimana signed peace accords in 1993. The following day, the president was assassinated. Genocidal killings of Tutsi people began soon after and the civil war resumed.
The Rwandan genocide lasted from April 7 to July 15, 1994. During that time 500,000-1,000,000 people were killed. This includes about 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsi population. The genocide ended when the RPF captured Kigali and gained control of the country. The government and genocidaires were forced into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Today, there are a number of genocide memorials located throughout the country. The largest and most visited is the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. The remains of an astonishing 250,000 people are interred at this site. The attached museum includes three exhibits. The first documents the events of genocide from start to finish. The second exhibit is a memorial to the children who died. It includes photos and details about their lives, things they liked, and the way they died. The third exhibit covers genocide around the world.
The Murambi Genocide Memorial (Murambi Technical School), located in southern Rwanda is one of the darkest dark tourism destinations on the planet. Here, around 50,000 Tutsi men, women, and children were murdered by Hutu Interahamwe militiamen in April of 1994.
The Tutsis were told that they could safely shelter at the school and that the French military would protect them. This turned out to be a trap. After being starved for several days to weaken them, they were attacked and killed. Only 34 people survived the attack and escaped. At Murambi, the remains of 800 people are displayed partially decomposed and preserved by lime.
This ancient Roman city was wiped out when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Historians estimate that about 2,000 people died in the disaster. The thick layer of ash and pumice that covered the city preserved this little slice of ancient Rome.
At the ruins, you can see beautifully preserved artwork, pottery, casts of people who died, houses, an amphitheater, and more. Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations with over 2.5 million visitors per year.
Some people question whether or not Pompeii is actually a dark tourism site due to the age of the site. After all, the eruption occurred nearly 2000 years ago. In my opinion, Pompeii is absolutely a dark tourism site due to the large scale death and destruction that happened here. The age of the site is irrelevant.
Slave Castles, Ghana (Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle)
During the colonial period of West Africa, the British, Dutch, and Portuguese built around 40 castles or forts along the Gold Coast. The Europeans originally used these castles as trading posts for timber or gold.
During that time, African slaves were in high demand in the Americas. The European traders quickly found that the slave trade was more profitable.
They modified their forts to hold as many slaves as possible. Usually in an underground dungeon. African slavers would capture slaves inland then sell them to the Europeans who lived in the castles on the coast. The slaves stayed in the castles until they were shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas.
Living conditions for the slaves were horrible. Slavers shackled and packed the slaves into the castle’s dungeons. There was very little light or ventilation. There was no water or sanitation so the floors were covered in waste. Many became ill. The slaves lived in these conditions for up to three months before being shipped across the Atlantic.
Today, dark tourists visit these castles to learn about the horrors of the slave trade. Two of the most significant castles to visit include Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle. Both are located in Ghana. Guided tours are available.
Elmina Castle was the first European trading post and is the oldest European building in Sub Saharan Africa. The Portuguese built the castle in 1482. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you can see the famous ‘Door of No Return’ where slaves exited the castle before boarding ships to Brazil and other Portuguese colonies. You’ll also see the dungeon where the slaves were held as well as the living quarters for the European slavers, who lived on the upper floors of the castle.
Cape Coast Castle was built by Swedish traders in 1653. Over the years, the castle changed hands multiple times until it came into British possession. Here, you can see the dungeons where slaves were held and cannons that were used to defend the fort. In 2009, President Obama visited Cape Coast Castle during his visit to Ghana.
Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
This small Roman Catholic chapel is located in a cemetery in a suburb of the city of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. Here, you’ll find the remains of 40,000-70,000 people. Initially, the remains were moved from the cemetery into the basement of the chapel to solve an overcrowding problem that was caused by the plague in the 14th century.
In 1870, a local artist named František Rint rearranged the piles of bones into artwork. The most impressive piece is a massive chandelier in the center of the chapel that is made entirely from human bones. Supposedly it contains at least one of every bone in the human body.
Another interesting piece is a large coat of arms made from bones. In the corners of the chapel, you’ll find large stacks of bones. There are cabinets filled with damaged skulls of those who were killed violently in war. The artist also signed his name in bones.
You can visit Selded Ossuary as a day trip from Prague. It’s easy to visit independently by train. Organized tours are available as well. The chapel is pretty small. It only takes 20 minutes or so to see the whole thing. The place gets pretty crowded as it receives over 200,000 visitors per year.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, San Francisco
Also known as The Rock, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was a maximum-security prison from 1934-1963. It is located on an island in the San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles offshore. During the 29 years that the prison operated, some of the hardest criminals of the day served time here including the infamous Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Henri Young, and ‘the Birdman of Alcatraz’, Robert Stroud.
For punishment, prisoners were sent to solitary confinement, known as ‘the hole’ at Alcatraz. These inmates got one shower and one hour of exercise per week. Almost equally punishing for some, the prison sits close enough to the mainland that prisoners could see people going about their lives on the outside.
Today, Alcatraz is San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction with up to 1.5 million visitors per year. The National Park Service manages the island. After arriving at the island by boat, you can take a tour of the prison. You’ll see the prison cells, learn about the history of the island, and hear stories of former inmates. Much of the prison remains the way it was while the prison was in operation.
Suicide Forest (Aokigahar), Japan
This forest, located to the Northwest of Mount Fuji, is famous for being one of the most popular suicide site in Japan. In 2003, a record was made when 105 bodies were found in the forest. In 2010, over 200 people attempted suicide here with 54 of those being successful.
The most common methods of suicide used are hanging and drug overdose. Because the suicide rate is so high here, Japanese officials installed a sign at the entry to the park which urges suicidal people to seek help.
Part of the reason for the popularity of this forest as a suicide site is that the area has long been associated with death in Japanese culture. The forest is said to be haunted by the yūrei, which are spirits that can’t leave our world.
Here, visitors can roam about the many trails that wind throughout the 30 square kilometer forest. This is an excellent place to enjoy the solitude of the dense forest. Tours are available as well.
Some visitors come here to see if they can spot a body. As you can imagine, this is a very controversial form of dark tourism. For example, Youtuber Logan Paul was criticized for filming a video of a man who had recently committed suicide here in 2018.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake off the east coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that flooded the reactors at Fukushima nuclear power plant and caused an electrical grid failure. The reactors lost their cooling which led to three nuclear meltdowns at the plant. 154,000 people had to be evacuated. Many were never able to return to their homes.
Today, there is a 20 km exclusion zone surrounding the nuclear plant to protect people from radiation exposure. In 2018 tours to visit the exclusion area began. In 2020, The Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum opened. On the tour, you’ll see abandoned structures and witness the effects that the disaster had on the region.
Robben Island, South Africa
Robben Island, located in Table Bay, north of Cape Town, was used as a prison from the colonial times of the late 1600s until 1996. The prison gained notoriety during the apartheid era of South Africa. It held political prisoners between 1961 and 1991.
The most famous prisoner was political revolutionary, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. He served 18 of his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island before his release in 1990. in 1994, South Africa elected Mandela as the first president. A total of three former inmates went on to become South African presidents including Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.
Conditions in the prison were incredibly harsh. Prisoners were held isolated from one another in small cells. The prison was segregated by race. Food rations were small and communication with the outside world was limited. Prisoners were also forced to do hard labor in a lime quarry located on the island.
Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a South African National Heritage Site. The only way to visit Robben Island is on a guided tour. The tour leaves from Cape Town and lasts for about 3.5 hours. The guides are all former prisoners. They take you around the prison and share their first-hand stories about their time there. You’ll see the lime quarry where the prisoners were forced to work as well as Nelson Mandela’s prison cell.
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service surprise attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The goal of the attack was to prevent the United States Navy fleet from interfering with the Japanese military plans to expand throughout Southeast Asia. If Japan crippled the United States fleet was crippled, they could invade and conquer US and British held territories such as the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, as well as other small islands of the Pacific.
The Japanese launched a massive attack with 353 aircraft which took off from six aircraft carriers. They sank 4 of the 8 battleships stationed at Pearl Harbor. They seriously damaged the other four. 188 aircraft were also destroyed in the attack 159 were damaged. The attack killed 2,403 Americans and injured 1,178. The attack also damaged or destroyed a considerable amount of the base’s infrastructure including a power station, piers, various buildings, and more.
The most significant loss was the battleship USS Arizona. It suffered a direct hit to an ammunition magazine which exploded and caused the ship to sink almost instantly. 1,000 sailors sank with the ship.
The attack on Pearl Harbor dragged the United States into World War II. The day after the attack, Japan declared war on the United States. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy both declared war on the United States.
Today, there are a number of museums and memorials at Pearl Harbor that commemorate the attack. The main site is the USS Arizona memorial. This memorial straddles the sunken ship and is accessible only by boat. Inside, you’ll see a number of exhibits including one of the ship’s anchors, a shrine with the names of all of those who died as well as some plaques with information about the attack. There is also an opening in the floor where you can view the deck of the ship underwater. Onshore, there is also a museum that outlines the events leading up to the attack and the attack itself.
Nearby, you can also view the USS Missouri Memorial, USS Utah Memorial, USS Oklahoma Memorial, Pacific Aviation Museum, and USS Bowfin Museum.
The Colosseum, Rome
Built in Ancient Rome between 72-80 AD, the Colosseum is one of the oldest and most recognizable dark tourism sites. At the time, it was the largest amphitheater ever built with a capacity of 50,000-80,000 spectators. The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, hosted a number of dark and violent events including gladiatorial events, executions, animal hunts, and battle re-enactments.
The most famous of these events were the gladiatorial contests. People and animals brutally battled to the death for the entertainment of thousands of spectators. Most gladiators were slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war but some volunteered to seek fame and fortune.
Exotic wild animals including lions, hippos, rhinos, elephants, bears, tigers, crocodiles, etc. were brought in from Africa and the Middle East. These animals were used for hunts or battles. In some cases, people were fed to lions.
Over the course of the 400 years that these gladiatorial events took place, historians estimate that around 400,000 people died in the Colosseum. Some people consider these events the earliest form of dark tourism.
Today, the Colosseum is one of the top tourist destinations in Rome and the world. Around 7 million people visit this site per year. There are a number of guided tours available. You’ll see the underground level where the gladiators prepared to fight, the arena floor where the gladiatorial fights took place, areas where the animals were kept, and artwork.
Mount St. Helens, Washington
The 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people and caused a great deal of destruction to the mountain and surrounding area including the largest landslide in recorded history. The eruption was so violent that the mountain’s elevation decreased by 1300 feet. The top completely blew off.
Many tourists come to visit the area each year. Today, you can see tree stumps and dead trees that still stand around the blast site. There is a visitor center with an exhibition about the eruption. In the visitor center, they also have a small movie theater that shows a short documentary about the event. The surrounding state park offers plenty of hiking, camping, climbing, and other recreational activities.
This volcanic island in the Caribbean is sometimes called a modern-day Pompeii. The Soufriere Hills Volcano became active in the mid-1990s and slowly covered the former capital of Plymouth in ash. The town was evacuated in 1997 just before a major eruption covered much of it.
The volcano is still very active today, periodically spewing ash, smoke, and gasses across 1/3 of the island. Occasionally pyroclastic flows cover more of the island’s land. Travelers can hike to a lookout point to view smoke spewing from the volcano and maybe get a glimpse of Plymouth. It is also possible to view the volcano and town by boat. It is unsafe to visit the town of Plymouth at this time.
Anne Frank House and Museum, Amsterdam
In this famous canal house Anne Frank, her family, and four others hid from Nazi persecution for 761 days. They quietly lived in a hidden part of the house called the Secret Annex. Anne Frank is famous for keeping a diary of her daily thoughts and experiences during her days in hiding during World War II.
Sadly, Anne Frank and the others hiding in the Secret Annex were betrayed by an unknown informant and discovered by the Nazis on August 4, 1944. The Nazis split them up and moved them to various concentration camps. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February of 1945 when she was just 15 years old. Anne’s father Otto, who survived the Holocaust, discovered his daughter’s diary after the war and published it in 1947.
The canal house where the two families hid is a now museum that attracts up to 1.2 million visitors per year. Here, you can walk through the Secret Annex where Anne Frank and her family hid. The original diary is on display in the attached museum. The museum also includes a permanent exhibit about the life of Anne Frank and her experience during the war.
Nuclear Test Sites
Since nuclear testing began in 1945, 8 countries have detonated around 2056 nuclear bombs at dozens of test sites around the world. A few nuclear test sites that you can visit include:
- Semipalatinsk Test Site (The Polygon)- Semipalatinsk was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear test site from 1949-1991. It is located on the steppe of northeastern Kazakhstan. More nuclear weapons detonated here than anywhere else on the planet. Beginning in 2014 parts of the area have opened up for tourism. There isn’t all that much to see here outside of some massive craters and some concrete towers and bunkers that housed instruments to measure the blasts.
- Nevada Test Site- This site was the United States’ main nuclear testing site from the time it was established in 1951 until nuclear testing ended in 1992. The site is located about 65 miles to the northeast of Las Vegas. Here, you can see a number of large craters in the desert where nuclear weapons were detonated for testing purposes. Monthly public tours are offered but are often fully booked months in advance. This is a difficult place to visit.
- Bikini Atoll, Martial Islands- This was one of the United States’ main nuclear test sites. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 atomic bomb tests were performed here. The blasts turned out to be more destructive than anticipated and resulted in significant contamination to the surrounding area. Probably the biggest attraction for tourists here is Scuba diving the 10 ships that were sunk during nuclear tests. This is a risky area to visit due to the significant levels of radiation that still exist.
Catacombs of Paris, France
This network of underground ossuaries underneath the city of Pairs holds the remains of around 6 million people. The tunnels were originally mine tunnels. The Paris Catacombs were built to solve the problem of the city’s overflowing cemeteries. The dead were crowding the living. Starting in 1786, the city began transporting human remains from the city’s cemeteries into the underground tunnels by covered wagon during the night. The catacombs open to tourism in 1867.
Today, the Catacombs are one of the more popular tourist destinations in Paris. You can book a guided tour and wander through the labyrinth of bone filled tunnels and view the millions of bones stacked neatly throughout. Around 300,000 people visit this site per year. It is only accessible by tour.
Warsaw Ghetto, Poland
Ghettos were segregated neighborhoods where Jewish people were forced to live while under Nazi occupation during WWII. The largest of these was the Warsaw Ghetto. The area actually consists of two smaller ghettos with a footbridge between them. At its peak, approximately 460,000 people lived in Warsaw Ghetto.
During the Uprising the ghetto was almost completely destroyed. Today, you can visit the area and view a small number of streets and buildings that survived. The monument called ‘The Footbridge of Memory’ stands at the site of the original footbridge.
Perm-36 Gulag, Russia
Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union built a large system of forced labor camps to imprison ‘enemies of the state.’ These included government officials, military members, and regular citizens. Anyone who was anti-communist or anti-Stalin was imprisoned. These camps were known as gulags. Millions of people were held in these camps and forced to perform backbreaking work in extremely brutal conditions.
Perm-36 is the only remaining Soviet gulag. It is located about 60 miles from the Russian city of Perm in the Western Ural Mountains. The camp operated from 1946-1987. Perm-36 is unique because it was not closed after Stalin’s death in 1953. This is one of the only gulags that was not demolished after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
When Perm-36 opened, it was used as a forced labor camp for regular criminals. In later years, the camp housed political prisoners. The prisoners were forced to do logging work. Some political prisoners lived in 24 hour closed cells. Perm 36 was considered the harshest political camp in the Soviet Union.
Today’s site operates as a museum and memorial called The Museum of the History of Political Repression Perm-36. It opened to the public in 1995. Here, you’ll see the wooden barracks that the prisoners built, various prison buildings, and an exhibit about the gulag system and the prisoners. You’ll also learn about the economic benefit that the gulag system created for the Soviet Union.
Cremations on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India
Varanasi is a holy city located on the Ganges river in Uttar Pradesh, India. The city has become a popular dark tourism destination for its famous Hindu cremation ceremonies that take place on the banks of the river. In the Hindu religion, people believe that cremation on the banks of the Ganges river breaks the cycle of reincarnation so they can achieve salvation. Along the river, dozens of cremations take place out in the open every day.
The bodies are placed atop piles of wood and set on fire until they turn to ash. The ashes are then scattered in the Ganges River, which is considered a holy site in the Hindu religion. Poor families who cannot afford a cremation sometimes release the entire body of their loved one in the river to decompose naturally. Some terminally ill people travel to Varanasi so they can die and be cremated in the holy city.
Tourists are welcome to view and experience these cremation ceremonies. When you arrive at the famous ghats on the bank of the river in Varanasi, you’ll clearly see the cremation sites. Just look for the smoke. You’ll see open areas with large fires and piles of wood sitting around. The cremations take place here.
For a few dollars, you can hire a guide to walk you through the cremation site and explain how the process works. There are multiple cremations taking place simultaneously at all hours of the day. You can walk right up and see the cremation and feel the heat from the fire and smell the smoke.
As you can imagine, this is a fairly controversial form of dark tourism. After all, you are essentially attending a cremation for touristic purposes as the family grieves of the loss of their loved one. Some view this as voyeuristic. It’s up to you to decide whether or not this form of dark tourism is ethical.
Berlin is one of the darkest cities on earth. It was the capital of Nazi Germany, one of the world’s most evil regimes. Next, it became the most significant city in the cold war. It was also the capital of the socialist single-party regime of the former GDR. As a result, Berlin is packed with dozens of dark tourism sites. A few of the most popular ones include:
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (the Holocaust Memorial)- This memorial is to the Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust. It contains 2,711 concrete slabs ranging in height from .2-4.7 meters. The slabs are arranged in a grid pattern over a 19,000 square meter site. Below the memorial is an information center that contains the names of 3 million Holocaust victims as well as photographs and letters. This memorial is quite controversial. Partly because it is so vague. There is no mention of Nazi Germany or the Holocaust on the memorial itself or in the official name of the memorial. People also use the site as a recreational area, sitting or standing on the pillars. Many consider this to be disrespectful. Due to its size and design, the memorial is difficult to defend from vandals.
- Berlin Wall- Between 1961 and 1989, this concrete barrier divided West Berlin from surrounding East Germany. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) constructed the wall to prevent East Germans from defecting to the west. The four-meter tall wall extended 155km (96 miles) and cut through 55 streets. Today, you can see several small sections of the wall still standing in the city. The largest is is a 1.4 km section that is part of the Berlin Wall Memorial. Here, you can see the graffiti on the west side and learn about the historical significance of the wall.
- Checkpoint Charlie Museum- Checkpoint Charlie is the most well-known crossing between East and West Berlin. The original guardhouse was preserved and today is part of the Checkpoint Charlie museum. Here, you can see exhibits about the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, and some famous escape attempts.
- Jewish Museum- Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the Jewish Museum is one of Germany’s best and most popular museums as well as one of Berlin’s most striking landmarks. Here, you’ll find thousands of artifacts, photos, religious objects, and archives that document the struggle of the German Jewish people from the Middle Ages to the present time. The museum also houses a massive library and hosts various events throughout the year.
- Topography of Terror Museum- This museum is located on the site of the Gestapo secret police and SS headquarters. Allied bombings destroyed the original building in 1945. After many years of delay, the museum opened in 2010. The main exhibit focuses on policing under Nazi rule. You’ll see photos, documents, short films, and artifacts that show the crimes that the SS and Gestapo committed throughout Europe. The grounds of the museum also contain some historic artifacts including a large section of the Berlin Wall. You’ll also see an excavated trench that exposes the cellar wall, where political prisoners were kept, tortured, and ofttimes executed.
- DDR Museum- This newer museum outlines life in East Berlin under communist rule with a hands-on approach. Here, you’ll see a recreation of an interrogation room, prison cell, and an apartment. You can try on clothing and watch television from the era. The exhibit covers food, music, daily life, education, architecture, and more. You’ll also learn about the mass surveillance conducted during the time. This is a private museum and is one of Berlin’s most popular.
Communist Leader Mausoleums
For whatever reason, communists love to embalm their leaders after they die and put the bodies on public display. A few famous mausoleums you can visit include:
- Lenin Mausoleum- This mausoleum is located in the Red Square in the center of Moscow. Inside, you can view the embalmed corpse of the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. The body has been on public display since shortly after his death in 1924. The mausoleum is open to the public and free to enter. Stalin’s body was put on display here from 1953-1961 but was removed and buried near the mausoleum.
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum- This mausoleum is located in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, Vietnam. Inside, you can view the embalmed body of Vietnamese revolutionary and president Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969. The body is kept in a dimly lit glass case which is heavily guarded by military honor guards. The mausoleum is open to the public.
- Mausoleum of Mao Zedong- This large mausoleum, also known as Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, is located in the center of Tienanmen Square in central Beijing. Here, you can view the embalmed remains of Mao Zedong, who served as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1945-1976. Interestingly, Chairman Mao wanted to be cremated. The mausoleum is open to the public.
- Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (Kim Il Sung Mausoleum)- This absolutely massive palace is located in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The building was intended to be the official residence of Kim Il Sung but was converted into a mausoleum when he died in 1994. Inside, you can view the embalmed remains of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung as well as his son and former leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il. Both bodies lie inside of glass sarcophaguses. The mausoleum is open to the public. Foreigners can only enter the palace when they are on an official government tour.
Somme Battlefield, France
The Battle of the Somme was a WWI battle fought between the French Third Republic and British Empire against the German Empire. The battle took place between July 1 and November 18, 1916. Over three million men fought in the Battle of the Somme. One million were killed, injured, or went missing, making this the most bloody battle of WWI and possibly the most deadly battle in world history.
Several factors contributed to the massive amount of death in the battle. First, the battlefield was small. The Germans were also well prepared and trained for trench warfare. An incredible amount of heavy artillery was also used in this battle.
The Battle of the Somme ended when British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig decided to stop the offensive near the Somme River. When the battle ended, the British and French armies had gained just six miles of land. Modern historians are not in agreement as to whether or not the battle was a success.
Today, there are a number of monuments, museums, cemeteries, and battle sites that you can visit in Somme. The Remembered Trail leads visitors through some of the most significant locations. It’s is a great place to start in the region. Guided tours of the area are also available.
Verdun Battlefield, France
The battle of Verdun lasted from February 21-December 18, 1916, making it the longest battles in World War One at 302 days. This battle was also one of the most costly with up to 1 million casualties between the French and German armies.
Today, you can view the battlefield complete with shell craters that are still visible over 100 years later. You’ll also find several memorials including an ossuary. The battlefield itself contains the remains of 100,000 soldiers. You can also visit the Verdun Memorial Museum which features artifacts from the battle as well as information about the time.
D-Day Beaches and Memorials in Normandy
On June 6, 1944, the Allied Forces invaded Nazi occupied France on the beaches of Normandy. This operation, known as Operation Overlord, was the largest amphibious invasion in world history. This event marked the beginning of the liberation of France and Western Europe and eventually led to the Allied victory over the Third Reich on the Western Front. The D-Day invasion of Normandy resulted in 4,000-9,000 German casualties and around 10,000 Allied casualties including 4,414 deaths.
Today, there are dozens of memorials, museums, and war cemeteries along the beaches of Normandy as well as further inland. A few of the most significant D-Day sites to visit include:
- Beach landing sites- The 50 miles stretch of Normandy beach was divided into 5 sections where the invasion took place. The beach landing sites include Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Today, you can visit each of the 5 beaches. Probably the most popular beach to visit is Omaha. Here, you’ll see German bunkers and the sculpture Les Braves which commemorates the American soldiers who died on D-Day.
- Utah Beach Museum- This museum outlines the entire D-Day invasion from the planning phase until the end of the battle. Here, you’ll see vehicles, artifacts, and photographs from the massive invasion. The museum overlooks Utah Beach.
- Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial- This cemetery, overlooking Omaha Beach, contains 9,388 graves of American soldiers who died in WWII. Mostly on D-Day.
- Overlord Museum- This museum, located near Omaha Beach and the American cemetery, documents the time period between the Allied landing and the liberation of Paris. Here, you’ll see thousands of artifacts from the invasion including tanks and cannons as well as photos and reconstructed battle scenes.
- Pegasus Bridge- 6000 British paratroopers landed here with supplies and weapons just past midnight on June 6, 1944. Their job was to secure the bridge so German reinforcements couldn’t cross. The current bridge is a reconstruction of the original, which was destroyed.
- Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy- This museum, which is located in Bayeux, outlines the military operation in detail. Here, you’ll see military equipment, artifacts, photos, and a fantastic short film about the D-Day landings.
- Caen Memorial Center- This museum outlines the battle of Normandy from the end of WWI all the way to the beginning of the Cold War. This gives you a great overview of the historical events leading up to the war and their effects on Europe and the world. Here, you’ll see letters and personal belongings from soldiers, airplanes, and a short documentary film with footage of the D-Day invasion.
- Airborne Museum- This museum, located in Sainte-Mère-Église, focuses on the paratroopers who landed in Normandy the night before the attack. Here, you’ll see photos, artifacts, tanks, and airplanes including a WACO glider and C-47 that you can enter.
Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland
On September 17, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia battled Union General George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac in the Battle of Anteteitum near Sharpsburg, Maryland. This was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War with 22,717 dead, injured, or missing. This massive loss of life took place over the course of just 12 hours.
The battle ended when Lee decided to withdraw back to Virginia. McClellan decided not to follow him. The Union claimed victory. After the battle, President Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation which freed 3.5 million slaves.
Antietam is considered to be one of the most well-preserved American Civil War Battlefields. Probably because it was one of the first battlefields preserved in 1890. Today, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the battlefield or hire a tour guide. You’ll see landmarks of the battle such as the Cornfield, Dunker Church, and Burnside’s Bridge.
Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a massive network of underground tunnels located outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. They were used by Viet Cong soldiers for a number of purposes including hiding spots, supply routes, living quarters, hospitals, and food and weapons caches. They were famously used as a base of operation for the North Vietnamese during the Tết Offensive in 1968.
Life in the Cu Chi Tunnels was difficult. Air quality was poor. The tunnels were cramped and claustrophobic. Food and water were limited. Rodents, ants, snakes, scorpions, and spiders infested the tunnels. Diseases including Malaria and intestinal parasites were common. During heavy bombing campaigns, soldiers had to stay in the tunnels for days at a time.
Today, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a war memorial operated by the Vietnamese government. They are also a popular tourist dark tourist attraction. You can visit the tunnels on a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City. Here, you can crawl through a safe section of the tunnels, watch a short film about the war, and view some different booby traps and trap doors as well as an entrance into the tunnels. There is also a firing range where you can shoot Vietnam War era weapons including an M60 machine gun.
The Ethics of Dark Tourism
Dark tourism is one of the more controversial forms of tourism. Some dark tourism critics argue that it is disrespectful, voyeuristic, or even unethical to visit a site where people suffered or died. Some sites may be more ethical to visit than others.
A few of the main criticisms of dark tourism include:
- Creating an industry and making money out of death and suffering exploits the victims that the dark tourism site commemorates. It may also be unethical to exploit these sites for entertainment purposes. Critics who make this claim have a point. Dark tourism sites are some of the most visited places in the world. For example, the Colosseum draws 7 million visitors per year. This equals tens of millions of euros in revenue. Many dark tourism sites also have gift shops, cafes, restaurants, tours, and more. This brings in even more money. Dark tourism is big business. It may be problematic for a business to profit from the death and suffering of others. At the same time, it’s important to remember that tourism funds the maintenance, upgrades, preservation, and study of many dark tourism sites. Many run as non-profits. Without dark tourism, many of these sites wouldn’t exist and their history may be forgotten. Of course, some dark tourism sites are also run purely for profit. Whether or not a site is being exploited depends on how the money that is brought in is spent.
- Building tourism infrastructure and welcoming millions of visitors desecrates the site of human suffering, disrespecting the victims. The argument is that building infrastructure like gift shops, hotels, restaurants, museums, restrooms, coffee shops, etc. changes the site. This could be considered disrespectful. In addition, visitors can cause damage, steal artifacts, and vandalize a site. Whether or not this is desecration or causes disrespect is debatable. Most dark tourism sites are tastefully designed by historians, scientists, and engineers. The most important artifacts are carefully preserved in museums. Important parts remain original. For example, at the Anne Frank House, the Secret Annex was kept original and important artifacts are preserved in a museum. It would be hard to claim that this is desecration. Of course, poorly designed dark tourism sites exist as well. It is also possible for insensitive or careless visitors to cause damage, which may be considered disrespectful.
- Some dark tourism sites spread misinformation. Sometimes information is presented with a bias. This is often done for political purposes. Countries like to present information in a way that makes them look like the good guys. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. For example, if you visit the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll learn about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. If you visit the National Vietnam War Museum in Texas, you’ll learn about the Vietnam War from the American perspective. You’ll get different information at each museum. Neither is necessarily wrong or right. Just presented with different biases. Some dark tourism sites water down the history. Sometimes information is left out. This could be done to give a site more mass appeal. In some cases, dark tourism site operators may exaggerate the story for dramatic purposes. Tour guides like to do this to make their tour more exciting. If you’re visiting a dark tourism site to educate yourself about the history of an event, consider studying some outside sources to get the whole story. When I visit a dark tourism site, I like to read the Wikipedia article about it. This usually gives a good overview in a reasonably neutral manner. Of course, some dark tourism sites are presented in an accurate and unbiased manner.
- Visiting a dark tourism site for the wrong reason can be unethical. Some dark tourism critics argue that whether or not it is ethical to visit a particular site depends on the visitor’s intention. The claim is that it is ethical to visit for educational purposes or to honor the memory of the victims. At the same time, it is unethical to visit for reasons like checking a box off on your bucket list, taking a photo, entertainment, or showing off. Personally, I disagree with this. To me, the visitor’s intention is irrelevant as long as they behave in a respectful manner. Telling someone that they have the ‘wrong intention’ or they are vising for the ‘wrong reasons’ feels pretty arrogant and controlling.
- Some visitors behave inappropriately at dark tourism sites. This can be disrespectful toward the victims of the event and may be unethical. Examples of inappropriate behavior include joking around, laughing, smiling, talking loudly, taking insensitive photos, eating, drinking, smoking, talking on the phone, talking negatively about the victims, vandalizing the site or stealing items, etc. Whether or not these behaviors are inappropriate depends on the nature of the site. Some dark tourism sites have rules or even signs posted requesting that people behave respectfully. For example, you might be asked to keep your voice down. There may be places where photos are prohibited. There may be a dress code. Sometimes food and drinks are prohibited. As long as you follow the rules of the site, you shouldn’t have to worry about causing disrespect.
- Taking selfies at a dark tourism site sometimes comes off as insensitive and disrespectful. People even get called out or shamed for it on social media. Strangely, at some sites, it’s a major faux pas to take a selfie while at other sites, nobody cares. For example, many consider it inappropriate to take a selfie at the gates of Auschwitz or an abandonment near Chernobyl. Nobody cares if you take a selfie at the Taj Mahal or the Colosseum. Personally, I don’t take selfies at dark tourism sites but I don’t see a problem with other people taking selfies. As long as they don’t get in anybody’s way or hold up the tour, they aren’t hurting anyone. Selfies are harmless. Telling someone that they can’t take a selfie is far too controlling for my taste. Besides, people want to have some pictures to remember their trip.
- Some critics argue that a certain amount of time must pass before it becomes acceptable to visit the site of a tragedy or disaster. It is possible to visit too soon. Ancient dark tourism sites are considered much less controversial than sites where a tragedy recently occurred. For example, visiting Pompeii or the Colosseum is not controversial at all. Probably because the people who died at these sites are long forgotten. The entire civilization is gone. At the same time, visiting Syria to view the destruction from the war might be considered unethical because people are still suffering. In my opinion, the sooner people start visiting a site, the better. Tourists bring in money that can help a community rebuild after a tragedy. By visiting a place, we can also learn about it. If we wait, we may lose some information to time.
- Dark tourism can support bad people or a bad cause. When you visit a dark tourism site, you spend money on an entrance fee, guide, food, hotel, etc. This money goes into the local economy. If the county’s government does evil things, you are supporting that, in a way. This may be considered unethical. After all most people don’t want their tourism dollars funding slavery, genocide, forced labor, war, political imprisonment, torture, dictatorships, etc. Many claim that it is unethical to visit North Korea for this reason. By visiting, you are supporting a repressive totalitarian government and a dangerous nuclear program.
- Some critics claim that dark tourism is voyeuristic, which is morally wrong. The argument is that it is unethical to watch people suffering. A site can really only be voyeuristic if the tragedy is recent or still ongoing. Probably the best example of a voyeuristic dark tourism site is visiting a slum, such as Dharavi in Mumbai. This type of dark tourism treats people like they are the attraction and invades their privacy. Another example of voyeuristic dark tourism is visiting the site of a major disaster soon after it occurs. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, people traveled to New Orleans to view the destruction. There are benefits to this type of tourism. It raises awareness and brings money into communities that are suffering. At the same time, it can feel like people are being treated like a tourist attraction, which is a bit dehumanizing.
- Some dark tourism destinations are dangerous. You could cause yourself health problems or get injured or killed while visiting. For example, while visiting a nuclear disaster zone or nuclear test site, you might expose yourself to harmful amounts of radiation. When visiting a dark tourism destination in a dangerous country, you risk becoming a victim of a crime. This point really comes down to your risk tolerance. Most dark tourism destinations are perfectly safe.
Whether or not dark tourism is ethical is really a philosophical question. There is no black and white answer. For many, it comes down to a number of factors including your personal code of ethics, culture, the nature of the site, and the age of the site, the site’s finances, and more.
For a more in-depth discussion, check out my complete guide to the ethics of dark tourism.
Why is Dark Tourism Popular?
Why would someone want to visit a dark tourism site? It doesn’t make much sense logically to visit a place where a disaster or atrocity took place. It is a depressing experience. Still, millions of people travel thousands of miles and spend their hard-earned money to visit these places.
There are a number of valid reasons to visit these dark sites. First, it is human nature to be curious. Particularly with morbid things. For example, we all rubberneck when driving by an auto accident. It’s almost impossible not to. It seems as though it’s a human instinct to watch and imagine death and destruction.
For example, some of the most popular media covers dark topics. When a hurricane or earthquake destroys a city, the news media covers it in great detail. True crime is one of the most popular genres in books and documentaries. We love following the stories of killers and criminals. Most popular movies and TV shows have dark or violent stories. Horror is one of the most popular movie genres. As we’ve seen in this article, some of the most popular tourist destinations are dark tourism destinations. Humans love this morbid stuff.
Why do we have a natural morbid curiosity? Nobody knows for sure but it probably comes down to our psychology, evolution, and experiences. According to the article, The Science of Rubbernecking psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed “that we like to witness violence precisely because it, the watching, allows us to entertain our most destructive impulses without actually harming ourselves or others.” He believed that our unconscious contains an archetype called the “shadow” that has a natural tendency toward death, destruction, and evil acts. He claims that this unconscious is formed by our instincts and memories. He called this “corpse preoccupation.”
My theory is that this morbid fascination has something to do with us humans being aware of our own mortality. Death is always in the back of our minds. When I visit a dark tourism site, I try to put myself in the shoes of the victims and perpetrators of the tragedy. I try to imagine what it would be like to experience such an event. This helps me reflect on the event and my own life.
For many, the motivation for visiting dark tourism sites is education. You can gain a much deeper understanding of an event by visiting where it took place. You can see with your own eyes the landscapes and buildings that the victims saw. There are some things that you can’t learn by reading a book. For example, someone who is fascinated with WWII might spend their entire trip visiting battlegrounds, museums, concentration camps, and significant buildings, learning about the war.
Another popular reason that someone might visit a dark tourism destination is to learn more about their heritage. It is interesting to learn about where you and your ancestors come from. For example, African Americans may choose to visit the slave castles in Ghana to better understand what their ancestors went through when they were brought to the Americas during the slave trade. Jewish people may travel to Holocaust sites to gain a better understanding of the suffering that their family members endured.
Some people visit these dark sites simply because they are there. For example, if you are visiting New York City, chances are, you’ll visit the 9/11 memorial because it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city.
The Spectrum of Dark Tourism Sites
Not all dark tourism sites are depressing and serious. Some are lighthearted and entertaining. There is a spectrum. The seriousness of a dark tourism destination depends on a number of factors including the nature of the tragedy and how long ago it occurred.
For example, natural disaster sites are usually a bit lighter than disasters caused by humans. Probably because an earthquake, volcano, or hurricane can’t be avoided while a genocide or war can.
Ancient dark tourism sites tend to be lighter than more modern sites. Probably because modern sites still have living victims who may still be suffering. After all, there are no living gladiators who fought in the Colosseum but there are still plenty of living victims of WWII.
Some of the darkest dark tourism sites are genocide, terrorism, and war-related. These sites commemorate some of the darkest events in human history. Examples include Nazi concentration camps, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Rwanda genocide sites and memorials, the 9/11 memorial, and military cemeteries and memorials. Nuclear sites like Chernobyl and Fukushima are also pretty dark.
Some dark tourism sites on the lighter end of the spectrum include Mt. St. Helens, the Colosseum, Pompeii, Alcatraz, the Cu Chi Tunnels, and Seldec Ossuary. These sites aren’t necessarily lighthearted and fun. They just aren’t quite as serious.
Some dark tourism sites are designed to be lighthearted and fun. These include things like battle reenactments, the Pablo Escobar walking tour in Medellin, the Jack the Ripper walking tour in London, Dungeon tours in various European cities, etc. These types of attractions romanticize the events and make them fun and sometimes even family-friendly.
Why I Enjoy Dark Tourism
My main motivation to visit dark tourism sites is education. For whatever reason, I wasn’t interested in history when I was in school. I just found it boring. Now, I love history. By visiting dark tourism sites, I have gained a deeper understanding of some of the most significant events in world history. It’s so much more real and engaging when you are standing where an event took place and exploring the landscape and looking at actual artifacts.
It’s also amazing to see how human civilization evolves over the years. For example, 2000 years ago, gladiator games were an acceptable form of entertainment. Most people would not be okay with that today. It is also interesting to see how technology, weapons, clothing, politics, and more have changed throughout the years. The world was a completely different place just 20 years ago. Times change quickly.
I also have a pretty strong morbid curiosity. Dark things simply interest me. I find it fascinating to imagine the horrors that humans have endured and overcome.
Final Thoughts About Dark Tourism
Dark tourism often gets a bad wrap in the media. People get the idea that it is disrespectful, voyeuristic, sick, or even unethical. Some country’s tourism departments also try to hide their dark tourism sites because they fear a bad reputation.
The truth is that most dark tourism is simply educational. People like to visit these sites to learn about their history. They also satisfy our morbid fascination.
One important thing to remember is that dark tourism is not a new form of tourism. People have been visiting dark sites for as long as tourism has existed. For example, tourists began visiting Pompeii in the 1800s. The gladiatorial games could be considered one of the earliest forms of dark tourism. Those began when the Colosseum opened in 80 AD. People are naturally interested in these types of destinations and will continue to be.
Dark tourism is also a very broad term. Many of the world’s most visited tourism sites can be considered dark tourism sites. There is also a lot of overlap with with mass tourism. Most people don’t travel exclusively to visit dark sites. Instead, they pair dark tourism with regular tourist attractions. For example, if someone is in Hawaii, they may spend a day visiting Pearl Harbor and the various memorials then go to the beach the next day. If someone visits Kiev, they’ll probably take a day trip to Chernobyl because it’s one of the biggest tourist attractions in the region.
Hopefully, this guide helps you in planning your visit to some of the world’s best dark tourism sites.
Are you a dark tourist? Share your favorite dark tourism destination in the comments below!