Even if you don’t consider yourself a dark tourist, it’s natural to be intrigued by sites associated with death and tragedy. Concentration camps, disaster memorials and other dark tourism sites preserve the evidence of humankind’s worst cruelty. They also offer stories of hope and solidarity from the bleakest chapters of world history.
Although dark tourism is often motivated by a desire to learn or pay respects, it can still be controversial. Some visitors can cause offense by taking ill-conceived photos, or by treating a site of tragedy like a theme park. After all, dark tourism sites don’t exist in a vacuum: lives unfold nearby, and local people tread a tightrope between honoring the memory of past horrors and stepping out from their shadow.
These five dark tourism destinations memorialize terrible events, and each one requires a thoughtful approach from visitors. Touring these sites can be perspective-altering, even life-changing, provided you go with kindness and care – here’s our guide to being an ethical dark tourist.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum, Poland
During WWII, more than 1.1 million people were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Now preserved as a memorial, these notorious concentration camps bring in enormous numbers of tourists (more than 2.32 million people in 2019).
Many tourists arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau on day trips from charming Kraków, 65km east. There’s a similar day-trip effect at other sites of former concentration camps, such as Terezín (north of Prague) and Dachau (outside Munich). The challenge is transitioning between holiday mode – selfie stick aloft, picnic packed, sunhat and novelty T-shirt – to a mindset appropriate to seeing the place where Jewish and Roma people, as well as prisoners of war and LGBTIQ+ people, were tortured, starved and murdered.
Respectful photography sounds obvious, but officials at the site need to repeatedly remind visitors. Don’t strike an enigmatic pose on the railway lines that brought hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths. Reconsider whether selfies are appropriate: by their nature they center on you rather than those who suffered here.
Killing Fields and S-21, Cambodia
More than 1.7 million people were murdered in the Cambodian genocide of 1975–79. The S-21 prison and interrogation cells in Phnom Penh are where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands. If they weren’t murdered on-site, victims would be taken to Choeung Ek’s Killing Fields, 15km south. The Killing Fields are now a memorial site and S-21 is conserved as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Up to 800 people visit the Killing Fields each day, most also paying a visit to S-21 where guides – some survivors of the genocide – lead visitors between rusty bedframes and bare-walled cells. Though there are concerns that the site cannot handle the increasing volume of tourists, locals are generally pleased to see visitors. Tourism represents more than 15% of Cambodia’s GDP. As well as boosting the economy, visitation of Khmer Rouge–era sites ensures their preservation and encourages confrontation of the country’s history.
Although most are respectful, it’s not unusual to see tourists ignoring signs prohibiting photography or walking directly across mass graves. Bone fragments have been stolen, while graffiti has been left in Tuol Sleng. Visit with environmental and emotional sensitivity: observe signs, watch where you’re treading, refrain from photography at sensitive locations and hire a local guide to ensure your tourists dollars go straight into Cambodians’ pockets.
A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima, Japan
After US Army Air Forces bombed Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the Japanese city became forever associated with death on an apocalyptic scale. Hiroshima was flattened by the atomic blast. More than 70,000 people were killed instantly, and a similar number died later from terrible burns and radiation-related illnesses.
The A-bomb dome, the only major structure to have survived, stands as a witness to that day. Nearby, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum displays harrowing reconstructions of what the victims endured, as well as thoughtful messages of optimism for world peace.
This history is a heavy burden for Hiroshima. While it’s important to devote time to Hiroshima’s dark tourism sites, it’s equally worthwhile to learn about the city beyond the bombing. Understand hundreds of years of history at Hiroshima-jō, the faithful rebuild of a 16th-century castle. Take a ferry to Miyajima Island to admire temples and spot miniature deer. Talk to local people about their town, if you can. Above all, leave with memories of Hiroshima as a living town, rather than a by-word for wartime horror.
Kigali Genocide Memorial, Rwanda
Tourists need to be especially considerate when visiting a place associated with a very recent tragedy. The Kigali Genocide Memorial remembers the victims of 1994’s 100-day genocide of the Tutsi people. One-quarter of a million people are buried in mass graves, killed by the Hutu extremists and their supporters. Video testimony by survivors of Rwanda’s genocide, accompanied by heart-rending descriptions of children who were murdered, make this a confronting place to visit.
Thoughtful conduct is paramount, and this extends to giving your full attention to displays that you read. Ideally, do some research before arriving and be attentive to what you see and read. People who lost their loved ones in the genocide come to the memorial to remember those who were killed. The least that visitors can do is give their undivided attention.
The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant has gone down in infamy. The accident caused dozens of deaths, innumerable radiation-related illnesses, thousands of evacuations and a toll on wildlife that is still being debated and calculated.
In 2019, HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl beamed a blow-by-blow account of the disaster onto screens across the world. Local tour guides received heightened interest in trips around the "exclusion zone," the badly contaminated 2600-sq-km area that was evacuated after the blast.
A TV series can have a dangerous distancing effect, but despite the occasional influencer using the site as staging for photoshoots, the exclusion zone is no movie set. Tour guides urge visitors to protect themselves by wearing long-sleeved clothing and refraining from touching anything. Custodians of the carefully guarded area scan visitors after their visit, to make sure radioactive dust isn’t clinging to their clothing.
It’s painful for a country when land is poisoned and people displaced; it’s even more unsettling when a place becomes a macabre curiosity around the world. But be prepared to challenge your preconceptions about Soviet-era wreckage and wildlife-free wastelands. Against advice, as many as 200 people still live in the exclusion zone. Younger Ukrainians eager to build something positive from Chernobyl’s grim legacy offer photography and educational tours, and have even hosted a music festival in the zone. As with so many other dark tourism sites, an ethical visit to Chernobyl requires an open mind.
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