Dark tourism destinations

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In this post I delve into the world of dark tourism. I describe 10 popular dark tourism destinations from around the world.

Finding myself with some enforced indoor time this Spring, I discovered the Netflix series Dark Tourist. It came recommended by fellow bloggers, so I had to see what all the fuss was about.

The Louis Thereaux-esque host travels the world in search of locations fitting the bill of dark tourism. That is to say, sites that are typically associated with death and tragedy.

The series itself is quite educational though at times I found it a little uncomfortable. I understand that the host is angling for the dark humour approach, but often I found his reactions a little rude and disrespectful.

However, my opinions aside, it’s certainly a series worth exploring. It also got me thinking about some of the dark tourist sites I’ve visited.

Much to my surprise, I discovered I’ve been to quite a lot!

I immediately questioned whether I sought out these destinations and was myself a dark tourist. However, it seems I visited most of these sites whilst running overland tours so I was officially just doing my job.

I guess that makes me feel a little better…

Dark Tourism Definition

Dark tourism involves visiting places associated with negative events, often involving human tragedies or disasters.

This type of sub-tourism has been growing in popularity of late but is certainly not a new phenomenon. For example, we’ve always visited memorial sites to pay respect for those who lost their lives and honour their memory.

In London you can find the popular tourist attractions of the London Dungeons, the Clink Torture museum and the Jack the Ripper museum, all within walking distance of each other. None of which are particularly light hearted subjects.

It seems people have always been intrigued by the macabre. Like watching a horror movie with your hands in front of your face. You don’t want to look and yet you can’t really help it.

10 Dark Tourism Destinations

I questioned whether I should write this post as I don’t want to be disrespectful to those that have lost their lives at these sites. However, some of these sites are major tourist draws for their respective countries, so I feel like it would be wrong to simply ignore.

So with that in mind, here are 10 of the most memorable dark tourist locations I have visited around the world.

1. Kigali Genocide museum, Rwanda

In 1994, the small African country of Rwanda became the location for one of the most recent and brutal genocides in history. On the 10th anniversary of the genocide in 2004 the country opened the Kigali Memorial Centre in the country capital of Kigali.

This memorial is the site of a mass grave and museum. The museum spends a lot of time explaining the complex history that led to the genocide in the hope that through learning this, it will never happen again. It also contains many graphic videos and images which are very hard hitting.

A visit to this memorial is certainly not an easy one but a must for any visit to Rwanda. Rwanda is a remarkable country and a great example of how the human race can bounce back from such horrible tragedies. It’s also home to the incredible mountain gorillas.

More recently I visited the Armenia genocide museum in Yerevan, Armenia. Again, whilst not being a pleasant experience, this museum is very well done and worth visiting on a trip to Yerevan.

2. Death Railway Bridge at Kanchanaburi, Thailand

During World War II, POWs under Japanese control were put to work constructing the Burma Railway. Working in horrific conditions, almost half of the prisoners working on the railway died during its’ construction.

At Kanchanaburi there is a railway bridge built over the river Kwai. This bridge was part of the Burma Railway line and has become a popular tourist attraction for those looking to learn about this dark period of Thailand’s history. The construction of the bridge was famously portrayed in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Spolier alert: Technically this bridge is neither the original bridge (since it was bombed by allied forces in 1945) nor the bridge depicted in the film. Even the river below only became know as the River Kwai (it was previously the Mae Klong) in order to please tourists who came looking for “the bridge over the River Kwai”.

In Kanchanaburi, just across from the railway station is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, dedicated to the POWs who died here. There is also the War Museum and JEATH War Museum located close to the bridge. A 90 minute drive from Kanchanaburi will bring you to Hellfire Pass, which is a war memorial in the form of a jungle walk.

Of course there are many more touching war memorials located around the world, including the Somme in France and Gallipoli in Turkey.

The Death Railway Bridge is a popular dark tourism destination in Thailand
The Death Railway Bridge

3. Choeung Ek Killing Field and S21 Prison, Cambodia

Any traveller to Phnom Penh will almost certainly visit one of these sites. Nobody really knows how many people were killed during the Cambodian genocide under the orders of Pol Pot, but it’s estimated to be anywhere between 1 and 3 million.

The Killing Fields refer to a number of sites where people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge. The most famous of these is Choseng Ek, just outside Phnom Penh. An audio guide leads visitors around the site, explaining the harrowing acts that were carried out here.

In Phnom Penh itself there is another memorial to the Cambodian genocide called S-21. This high school was converted to a prison by the Khmer Rouge and used as a torture and execution centre. It’s believed that of the 14000 people to enter S-21 only 7 survived.

Cambodia is another great example of how a country can bounce back from such horrific events.

Chum Mey was one of the S-21 survivors. He bases himself at the museum where he sells a book detailing his incredible survival story.

4. The Doorway to Hell, Turkmenistan

Essentially there is one main tourist site to see in Turkmenistan. Whilst a visit to the white marble capital of Ashgabat might be a completely surreal experience, it’s not the big draw for this suppressed country.

The main tourist attraction is a man-made disaster. A constantly burning gas pit found amongst the sand dunes of the Karakum desert. This huge fire pit has been burning since the Soviet Era and has been dubbed “The Gateway to Hell”

Read more about Darvaza Gas Crater in this post.

The doorway to hell is Turkmenistan's biggest dark tourism destination

5. The Aral Sea, Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan

Another of the man made disaster sites and dark tourism places is located in neighbouring Uzbekistan. And once again it falls back to the period of the Soviet Era.

Located in two countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea was once one of the largest lakes in the world. However, after extremely harsh irrigation practises used to produce cotton, the lake has shrunk to 10% of its’ original size.

Read more about visiting the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, in this post.

The former Aral Sea is a dark tourism destination in Uzbekistan
All that remains of the former Aral Sea are abandoned ships in the desert

6. Zanzibar Slave Museum, Tanzania

Zanzibar is a beautiful tropical island found off the coast of Zanzibar. Tourists flock to the white sand beaches to enjoy a little slice of paradise. However, there is a dark history to this paradise island.

In the 1800s Stone Town was a prime location for the Arab Slave Trade. Slaves were shipped to Stone Town from the mainland and then held in tiny cellars for days without food or toilets, and with little air. It’s thought up to 50,000 slaves were sold from Zanzibar.

Built over the remains of this slave market now stands the Anglican Cathedral, an unapologetic memorial monument and an informative museum.

One of the 15 small cellars still remains and is accessible from the museum. A grim reminder of the inhumane conditions that occurred here.

7. Funeral ghats in Varanasi, India

Situated in Northern India, Varanasi has long been on the tourist radar. Running through the heart of the city is the Ganges river, which is revered as holy by followers of the Hindu faith. Along the ghats that line the Ganges, Hindu pilgrims bathe in the river’s sacred waters in a ceremony known as puja.

Several of the ghats are also used as primary sites for Hindu cremations. Here death rituals are performed before the body is cremated.

A common tourist activity for visitors to Varanasi is to take a boat trip along the Ganges to observe, not only puja, but also to see the cremation ghats in operation.

Before a trip to India, take a look at my India Survival Guide!

Wood stacked ready for cremation ceremonies

8. Crumlin Road Gaol, Northern Ireland

There are many old jails and prisons around the world that have opened their doors to the tourism industry. The first, and arguably most famous being Alcatraz, however I never found my visits to Alcatraz particularly scary or alarming. Perhaps taking a boat trip in the Californian sun to reach the island downplayed the whole history somewhat?

There is a prison I visited that did have a distinctly oppressive feel to it though. On a recent road trip around Ireland I took a tour of Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast. Perhaps because the history of this gaol is closer to home for me, it all feels a bit more real.

Or perhaps it’s because, as part of the compulsory guided tour, you are shown the execution room where the noose still hangs from the ceiling.

Other memorable visits to more ancient dungeons include the London Dungeons in the UK and the Bug Pit at Zindon Prison in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Famous players of The Great Game spent several years at Zindon prison, some of which was spent in a 4 metre deep pit. Guards of this pit would regularly pour scorpions, bugs and rodents onto prisoners heads.

To learn about the underhand dealings of the Great Game, I recommend  this fabulous book by Peter Hopkirk

Crumlin Road Gaol

9. War Remnants Museum, Vietnam

For a long time Vietnam was known as a war rather than a country. A war that raged on for 20 years. And so as you might expect, there are several sites dedicated to the memory of this horrible period.

The Cu Chi Tunnels provide an unforgettable experience of war time conditions in Vietnam and the War Remnants Museum provides a detailed history of events.

The museum was originally called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes and whilst some displays are arguably a little one-sided, there’s no denying the horrific atrocities that went on during this war.

10. Stalin Museum, Georgia

In the small town of Gori, nestled in the beautiful Caucasus country of Georgia, you can find a museum dedicated to the memory of an unlikely hero. 

Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century. It’s thought that over 20 million Soviets died during Stalin’s regime, making him one of the most murderous dictators in history.

However, this museum somewhat brushes over this fact and focuses more on Stalin as a man. In the gift shop you can even buy Stalin-themed souvenirs to purchase for friends and family back home.

After touring the museum visitors can take a look inside Stalin’s train carriage, which is now parked in the museum grounds.

Along the theme of murderous dictators, if you ever find yourself in Shanghai, China, be sure to visit the Propaganda Poster Art Museum. This tiny museum, tucked away under some high rise apartment buildings, has a great collection of propaganda art, from the Maoism period of Communist China.

The Stalin Museum in Gori is Georgia's top dark tourism destination
Stalin souvenirs for sale

More Dark Tourism Destinations

The following are more dark tourist places which I have not visited myself, but are very much on the dark tourism radar.

Aokigahara Forest aka Suicide forest, Japan

I actually only found out about this forest upon my return from Japan. I mentioned to my brother that I had visited Mt Fuji and his first question was if I’d visited the Suicide Forest. Obviously I hadn’t and even if I had known about it, I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have gone.

This enchanting forest has a historical reputation in Japanese mythology as being home to ghosts of the dead. But more recently it has become known as a place where people come to take their own lives.

Auschwitz, Poland

During World War II people from all over Europe were sent to labour camps constructed by Nazi Germany. Auschwitz concentration camp was the largest of these camps, where over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives.

Today the complex has been converted to a museum dedicated to remembrance and education. Auschwitz is perhaps the most well known dark tourism example on this list.

Chernobyl, Ukraine

In 1986 an explosion tore through through reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant, near the city of Pripyat. The result was the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Chernobyl is now a well known dark tourism destination, with numerous companies offering tours to Chernobyl and the abandoned town of Pripyat.

Have you seen the HBO series Chernobyl? This series is extremely well made and although tough to watch, gives a good insight to the events that happened at Chernobyl.

Visiting places with a radioactive history has been growing in popularity in dark tourism. Other sites to visit include Hiroshima and Fukushima in Japan and Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan.

Pompeii, Italy

In 79AD Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the nearby Roman city of Pompeii. Pompeii was buried under meters of volcanic ash, preserving the city at the exact moment it was buried.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Pompeii is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy.

Why visit these sites?

Until I watched Dark Tourist I didn’t realise this branch of tourism even existed. For me, visits to war memorials and genocide museums are an uncomfortable but necessary part of learning about a country’s history.

Through this, we hopefully learn which mistakes to avoid in the future.

The purpose of visiting man made disasters such as Chernobyl and the former Aral Sea is perhaps a little more unclear. We obviously haven’t learnt any lessons from these, as we still continue to build Nuclear Power Plants and strip the earth of its’ natural resources.

Maybe one day we will learn?

How do you feel about visiting dark tourism sites? Have you visited any of these destinations or are there any others that you would add to this list? Let me know your thoughts below.

The next time you head out on an adventure, don’t forget to buy your travel insurance first.

 

Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you. This helps cover the cost of running this blog. Thanks for your support!

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Are you familiar with dark tourism? In this post I investigate this alternative branch of tourism and outline 10 of the most popular dark tourism destinations

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