“Grief tourism,” however ghoulish it might seem, is a growth industry. Known also as Dark Tourism, this refers to travel to destinations associated with death or suffering. This list presents 10 Dark Tourism Destinations that get a significant number of visitors each year solely because they are associated with death, disaster, poverty or suffering.
The fascination with death and suffering is as old as mankind. Roman Gladiators drew such crowds of spectators that coliseums were built to accommodate them. Burnings of witches during Spanish inquisition times and hangings in the American old west were tourist events in themselves, as people came from far and wide to watch.
Thomas Cook, founder of a global travel agency bearing his name, made a killing organizing tours for inquisitive British travelers to the American Civil War battlefields.
10. Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India
The slums of Calcutta were made famous around the world by Sister Theresa, then the worst slums of Bombay were immortalized by the Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Mumbai’s Dharavi Slum is not only the largest slum in India, but in all of Asia. Home to almost 1 Million people, Dharavi Slum greets visitors with stomach turning odor, mountains of piled up garbage, rivers of human waste and endless displays of poverty, disease and depressing living conditions. And for many “looky-loos” this is a holiday destination.
9. Cu Chi Tunnels, Saigon, Vietnam
A 75-mile-long underground tunnel system located below Cu Chi district of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was used by Viet Cong freedom fighters to run military campaigns against occupying US forces. In 1968, Cu Chi Tunnels served as the base from where Viet Cong launched Tet Offensive which ultimately aided in humiliating withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam.
Back then, Cu Chi Tunnels were full of deadly spiders and wandering scorpions, offering little space with unbearable humidity and had many passages wired with booty traps. Today, the site is a popular Dark Tourism Destination and a prime example of how former warfare can be turned into a lucrative tourist attraction.
Popular, easy to access corridors have been widened to accommodate inquisitive tourists and a firing range has been set up to offer more authentic experience for those with trigger happy fingers. For $1, you get to fire a shot from an AK-47 rifle that was used during the Vietnam War and munch on a simple food guerrilla fighters used to live on.
8. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum is the former Toul Sleng High School. In 1975, during the Khmer Rouge regime, the school was used as a prison and torture center, known at that time as S-21. Thousands of Cambodians and a number of foreigners were housed and tortured there until they were executed. Today the site is a museum, where visitors can walk among some of the cells and look at the photos of hundreds of people who died there.
The most shocking part of the visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is that despite unspeakable atrocities done to the prisoners, locals, many of whom lived during the Khmer Rouge regime seem to be more than excited to have it in their capital as it attracts hundreds of tourists every day. Instead of trying to forget what the Strychnine Hill (the meaning of Tuol Sleng in English) represents, Cambodians are excited to have this Dark Tourism Attraction in their capital and won’t hesitate to tell visitors about the piles of skulls and bones that can be found there, for as long as they get the tourists to pay them for transport to the site.
7. Devil’s Island, French Guiana
Set up by French Emperor Napoleon III in 1852, the smallest and northernmost island of the Iles du Salut archipelago north of French Guiana housed the most notorious penal colony in the world until 1952. Most convicts sent to the disease infested Devil’s Island never made it out of the ghastly, inhospitable environment it provided.
Originally a leper colony, the Îles du Salut archipelago (literally “Safety Islands,” formerly known as the Îles du Diable, or “Devil’s Islands”), became the destination for transported prisoners from France, the last of whom left only fifty years ago, and now they are a must-see stop on South American coastal tours and one of the most popular Dark Tourism Destinations. For the prisoners (the most famous of whom was Alfred Dreyfus, the French Army officer falsely convicted of treason) it was “a true excursion into hell,” as one writer has it. For you and your fellow travelers, it is a quite pleasant, half-day, civilized excursion into a lovely tropical island resort.
6. Children?s Memorial, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
This unique memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, is a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who perished during the Holocaust. Memorial candles, a customary Jewish tradition to remember the dead, are reflected infinitely in a dark and somber space, creating the impression of millions of stars shining in the firmament. The names of murdered children, their ages and countries of origin can be heard in the background.
5. The Zone of Alienation in Chernobyl, Ukraine
This 30 km wide area around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986 is as chilling today as it was after the explosion. Abandoned buildings, shattered glass and vegetation overgrown amusement park remind a visitor that even after more than two decades, normal life cannot resume in the area.
Guided tours of the area within the containment zone are kept strictly to areas with low levels of radiation, according to the Emergency Situations Ministry. The lingering risk of radiation exposure in Chernobyl makes some wary of venturing within the containment zone. After all, it has been off-limits for 24 years for a reason, and workers still need to wear protective gear in many places.
As it goes with other Dark Tourism Destinations, Chernobyl disaster site was also turned into a tourist attraction generating revenue since 2002. Daily tours from Kiev start from $150 inclusive of transportation and food. Levels of radioactivity on roads open for tours are nowadays low and are continuously monitored so the visit is considered safer than a 2 hour flight in a plane, which exposes human bodies to more radioactivity than the Zone of Alienation.
4. The River Kwai Bridge, Thailand
While most of WWII fights took place in Europe, other parts of the world were also heavily involved. Much of South East Asia was under Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1943 and plans were to also invade India. To accomplish the goal, Japanese troops stationed in Burma (today’s Myanmar) needed more support but since no convenient infrastructure was available, the decision has been made to build a railway that would connect Kanchanabury in Siam (today’s Thailand) with West Burma’s Moulmein.
The quarter of a million people, both Asians as well as the prisoners of war from the Allied (Commonwealth, American and Dutch) nations were forced into labor to get the construction underway. Camps were built in both Burma and Siam starting the railway from opposite ends to meet in the center. Due to food shortages, workers suffered from malnutrition. Medical supplies and sanitary facilities were either nonexistent or insufficient giving malnourished and overworked people little chance to battle off malaria, cholera or the tropical ulcer which were common in these areas.
Construction of the 416 km long Siam – Burma railway (the Death Railway) took 16 months, during which an estimated hundred thousand workers, of which approximately 13,000 were the prisoners of war died. Their bodies were buried alongside the tracks wherever they’d dropped.
Travelers wishing to get the glimpse of what conditions the Death Railway workers lived and died in can visit one of the three museums that contain graphic photographs and tools used by the prisoners to build the railway. A cemetery with the remains of about 7,000 workers is only a short drive away. It is also possible to hop on a train and take a ride on the Death Railway the construction of which claimed so many lives. To have memorable pictures, most Dark Tourism visitors do not pass on the opportunity to walk along the River Kwai Bridge with the infamous river after which it is named in the background.
3. Pont de l’Alma Road Tunnel, Paris, France
Pont de l’Alma is a road tunnel near the bridge of the same name in Paris, France where Princess Diana of Wales died on August 31, 1997. Princess’ boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed and their driver Henri Paul who was an acting head of security at the Ritz Hotel (owned by Dodi Al-Fayed’s father Mohamed) also died in the accident.
The Flame of Liberty, which is an exact replica of the Statue of Liberty’s flame sits above the entrance to the tunnel and is considered the unofficial memorial to Princess Diana.
2. Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland
The largest of all Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz (or Oswiecim as it is called in Polish) is believed to have served as an extermination camp for more than one million people, most of which were Jews. Majority were killed in camp’s gas chambers, while others died of disease or starvation. Set up by the architect of the holocaust Heinrich Himmler, Auschwitz was also the site where evil “Angel of Death” doctor Josef Mengele performed his experiments on live people.
The numbers are outward signs of the stunning brutality and immeasurable pain that made up daily life at Auschwitz, a place where mass murder became an industry. In just about five years, 1.6 million prisoners arrived at the camp’s ominous gates. Most came in cattle cars. Among them, only 400,000 were registered as inmates. The rest went straight to the gas chambers and were then incinerated in the camp’s five crematoriums. More than one million people died in this factory of death.
Due to its notoriety, Auschwitz is one of the most visited Dark Tourism Destinations in the world today. The popularity of the site is so huge, the access is only granted to organized tour groups during peak hours of the peak season. Tours are a source of massive revenue for Poland’s travel industry.
1. Ground Zero, New York City, USA
The 9/11 attacks in which two planes flew into the World Trade Centre buildings in New York City, claiming lives of nearly 3,000 people, count as the most notorious modern history attacks in the world.
Needless to say, macabre site of such worldwide significance draws attention of many Dark Tourism enthusiasts and counts as one of the most important Dark Tourism Destinations in the world. This top 10 list would not be complete without the WTC site on it.