Travel is often treated as a holiday experience – light, cheery, and fun. But recently, there is another side of travel that is gaining popularity around the world: dark tourism.
Dark tourism includes traveling to “places historically associated with death and tragedy.” It is somewhat a controversial topic, since these are actual places where human suffering and loss took place. Tourists who are planning to visit a dark tourism site are expected to educate themselves about the history and culture of their destination and show respect at all times.
There are different reasons people are drawn to dark tourism. It can be the historical or educational value, simple curiosity, or in some cases morbid fascination.
Here are the top dark tourism sites around the world you should consider visiting:
1. Chernobyl, Ukraine
By far, Chernobyl is the largest nuclear tragedy in the world history.
In 1986, one of the four reactors in the Chernobyl Power Plant exploded due to flawed design and inadequately trained staff. Flames and radioactive material flew 300 meters into the sky. Several people died in the aftermath and more people followed as the radiation extended to neighboring countries of Russia, France, and Italy. Over the years, there was observed poisoning of wildlife and increase in cases of cancer among those exposed to the radiation.
The Chernobyl explosion is known worldwide and is often referred to in pop culture.
Currently, there are tours in Chernobyl where you can visit the power plant and its neighborhood. The tourist route is deemed safe and respirators may be provided to make a tourist feel more comfortable. For more information, you can visit https://chernobylstory.com/.
2. Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland
The genocide of European Jews, lead by Adolf Hitler, is one of the darkest times of human history. The Auschwitz-Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz Concentration Camp) is the largest concentration camp where various groups of people were executed.
It is possible to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau without a guide. However, it’s recommended to book a guided tour to learn more about the place. There are 2 areas you can explore. Auschwitz I is the original concentration camp containing the barracks. Auschwitz II or Birkenau is another camp built later on to house the majority of prisoners; it’s also where the people were executed in gas chambers and then processed in crematoriums.
Visiting the Auschwitz Concentration Camp is a powerful experience. It’s a sorrowful reminder of what humans are capable of and of the value of human lives.
3. Hiroshima, Japan
It’s hard to imagine that Hiroshima, now a vibrant city not unlike Tokyo, was once a site of one of the deadliest catastrophes in history.
In 1945, the United States detonated nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in thousands of deaths. The whole city of Hiroshima was wiped out and about 140,000 people died.
Since then, Hiroshima rose out of the ashes like a phoenix and rebuilt itself. There is little remnants left of the bombings from WWII, but visitors who would like to learn more about it can visit several places. The Atomic Bomb Dome was one of the few structures left intact near the bomb’s hypocenter. It’s now known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which also houses other museums related to the Hiroshima incident.
4. Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Cambodia
The killing fields are a grim reminder of Cambodia’s darkest history.
From 1975 to 1974, the Khmer Rouge (also called the Communist Party of Kampuchea) assumed power and aimed to create a classless, agrarian society. Free markets were abolished, cities were evacuated of thousands of its residents, families were separated, and children were forced into education camps. During the four years of Khmer Rouge’s occupation, about 20% of the country’s population was executed.
The Cambodia killing fields are remote fields where thousands were massacred and buried. The largest of these is Choeung Ek Killing Fields, which is located about 40 minutes away from central Phnom Phen.
Currently, Cheong Ek Killing Fields has been transformed into a memorial site that draws both locals who want to pay respect and tourists who want to learn more about the country’s history. You can see numerous untouched graves and listen to a guide telling the stories of people who passed away and those who survived.
5. Catacombs of Paris, France
The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries containing the remains of several millions of Parisians. It was built in the 1770s — at the time, the city faced a problem of overflowing cemeteries, so they decided to transfer the dead into a large network of underground tunnels. Afterwards, renovations were made to transform the area into a visitable mausoleum: the bones were stacked into what is seen today and other displays were added.
The Catacombs is a subject of curiosity for tourists who know Paris as a City of Love. Currently, it is open for visitation and no authorization is required. Different guided tours are offered for individuals and/or groups who want to see first-hand the skulls lined up in walls underneath the city.
6. Ground Zero, New York (USA)
The 9/11 is one of the more modern acts of terror in history. Also known as the September 11 Attacks, it includes four coordinated attacks by the group Al-Qaeda against the United States. Two airplanes were hijacked midair and then crashed against the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which collapsed and damaged the other World Trade Center structures and surrounding buildings.
The Ground Zero is a museum built at the base of the Twin Towers. The museum aims to showcase the story of the 9/11 and its aftermath, as well as the story of the people who experienced it. As per its official website, it welcomes visitors with “messages of healing, unity, and renewal.”
7. Mount Pinatubo, Philippines
Mount Pinatubo is an ancient volcano located in the northern island of the Philippines. In 1991, it violently erupted – this eruption is considered the second-largest terrestrial eruption in the 20th century. Surrounding towns were affected, as houses were either damaged or completely destroyed by ashfall and mud. Several hundred people perished, although tens of thousands survived due to immediate evacuation. Wildlife and agriculture were also affected for years. The eruption also caused global temperature to decrease by .5 °C in the subsequent years.
The caldera of the volcano has since been filled with water, which is known today as Lake Pinatubo. Currently, it’s a popular hiking spot among locals. You can book a tour wherein you will ride a 4×4 and then trek for 2 hours to reach the crater lake. You may also stop by the Aeta Village where you can meet Aetas, one of the indigenous tribes in the country.
Are you interested in dark tourism? What other dark tourism spots will you recommend? Let us know in the comments section below!
Katherine Cortes is a 30-something freelance writer/editor. She likes beaches, snorkeling trips, and relaxing staycations (preferably with bath tubs!).