Travel

5 Dark Tourism Sites You Can Check Out In 2019

By James Shackell - 08 Dec 2018


We’re guessing by now you’ve heard of ‘dark tourism’. Probably from watching budget-Louix-Theroux, David Farrier, bumble his way through war zones and torture sites and nuclear fallout on Netflix’s 2018 hit, Dark Tourist. It’s a show that raises a few ethical questions (without bothering with pesky things, like ethical answers).

Should travellers visit places of death, destruction and genocide? Is that just cashed-up Western voyeurism? Does dark tourism help fight ignorance, or is that what we tell ourselves to justify a good holiday anecdote? 

The general consensus on dark tourism right now is this: it’s complicated. There’s nothing stopping you from visiting the sites below, but you should go in with your eyes open. Be respectful, be curious, go to the trouble of doing a little research beforehand. Oh yeah, and leave the selfie stick at home. 

Chernobyl

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is still the worst nuclear accident in history (along with the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, it’s the only one to receive a Level 7 classification. Level 7 is very, very bad).

Tours of the so-called ‘sealed zone’ began in 2011, but even in the mid-noughties, the surrounding site was getting around 7000 tourists a year. Those numbers have now spiked, thanks to affordable group tours, like this one from Intrepid Travel.

The radiation levels in the exclusion zone are low enough that you can safely spend a couple of days there. There are even 100-odd ‘self-settlers’ who still live in Chernobyl full-time. 

Is It Safe? 

Sure. For a given value of ‘safe’. You’ll be given a thorough briefing before entry.

How Do I Go? 

You can only enter the exclusion zone with a registered guide. Most big companies now run tours through Chernobyl

Anything Else I Should Know? 

You have to go through radioactive screening when you exit Chernobyl, so don’t sit down or touch anything. If your pants are radioactive, they’re staying behind.  

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

These days, Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is safe, cosmopolitan, friendly and effing delicious. But a few decades ago, it was a ghost town. When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they wanted to turn the country into an agrarian utopia, which meant murdering over one million Cambodians.

The old Khmer Rouge labour camps are now popular tourist attractions, and most travellers pay a visit to Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, S-21 extermination camp and the infamous Choeung Ek ‘killing fields’. Generally, this is seen as a good thing: Cambodians want people to know what happened here, and travel revenue certainly helps the local economy (despite some concerns about overtourism). 

Is It Safe? 

Completely. There are no current travel warnings for Cambodia. 

How Do I Go? 

Tours aren’t hard to find, but make sure you choose a company that hires local guides. You can also catch a tuk tuk from Phnom Penh (approximately 17km). 

Anything Else I Need To Know? 

Obey the rules and leave nothing behind. Don’t tie ribbons, take photos, leave food scraps or rubbish. 

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Probably the most famous dark tourism site of them all, and one that throws up controversy every couple of years (remember ‘Auschwitz selfie girl’ in 2014?).

More than two million people walked through the gates of Auschwitz in 2016, and numbers are still on the rise. Nearly all the money raised goes toward preservation works at the site.

Whether or not you visit is entirely up to you: critics have claimed so-called ‘Holocaust tourism’ promotes death rather than life, but many people believe a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is an important part of postmemory.

If you plan on going, make sure you read the admission rules first. 

Is It Safe? 

Completely. Thousands of travellers visit Auschwitz every day without incident.

How Do I Go? 

Entry is free, but you will need to pay for a guide. Tours run at pre-scheduled times, so make sure you book ahead.

Anything Else I Should Know? 

Auschwitz and Birkenau are both extremely confronting. It pays to read a first-hand guide before you go. 

Hiroshima

A lot of travellers get to Hiroshima expecting... what? Bombed out ruins? This is actually one of Japan’s most beautiful seaside towns, and even if you’re here to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, you should make time to check out Shukkeien gardens, Osaki Shimojima island and the Itsukushima shrine.

Of course, as far as dark tourism goes, the Genbaku Dome (AKA the ‘A-Bomb Dome’) is ground zero, literally—it was almost directly underneath the atomic bomb hypocenter at 8:15am, 6 August 1945. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site that gets around 1.5 million visitors a year.

Is It Safe? 

Yep. Today’s background radiation in Hiroshima is pretty much the same as anywhere else on earth. 

How Do I Go? 

Anyone can visit the centre. The admission fee is 200 Yen.

Anything Else I Should Know? 

Make sure to check out the so-called Phoenix Trees, just north of the East Building. They actually survived the blast.

National 9/11 Memorial

It’s arguable that, along with Arlington Cemetery, Ground Zero and the National September 11 Memorial has become some of the most hallowed ground in America. 37 million people have visited since this site opened in 2011.

It’s a place for quiet reflection, and there are a few ground rules you need to follow. Don’t bring in outside food, don’t talk on your phone, and don’t throw coins or anything else in the memorial pools (which, incidentally, are the largest manmade waterfalls in North America).

You’ll need a ticket for entry, and keep note of the time specified on the ticket, sometimes latecomers won’t be allowed inside.

Is It Safe? 

Totally safe. Security at the memorial site is always high.

How Do I Go? 

The World Trade Centre memorial is in lower Manhattan, at 180 Greenwich St. You can book tickets here.

Anything Else I Should Know? 

Go to the bathroom before you visit. There are no public restrooms inside the memorial (the closest are Wagner Park or Battery Park). 

Prefer your travel a bit more light-hearted? Here are 11 reasons you need to visit Beijing.

Image credit: Annette Batista Day

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