Welcome to the world of dark tourism

Houses of horrors: Why do millions of tourists flock to places of human suffering and tragedy?

Since the release of HBO’s Chernobyl series, tour bookings to the site of the nuclear catastrophe have soared by 40%. Is it tasteless to turn a disaster site into a tourist attraction?

No one has lived in Pripyat for 33 years. In April 1986, the Chernobyl reactor exploded two kilometres away in one of history’s worst nuclear disasters.

Today, the abandoned city is a tourist hotspot. Travellers wearing hazmat suits follow tour guides through the overgrown streets.

In a gift shop at the edge of the exclusion zone, people queue to buy mugs and keyrings bearing yellow hazard signs. Since the release of HBO’s new drama about the disaster, bookings are up 40%.

Welcome to the world of dark tourism, defined by the Institute for Dark Tourism Research as visiting “sites of death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre”.

Although booming, dark tourism is not new. For centuries, tourists visited Pompeii to peer at bodies perfectly preserved by the volcanic blast. Today, cheap flights have improved access to sites of gore and disaster.

Historians estimate that of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz concentration camp by the Nazis, 1.1 million died.

Over two million people visited the site in 2018. Despite the numbers, visitors describe it as a place of quiet reflection.

But social media has complicated things. Officials at Auschwitz have been forced to warn tourists about taking selfies on the camp’s railway tracks. A similar ban has been put in place at the 9/11 memorial in New York.

Haunted holiday?

Dark tourist Peter Hohenhaus says that travellers are trying to understand their own death. “What we're looking at is ourselves,” he explains. “That could have been us.” Is this empathy, or schadenfreude? Are we leering at suffering for our own morbid thrill?

But tourists say they visit to educate themselves and pay respects to those who died. Wouldn’t it be far worse to forget these horrors, as the Soviet Union erased the victims of the gulags?

You Decide

  1. Would you like to visit any of the four sites pictured?

Activities

  1. Make a list of the top five places you want to travel to in the world. Do any of them have dark histories?

Some People Say...

“Bending too fixedly over hideousness, one feels queerly drawn.”

George Steiner, French-American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The final episode of Chernobyl aired on Sky Atlantic on Monday night. Since the show premiered in early May, booking the visit the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster have risen by 40%.
What do we not know?
If dark tourism is even a helpful term to use. The term was first coined in the 1990s.

Word Watch

Pripyat
A city in Ukraine.
Hazmat
Large suits worn to protect from radioactive material.
Drama
It has been hailed as one of the greatest shows ever made.
Macabre
Gruesome.
Preserved
The corpses appear as stone.
9/11 memorial
At the site of the former World Trade Centre, it commemorates the September 11 2001 attacks, which killed 2,977 people
Schadenfreude
A German word defined as deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune.
Gulags
A system of labour camps ran by the Soviet Union. Around one million people are estimated to have died there.