Dark Tourism: Why Is It So Popular?
In our increasingly globalized world, it’s easy to get swept up in the number of options for vacations. Travel websites and blogs tout all the different options. Plus, most people have their own list of dream destinations. A list carefully honed after years of watching travel shows on TV and seeing all the incredible social media posts after a friend travels to a new destination.
One of the newest trends in travel that has been gaining fans over the last few years is dark tourism. Essentially, tourism to destinations that are indelibly associated with tragedy, war, and death. There are plenty of darker destinations in larger cities — like Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and the Catacombs of Paris — that are popular. However, trips that are solely dedicated to seeking out past tragedies are becoming more common.
Today, we’re going to try and figure out what dark tourism is and why it’s becoming so popular.
Rise in Popularity
Before you start bemoaning the state of our world today, it’s important to remember that as a species, we’ve been obsessed with tragedy and death throughout recorded history. Actually, our culture now is more removed from death than we’ve ever been before. Public executions have always been a public spectacle, as much for the titillation of the audience as it was for the criminal’s humiliation. Ancient Romans gathered in the colosseum to see people torn apart by lions. That is when they weren’t placing bets on human beings fighting to the death.
Voyeurism has always been a part of our lineage. One reason why these customs have continued for so long is because seeing these horrific things is thought to be a deterrent and an opportunity for education.
Many people feel that dark tourism has risen in popularity over the last few years because these destinations represent an undiscovered frontier. There isn’t much in the world that isn’t explored, but people still yearn to be the first to discover a new place. Because new exploratory expeditions really aren’t a thing anymore — unless you want to go to Antarctica — people settle for visiting destinations that feel dangerous or were once associated with danger and tragedy. These extreme experiences are popular because they get the adrenaline pumping and make us feel like we’re experiencing something new and exciting. However, many people object to these tourist visits if they’re focused on the experience of the participants, rather than respecting the sanctity of the site.
Appearance in Pop Culture
Many people attribute a renewed interest in dark tourism to shows like Dark Tourist, a Netflix documentary series made by David Farrier that highlights different destinations that are popular within the dark tourism industry. Farrier visits places like Tomioka, Japan, which was evacuated during the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Cypriot ghost city Famagusta. The show attempts to interrogate the reason why people travel to these types of places, to varying degrees of success.
Many people feel like Farrier behaves like the worst type of dark tourist. Someone who is only visiting these places to gawk at how horrific they are before retreating to a safer place.
There are tons of places that have become popular with dark tourists over the last few years.
Some are more innocuous. They are popular despite their dark nature. Destinations that fall into this category are Culloden Battlefield in Scotland, India’s Taj Mahal, or Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy.
Here are some more extreme examples that are attracting dark tourists lately.
Cu Chi Tunnels – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a vast tunnel network located under the area now known as Ho Chi Minh City. They were dug by the Viet Cong guerrilla troops during the Vietnam War as a way to evade American and South Vietnamese soldiers. They were used to transport soldiers as well as supplies and ammunition. Although they were first dug in the 1940s, at the height of the war, the Viet Cong had dug over 155 miles of tunnels. These tunnels snaked through the city and out towards the country.
If you’re visiting the area, you can burrow through some of the preserved sections of the tunnel and experience what life would have been like for soldiers fighting in these close quarters. Some tours even allow you to shoot an AK-47 — for a cost of around $1.80 USD per bullet — and eat a typical meal that soldiers stationed down there would have eaten.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Japan
In 1945, the United States unleashed what is still considered to be one of the deadliest weapons ever made. It dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Between 129,000 and 226,00 people died, most of whom were civilians.
Now, people voluntarily travel to these horrific sites. In fact, they’re becoming so popular that Hiroshima alone saw two million visitors in 2016.
In Hiroshima, the anniversary of the day the bomb dropped is a popular time to visit. At 8:15 a.m., the city rings the peace bell, and people gather to light candles in memory of the victims.
To see the physical evidence of the blast, you can view the Genbaku Dome, which is the only structure in the area standing today. If you’re interested in a learning experience, make sure to engage with the unofficial park volunteers who float around this site, and are stationed at many of the other city monuments as well. Many of them are survivors of the blast whose job is to help tourists engaged with the city’s history.
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – North Korea
North Korea is another place that’s become popular with reckless tourists in search of their next risky adventure. There are some organizations that take groups on tours there, but it’s incredibly dangerous. In 2017, American student Otto Warmbier died from severe brain damage after he was arrested and most likely tortured for the crime of attempting to steal a propaganda poster.
If you’re there, one stop on the state-sanctioned tour is the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the final resting place of former leaders Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. It’s a large, formal hall where the North Koreans go to honor their former leaders. All visitors are expected to bow properly, dress appropriately, and avoid missteps that could be potentially interpreted as showing disrespect.
As with many places on the state-sanctioned tour, photos are not permitted. Also, any attempts to skirt their rules could lead to arrest with no possibility of redress.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp – Poland
The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland is one of the most well-known Nazi death camps. These camps were where Jews, Roma people, LGBT people, political dissidents, and other prisoners were taken to be exterminated during WWII. It has been open as a memorial since 1947. In 1955, a museum opened on-site to display objects related to the site’s wartime function.
Auschwitz has become a meaningful destination for young people related to those who died in the camps. Regardless of your heritage, just stepping inside the gates is a moving experience.
In the last few years, staff and museum curators have struggled with the behavior of some visitors. People often take smiling, posed photos, or move artifacts that they see on the grounds. This has led to the museum putting out a detailed list of rules that visitors must follow.
Rwandan Genocide Memorials
In 1990, the Rwandan Civil War broke out. This led to a conflict between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis, which finally culminated in the genocide of roughly 800,000 people between April and July 1994. The militia was extremely well-organized and used people’s ID cards, which listed their ethnicity, to identify Tutsis.
In Rwanda today, there are many sites that were established as memorials for the victims. In the capital city of Kigali, there’s a memorial center that also functions as a mass gravesite. In Murambi, the Murambi Technical School, where more than 65,000 Tutsis were killed, functions as a memorial for those who died while in hiding there. It’s by far the most difficult site to visit as they display the skulls of the dead, as well as mummified bodies that were recovered from the surrounding area.