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Dark tourism: why people like to go to dangerous places

After the recent series “Chernobyl”, the popularity of tours to this place of ecological disaster skyrocketed. But long before the series, Chernobyl was dubbed the pearl of Ukrainian tourism, writes with the BBC.

Фото: Depositphotos

According to the Ministry of Ecology of Ukraine, in 2018, 63 people visited the exclusion zone. This is almost eight times more than it was five years ago.

Now, if you are a foreigner, a one-day trip will cost you one hundred dollars.

“Dead City” is not alone in its popularity. Travel to places of tragedies, genocides, imprisonments and cataclysms is called dark tourism (in English there are a number of synonyms - dark, black, grief tourism, etc.).

Although the term itself is quite young, the history of this phenomenon is very long: mass visits to the Coliseum in Ancient Rome, when spectators came to see the deadly battles of gladiators, are the same kind of event.

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There are several types of dark tourism. Among them are thanatotourism (concentration camps), a necropolis (cemeteries, for example Lychakivske in Lviv or Pere-Lachaise in Paris), catastrophes (Chernobyl), mystical (Stonehenge, Loch Ness, occult places) and other areas.

There is a separate industry that specializes in dark tourism. One of the areas is post-conflict territories or those lands where the war is now going on, for example, Somalia. Some companies carry tourists to North Korea or conflict in the post-Soviet territories, for example, Karabakh.

And here, in addition to the question of ethics, the problem of the safety of such trips for tourists arises.

Let us recall the story of the American student Otto Warmbier, who, as part of a tourist group, visited the DPRK at the end of 2016. He was imprisoned for “committing a hostile act” against the country (trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel) and sentenced to 15 years in labor camps.

Otto Wormbier fell into a coma in a North Korean prison. 17 months after his imprisonment, he was brought to his homeland in an unconscious state, where he died.

Since then, the DPRK for Americans from a country not recommended for travel has turned into a country banned from visiting without special permission from the State Department.

Very expensive tourism

Organized dark tourism is a very expensive type of travel. People from developed countries go on such tours.

Who are they? Lovers of sorrow? Those fed up with regular travels?

They can also be those who “collect” countries, that is, want to visit all existing in the world.

English actor House Jolie, who published The Dark Tourist: Sightseeing in the world's most unlikely holiday destinations in 2010, says that for him dark tourism is a way to touch history.

Those interested in this issue can even refer to the work of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (The Institute for Dark Tourism Research) based at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. And Netflix supporters can watch the 2018 New Zealand documentary series Dark Tourist.

Popular destinations for dark tourism

North Korea

The country opened its doors to tourists in the late 1980s and now thousands of people visit it every year.

The "pearl" of North Korean tourism is the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, located in Pyongyang. Foreign tourists have access to the mausoleum twice a week, accompanied by local guides provided by the government.

Memorial Complex and Museum September 11

The Museum of New York Tragedy was built in 2014 in a crater from the destroyed twin towers of the World Trade Center.


The former Nazi concentration camp in Poland was turned into a museum in 1955. In 2017, the museum was visited by more than 2 million people.


There are several places in Rwanda commemorating the 1994 mass genocide, when, according to various estimates, from half a million to a million people died.


The Tuolsleng Genocide Museum in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh opened in 1980. The former school was a prison under the Khmer Rouge regime, where they were tortured and killed. The museum keeps a huge photo archive of the then prisoners - victims of the regime.

This is what Ukrainian travelers say when they travel to “difficult” countries or regions, where an ordinary tourist cannot go. How are they attracted to post-conflict areas?

Oksana Loik, traveler, About Afghanistan and Pakistan:

- I would not divide the world into countries of "black" and "white" tourism. These phenomena are present in every country.

You can admire the "sleek" cities of Kazakhstan, and then drive a hundred kilometers from Nursultan and drink tea brewed on dung from almost red water.

You can wander through the rubbish along the streets of Kabul, and then get to the districts of the city, where you understand that “Afghanistan” and “luxury” are completely identical concepts.

You can admire the architectural wonders of the Emirates, and then be horrified by the conditions in which visiting workers live.

In my collection from forty countries, the majority are not very attractive for tourists. But of those that are considered dangerous, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both of me were positively surprised.

I thought that I was going to a remote dark Middle Ages, and I came to a corny poor country (Afghanistan) and a country of striking contrasts (Pakistan). I did not feel fear there for a minute and was fascinated by their tourist potential.

I don’t want to tell how safe it is in Afghanistan and that everything distributed by the media is a legend. No, it's all true!

Just from the inside, everything looks completely different - the Afghans live an ordinary routine life, and they learn about all the attacks, like the rest of the world, from TV.

Pakistan, despite its conservative image, is an absolutely free country where you can afford bare hands, and alcohol bought at special points or from the local population, and funny revels (in the absence of nightclubs).

And, despite everything, these countries are not for everyone. To go there ... no, it is not necessary to be brave. But you need to forget everything you knew about them so far, strongly believe in people and humanity, and be prepared for adventure.

Konstantin Simonenko - the first Ukrainian to visit all countries of the world, about Somalia:

- To visit all countries of the world was my original goal and a long-standing dream. All countries are everything, including Syria, Somalia, Yemen. I started traveling to dangerous countries precisely because I wanted to go there for the sake of fulfilling my dream. Then he got involved, so to speak.

A visit to dangerous areas, such as Somalia, is not an acquaintance with the sights or the beauty of nature, they are not here. This is a completely uncharted, deadly and adrenaline-filled territory.

Imagine, I walked along the streets of a ruined city among the ruins of once good Italian estates, and half-naked locals dragged tiger sharks on my shoulders towards me ... To my left and right were machine gunners in slippers and grenades behind my belt. I felt like an astronaut.

But you shouldn't think that travelers who go to such countries are crazy and fearless extremists. Trips like this are very well prepared.

First of all, this is a study of the country: where are the danger zones, where are relatively safe, when you should not go, and when there is a relative lull in the country and you can take a chance. I always very carefully choose the receiving side that will accompany me and with which, in fact, I trust my life.

I usually use the recommendations of friends of professional travelers who have already been to the country and used the services of local guides.

Svetlana Oslavskaya, journalist, author of the book about Turkey “Crescent, Cross and Peacock. Traveling to Mesopotamia ”, about Turkish Kurdistan:

- The first time I came to Eastern Turkey (this region is also called Turkish Kurdistan) in 2013, and immediately to Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital.

Then there was just a period of warming relations between the Kurds and Turkey, and I spent a lot in the old city of Diyarbakir: I walked through the narrow streets, watched the children play and greeted women sitting on the thresholds of houses or baking bread in ovens on the street, in two languages ​​- Kurdish and turkish.

This old city will be severely destroyed in a few years, when the conflict escalates again.

It was safe to travel - my fellow volunteers and I hitchhiked a lot, people in general were glad to see foreigners, because these are not very tourist regions, there are no tiredness from tourists and there are no worked out schemes how to make money on you.

But in all of Turkey there is a good bus service, so hitchhiking is not the only way to get there.

Diyarbakir, Mardin, Antakia, Van, Istanbul and other regions east and south of Gaziantep attract people who are looking for heritage and architecture or just wanting to get to know people and look at how they live.

Dasha Nepochatova, co-founder of Creative Women Space, about the National Memorial and Museum on September 11 in New York:

- September 11, 2001, the day the terrorist attack took place in New York, I worked in the UK at the training center of the British organization of girl guides, and together with them we saw the fall of the twin towers live.

That day left an imprint on my heart forever. Going to the scene of the tragedy was my dream.

The first time I got to New York was 16 years after what happened. I did not like this city because of its constant noise and crowds.

But, surprisingly, in it I found a place where I felt good: Ground Zero - part of lower Manhattan, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood.

This is a place of rest created by fear. A place of silence born of noise. Everything here is permeated by collective contact with death. I started coming back here again and again. Ground Zero has become my place of power.

This is a museum in which it is impossible to move quickly, because in addition to visual information, there are huge layers of psychological information that we read with the whole body at the level of the unconscious.

Besides the fact that the museum tells about one of the great tragedies of the XNUMXst century, it also shows how Americans lived in grief from the loss of relatives and friends.

Vladislav Romanovich, traveler, about Syria and Pakistan:

- I tried to visit Syria and Pakistan to see the numerous local historical monuments, and because I am interested in events in the world. I wanted to see how it really was, and not from the TV screen, and was convinced that these were two different pictures.

Syria, where I was twice (in 2018 and 2019), healed many of its wounds in just a year, especially the infrastructure and new buildings are striking. Peaceful life returns to the cities.

Pakistan for me is a country with the most hospitable people in the world. Yes, people do not live well, but they try to show their country as best as possible. Polite, well-mannered, friendly. Almost everyone knows English, which surprised me very much.

In the media, stories about such countries are shown in terms of danger, war, terror, but the reality is somewhat different.

Street crime in Syria or Pakistan is almost zero. And to imagine that someone will steal your phone or money, or raise a hand against a guest, is generally at a fantasy level. I calmly left my backpack with a macbook and a phone in Aleppo and Lahore - and no one even looked at it.

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Daria Antsibor, folklorist and traveler, about the culture of memory:

- Places associated with a certain traumatic or tragic experience interest me for many reasons - from historical to purely practical.

I wonder what museums do to not only convey historical material, but also to make visitors truly understand the horror of the tragedy.

For example, I have been to Auschwitz twice, and the experience was completely different. There are guided tours there. For the first time, the guide focused on the picture of the everyday life of the prisoners - she described in detail the memories of life in the barracks, with all the nuances of food, unsanitary conditions, and the like. And this made a tremendous impression on me.

The second time the guide talked more about statistics, tried to show all the fear of the tragedy. But our brain is not able to understand what 3000 or 30 000 dead are. He only realizes that this is a lot.

And that is why for me visiting memorials and other memorable places is a way to feel and sympathize. And at the same time analyze how this experience could be used in Ukraine.

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