And Am I a Dark Tourist?
What Is Dark Tourism? Am I Dark Tourist? Does Dark Tourism really even exist at all?
In this article, we will look into the hsitory and usage of the term, consider what it really means and then check out some popular places for dark tourists to visit.
The term “Dark Tourism” seems to have sprung up from nowhere in recent years and has now well and truly entered the popular lexicon. It is now generally used to describe travelers who choose to visit macabre destinations rather than simply contenting themselves with sipping cocktails on sunny beaches.
Initially, the concept was largely reserved for visitors to active war zones or at least places in a state of genuine crisis. Indeed, the term was first applied to me when I tried to get from Beirut to Damascus in April 20016 at the height of Syrian the civil war.
(Note on visiting active conflict or crisis zones. Some critics say that doing so is both dangerous and insensitive to the people living through it. Whilst it is certainly potentially perilous, I simply do not agree with the insensitivity comment. I mean, are we suggesting that the correct thing to do is simply to stay home and ignore the reality of what’s happening? Let’s put it like this, if you are living in Syria, then what is likely to be more offensive to you; a handful of crazy foreigners actually coming to see the situation for themselves or the entire world simply not giving a fuck about you at all?)
I didn’t accept I was engaging in Dark Tourism at all. Rather I am a blogger and wanted to take my writing up a few notches by gaining some first-hand experience of a seismic world event as it was happening. But nevertheless, it did get me thinking about the idea.
So What Is Dark Tourism?
Semantics has evolved and the term Dark Tourism is no longer reserved for package tours to Yemen, Crimea & Venezuela. Instead, it is now generally used to describe the sites and locations of notorious historical atrocities.
The Killing Fields of Cambodia for example, are a major dark tourism destination now forming a standard part of the South East Asia Gap-Yah itinerary. It is in the Killing Fields that the Kymer Rouge regime brutally slaughtered hundreds of thousands of perceived political enemies. One of the “highlights” of the tour, is the killing tree which soldiers would bash babies heads against.
It is true that the fields themselves are totally non-nondescript and if not for an interest in the shocking history there would be no reason at all to visit them. After all, there are no organized bus tours to Cambodia’s countless other paddy fields right?
So why do people visit these places? To pay respects? To learn something? Or are they just morbid?
Personally, I am not particularly macabre and I don’t consider myself to be a dark person. I do not enjoy bloody horror films or even violent films and I never went through a teenage goth phase. So I will rule out morbidity. Paying one’s respects is perhaps part of the attraction, as is the opportunity to learn about the history.
However, for me, I find these places to be particularly interesting for the perspective they offer. They allow us to see how easily we as both individuals and societies can slip into another, less pleasant reality.
Take Auschwitz for instance. When I visited the site in 2005 I expected permanently blackened skies overhead and to somehow to feel the dread riding up from the ground below. But I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t feel much from the site at all and it just seemed like a disused holiday camp. You would never have guessed what happened here. And for that reason, I found it truly alarming because it brought home the sheer banality of it all.
And there is a powerful message in that. Real life evil does not happen inside the volcanoes of Mordor, no, it happens on pleasant spring mornings in pretty green fields. Therefore, dark tourism can be useful to show us the mundane face of evil.
War Tours In Sarajevo
I visited Sarajevo last summer. Bosnia is a gorgeous, lush country and Sarajevo a charming old world capital. The fusion of Ottoman and Slavic influences is brilliant and there are some fine watering holes. However, what gripped me about Sarajevo was the omnipresent specters of the civil war still haunting the city. Strolling through the city streets one could easily spot bullet and mortar blast holes scared into most of the buildings.
Then there were the Sarajevo Roses – splats of red paint on the ground marking the spots where children had been killed by shell attacks. One near a bus stop. One in the market. One outside a school. This did not happen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This happened in 1995 in Europe. Countries which now form part of the EU were involved.
He who forgets history is defined to repeat it. With the disintegration of Europe’s union and the rising tide of hatred, intolerance, and I’m gonna even say evil across the world again, visiting a place like Sarajevo is more essential than ever. It’s unthinkable that Europe could again descend into war and depravity. Is it? In Sarajevo, there are men younger than 40 walking the streets who were active participants in genocide. The could be driven your cab or teaching your children.
All it took to bring Sarajevo to this was a rising tide of ethnic tension, a few populist revolts, and an ill-advised referendum. Any parallels with current European Politics are coincidental and allegorical…
Chernobyl is another popular destination for dark tourists and it has another valuable lesson for us. Chernobyl, in what is now Ukraine, is a town that was suddenly abandoned one day following a major incident and leak at the towns nuclear power plant. To this day breakfast plates remain sat on tables inside the town’s houses. It is a world frozen in time except of course, that nature is doing its thing and reclaiming the land. After been completely sealed off for some years the site is now open for tourists taking part in supervised, official tours.
Chernobyl tells us a lot about our place in the world. It tells us about the fragility of human civilization. Sure, we built cities to last the ages but when these cities become uninhabitable, whom do they serve? It also tells us about much about the persistence of nature as green grass grows through the paving cracks even inside a nuclear wasteland.
And of course, it tells us much about the dangers we pose to ourselves through our own progress – in this case the double-edged sword that is nuclear power. Just as Icarus in his vanity flew too close to the sun, was splitting the atom and unleashing this force on the world a reach too far?
When viewed through this lens, is Dark Tourism really Dark Tourism? Or is it instead perhaps, a revelatory, empowering and educational experience? The exact kind of experience that travel should be.
Darkness In The Mainstream
Furthermore, where do we draw the line between Dark Tourism and ordinary tourism? I will explain.
I’ve never heard the Ground Zero site in New York referred to as a Dark Tourism destination but it receives 1000’s of visitors each day. In Paris, Rome and London there are cemeteries filled with the dead and famous, and they are regularly frequented by mainstream regular tourists including families with children.
Speaking of children, the Dungeons of York and London now cater primarily to children. They use wax-work manakins, interactive features, and even actors to illustrate the grim past. Truly horrific things happened at these locations over periods of hundreds of years but because they are now sanitized and rendered ultimately cheesy, nobody refers to the school bus of kids outside as “Dark Tourists”.
So for me, the flaws and inconsistency with the term render it meaningless. I may even go as far as to say that there is no such thing as Dark Tourism.
Perhaps an example of proper dark tourism would be doing something like, attending a public stoning or flogging out in the Arabic Gulf. Imagine that image been uploaded on Instagram next to your powder-paint splashed snaps from Holi and your tomato soaked t-shirt from that tomatini?
But I genuinely can’t imagine anybody admitting to having done this.
Dark Tourism Destinations Around The World Which You Can Visit
As we have now established, I don’t really consider Dark Tourism to be a thing. However, using the prevailing application of the term, the below is a list of some of the most popular, interesting or best dark tourism destinations in the world today.
1. The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields – Cambodia
According to estimates, some 1.7 million Cambodians were horribly slaughtered in the Killing Fields as they were deemed to be political enemies of the mad Dictator Pol Pot. In many cases, the death squads didn’t even have guns so they used whatever crude weapons came to hand such as hatchets, tree branches, stones or even their own bare hands.
The sheer depravity is unparalleled in modern times.
The best way to take in the Killing Fields is as part of an organized tour combined with a visitor to the S21 Prison from Phnom Penh. You can usually book a day or so in advance. Bus pick up, audio guide, and admittance should set you back no more than $10 per person.
2. Auschwitz & Birkenau – Poland
Auschwitz & Birkenau were the most notorious and efficient Nazi death camps. Situated in Poland, they are best reached as a day tour from Krakov. You can book a bus tour which will pick you up from contras Krakov – the fee includes a guide and entrance fee to the sites. Alternatively, you can rent a car and drive out there yourself. The bus tour works usually out as the cheapest and easiest option.
The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is also an essential visit for anybody interested in what is widely regarded as the greatest humanitarian crime in history.
3. Sarajevo – Bosnia & Herzegovina
The Bosnian Capital of Sarajevo was the center stage of the bloody Bosnian war which began in 1989 following the collapse of the old Yugoslavia. The city was completely besieged by Serbian forces for 5 years and mortar shells were indiscriminately fired into the city from the surrounding hillsides.
You can see the damage for yourself pretty much everywhere. There are a lot of war themed walking tours but I recommend seeking out Zero One Tours. The Siege Tunnels, which were used to supply the besieged city, are also worth visiting.
4. Chernobyl Containment Area – Ukraine
Chernobyl is the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents the world has ever known and one which pretty much bankrupted the Soviet Union. In 1986, the main reactor basically exploded causing a massive radiation leak.
The neighboring town had to be promptly evacuated forever. The containment area is about 2 hours drive from the capital Kiev. Radiation levels are now deemed not harmful for short visits. You can book a 1, 2 or 3-day tour. Self-guided tours are not permitted. Tour costs range from $100 – $500 depending on the package you want. It is Erie as hell and well worth it.
5. Hiroshima & Nagasaki – Japan
Hiroshima & Nagasaki are the only places in human history to have been atomic bombed and let’s hope it stays that way. The cities have now been rebuilt but you can still visit the dilapidated impact sites which have been left as reminders.
Even to this day, there are Japanese children continuing to be born with health problems resulting from the radiation exposure the explosions caused. Any trip to Japan should include a visit to at least one of these cities.
6. Dharavi Slum – Mumbai
Dharavi in Mumbai has the been notorious accolade of being Asia’s biggest slum (though some dispute this). It is the perfect antithesis to Bollywood’s phony glamour and offers visitors a valuable insight into the “real India”.
Some dismiss visits to Dharavi as “poverty porn” but that term is actually massively disrespectful to the countless, working people who live perfectly normal, happy lives here. There are real communities living here who are very proud of their neighborhood and are endeavoring to make it a better place to live.
You can see Dharavi as part of a tour organized from any hostel in Mumbai but it is also perfectly possible to visit yourself. In daylight hours it is quite safe and you will be welcomed by the locals.
7. Alcatraz – San Francisco
The infamous Alcatraz Prison Island out in San Francisco Bay, is where the United States used to house its most famous & dangerous criminals. Al Capone was sent here when he was finally nailed for Tax Evasion (you’re next Jeff Bezos..). The prison was featured in Hollywood Films, the Birdman of Alcatraz and The Rock so looms large in popular culture.
Very few people think of this as Dark Tourism and yet it fits the description as well as anything else on this list.
Alcatraz can only be reached by organized tours. They cost at least $50 and sell out so booking in advance is essential.
8. The Catacombs – Paris
The Parisian Catacombs are packed with the piled up bones of more than 6 million long dead Parisians. They were transferred here from 1774 as part of the mass reconstruction of the city. The cities cemeteries were dug for development meaning that the skeletons had to be relocated.
The Catacombs are a very popular tourist attraction and are busy all year round. Adult tickets cost 20 Euro. You should expect to queue for around 2 hours to get inside although you can pay more to skip the line.
9. Mt Mlita Resistance Museum (AKA Hezbollah Land) – South Lebanon
This is definitely one the weirdest dark tourism sites I’ve been to. Located in Southern Lebanon overlooking the Israeli border, this is an outdoor museum ran by and dedicated to, the Hezbollah Polito-militant group.
The site was once the front line in the 18 year battle against the occupying Israeli forces and the siege tunnels and machine gun embankments are still there to be seen. The museum features a short propaganda film, a collection of seized Israeli military equipment and the centerpiece is a mashed together collection of destroyed Israeli tanks and helicopters. The park is also staffed by Hezbollah fighters complete with beards and AK-47’s. It’s utterly balmy and brilliant.
To get there either rent a car and use GPS or take public transports. You will need a bus from Beirut towards Tyre but need to jump off at around the halfway point – tell the driver you are headed to Mlita and he will usher you of. Here, you need to change bus to Mlita then and then, either get a cab or walk the 5km up the hill to the entrance. The entrance was $10 in 2016.
So Are You A Dark Tourist?
I love to hear from you.
What do you think of the issues we’ve discussed today?
Have you been to any of the destinations covered? If What did you think of them? Do
you have any other dark tourism destinations to suggest?