Today I’m blogging about ‘Dark Tourism Destinations’ – a new wave of either morbid or educative Tourism (depending on which way you look at it) that focuses on places of interest that reflect dark periods or horrific times in history. Yes, Dark Tourism is essentially visiting spots around the world where atrocities have taken place and been turned into museums or tourist destinations. Examples of dark Tourism destinations include the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, Chernobyl and Auschwitz.
Criticism of Dark Tourism
What is referred to as ‘Dark Tourism’ has been criticised a lot by bloggers lately. Many have argued that places where genocide or nuclear disaster have hit shouldn’t be another place to tick off a list, and certainly shouldn’t be destinations for selfies or promoted as tourist destinations. Although I agree with this and would never take a selfie at a concentration camp, I’m actually an advocate of the principle of visiting dark Tourism Destinations. Let me explain why…
Reasons Why Dark Tourism is Important
Knowledge is power. Power to avoid racism. Power to avoid fascism. Power to educate others. It’s just disappointing that as a human race, we never really learn. Otherwise genocide would have stopped at the holocaust. Sadly and shockingly, it has not.
Terminology aside, as long as we accept that visiting dark Tourism Destinations serves a purpose to educate rather than to brag and boast, visiting these memorials and museums is vitally important to our understanding of a certain countries history, as well as to our understanding of the human race as a whole. Visiting Holocaust concentration camps, war memorials and genocide museums can help us to understand the past and also the present.
Dark Tourism Destinations
Here’s a collection of dark Tourism destinations that you might want to visit in order to educate yourself about the history of the nations that you travel to. Travel deeper. Understand that life is not always peachy. Respect and remember the survivors.
Kigali Genocide Memorial
The 1994 Rwandan genocide was one of the most brutal genocides in the history of the world. Over 800,000 people were killed mostly with machetes during the Rwandan genocide in a period of just 3 months from April that year, although they estimate that it was closer to 1 million due to unconfirmed statistics.
The ‘trigger’ of the genocide was said to be the shooting down of president Habyramina’s plane, resulting in his death (along with the death of the president of Burundi). The genocide of the Tutsi’s involved the majority tribe the Hutus literally hunting them down with Machetes. There is evidence to suggest that the trigger was a mere initial catalyst to something that had been systematically planned for months, with Machetes being imported from China sold for just 50c a piece. Roots of the genocide lie deep in history, politics and colonialisation (Belgian colonisers heightened the difference between the two tribes).
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a place to remember those lost and is particularly busy around April (this is a difficult time to go to Rwanda). The memorial is accompanied by a museum that informs us of the harrowing reality of the genocide. It really is something that you need to visit if you want to understand the history and current situation in Rwanda.
However, it’s not an easy thing to see. Video evidence of people literally being ‘chopped up’ s played, alongside photographic evidence and accounts of survivors.
If you make it through the top floor without breaking down, I would be very surprised – photos and accounts of children and babies getting their heads smashed against walls is beyond me. Sick is the only way I can describe it.
But it needs to be understood to see where the country is now regarding politics, education and health care. Paul Kagame was vital in bringing the country through the genocide and out of the other side. Kagame was born a Tutsi and his family fled to Uganda where he spent his childhood. As head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) he invaded Rwanda in 1990 and has been hailed a hero for his role in ending the genocide. The prevalence of HIV is predominantly a result of rapes during the genocide and there are many orphans and child head of households. An understanding of the genocide informs our understanding of Rwanda today.
Further Reading – Why didn’t anyone intervene in the Rwandan genocide?
Auschwitz Concentration Camp and Death Camp
Auschwitz is the largest WW2 concentration camp in Europe Hitler stereotyped the Jewish race, brainwashing the German population at the time with propaganda that blamed the Jewish race for the countries problems. He reverted to what he called ‘the final solution’ – mass extermination of the whole Jewish race. By the end of WW2 in 1945 approximately 6 million Jews had been murdered by the Nazis.
Auschwitz in Poland is one of the most well known of dark tourism destinations in the world. It is actually split into two parts – the concentration camp or ‘labour camp’ and Auschwitz-Birkenau – essentially a mass killing factory. Jews, the disables, gypsies and many others were systematically murdered there in gas chambers where they were killed with ‘Zyclon-B’.
To truly experience Auschwitz I would advise you to book a guide. Many guides have family who were killed in the camps or who survived. You can visit Auschwitz as a day trip from Krakow or Katowice.
Before you go into Auschwitz which has now developed the site into a museum, you will have the option to see a video. I’m not gonna lie – it made me feel physically sick. Particularly harrowing was the experimentations that ‘scientist’ Josef Mengele did on young children and twins.
Inside the museum you will see endless collections of human hair, spectacles and suitcases, which reiterate the massive scale on which these murders took place. Photo galleries show prisoners with tears in their eyes. Nail marks are evident on the inside walls of the gas chambers where people were scraping the walls and screaming to get out. Every bullet in the shooting wall represents yet another life.
Auschwitz is a traumatic trip, but essential for understanding the importance of racial and religious tolerance in our world today.
Dachau Concentration Camp
Dachau concentration camp is another concentration camp built by the Nazi’s in WW2, initially to house political prisoners. It lies in the medieval town of Dachau roughly 10 miles North West of Munich. The camp was opened by the infamous SS officer Heinrich Himmler. It progressed from holding prisoners of war to being a camp to hold the Jews and eventually forced labour. There were over 32,000 deaths at Dachau by the time of liberation in 1945 and tens of thousands were sick as a result.
They say that there are no birds ever sing in Dachau – I never heard any. If you visit Dachau you will see the close proximity of the living quarters – three bunks on top of each other. Apparently no-one wanted to be on the bottom bunk – that’s where the rats were, or sick, shit and piss could land on you from above. The toilets were essentially rows of holes in blocks of stone all leading into one sticking trench (these often made good hiding places for children!). The toilet ‘holes’ were right next to each other with no privacy – people forced to go in just one or two minutes in front of everyone. Standing cells where people forced to stand for days on end without food or water are still there to be seen. Dachau is raw.
It’s importance? The harsh conditions that people were forced to endure at Dachau are the exact reason why we should eliminate racism and anti-semitism today – because that was the result.
Khmer Rouge Killing fields – Cambodia
Between 1975 to 1979 the ‘Khymer Rouge’ (Communist party) led by Pol Pot were in control of Cambodia. Their harsh regime arrested and eventually killed diplomats and those who were seen to be associated with or conspiring with foreign governments. This escalated to the arrest of teachers, lawyers and anyone they thought to be a threat to the party, followed by their execution. City dwellers were forced to the countryside. Buddhism and any form of religion was banned. Many were worked to death or shot and over a million had be killed by the Khymer Rouge by the end of 1979. Many had been tortured before their death.
Estimates for the loss of life under the Khymer Rouge go as high as around 1.7 million, this is without the figures of those who died from disease or starvation due to their policies.
I was extremely apprehensive about going on the Phnom Penh Killing fields tour, but felt that it was something I had to do to understand Cambodian history. The ‘Killing fields’ of Choeung Ek around 9 miles from Phnom Penh has become a museum and dark tourism destination, but is just one of many ‘killing fields’ in Cambodia where genocide took place. At the Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ you will see a memorial containing many skulls of the victims, thousands of skulls behind a glass screen and the S21 prison that now serves as a genocide museum.
If you have time, you might also be interested in visiting Tuol Sleng. Now a museum it was turned from a high school into a brutal high security prison during Pol Pots regime.
Why is it important? To understand the history of Cambodia as well as the results that can stem from harsh dictatorships.
The Srebrenica massacre of 1995 was the massacre of over 8000 Bosniak boys and men during the Bosnian war. The killings or so called ‘ethnic cleansing’ were undertaken by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) in the small mountain town.
In September and October of 1995 the Bosnian Serb army attempted to unearth the mass graves and distribute them further afield in a cover up attempt. This complicated future efforts to locate and identify the bodies but by early 2010 the International Commission on Missing Persons (an NGO), had used DNA samples to identify more than 6,400 individual victims.
Today you can visit the town of Srebrenica and the nearby Potocari memorial where you will find over 8000 war graves. Tours go from Sarajevo and are bookable online.
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
The world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant some 110 miles North of Kyiv exploded. The disaster was a result of both design flaw and human error. The exclusion zone was created in a 30 mile radius of the power plant – a no go zone as the radiation was so strong. The nearby town of Pripyat was evacuated, although not soon enough.
The official numbers from the SSSR (Soviet Union – the Marxist-Leninist state in Eurasia that ended power in 1991) state that there were 31 deaths as a result of Chernobyl. In actual fact it was more like hundreds of thousands. The original direct deaths were mainly the fire fighters who were first on the scene (radiation poisoning) and the helicopter pilots that crashed into the power plant when they got too close. These SSSR figures do not take into account deaths through radiation based cancer, death of children in the womb at the time the disaster took place and long term effects of radiation on generations to come.
It is possible to visit Chernobyl – it’s one of the best dark tourism destinations in the world. The radiation levels are now (arguably!) low enough for people to visit without any adverse effects on radiation.
If you visit Chernobyl or Pripyat today you will be greeted by a ghost town – everything pretty much left as it was during the immediate few days that followed the disaster. Most tours of Chernobyl include Chernobyl, Pripyat, the Power Plant and Duga (an abandoned antenna system that was part of an early missile warning network).
This former prison island in the Bay of San Francisco, USA, is one of the world’s well known dark tourism destinations. Many tourists visit Alcatraz, known as ‘the Rock’ from San Franscisco.
Alcatraz was decommissioned as a military garrison in 1907, and then it became a military prison in 1915. The prison held ‘conscientious objectors’ as inmates during the first world war, as well as it’s regular criminal prisoners. It has housed some of the world’s toughest and most infamous criminals and gang leaders including ‘Al Capone’.
Alcatraz opened to visitors in 1972. In order to visit, you need to buy a ticket on the pier and then board a ferry at Alcatraz docks. You will be able to see the cell blocks, guard houses and several exhibitions.
Why it’s important? To understand US Military history and the battle of Alcatraz.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
On 6th August 1945 the USA dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and this was closely followed by the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9th August.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum explores the destructive effects of nuclear warfare on individuals and on the world. It presents a message of peace through a look at survivor histories and exhibits on Hiroshima City and Japan before and after the atomic bomb. The ‘atomic bomb dome’ remained semi-intact despite being directly underneath the explosion. Residents decided to keep it that way as a memorial and reminder of the horrific impact of war. The atomic bomb dome became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1966. While you are there you can strike the ‘peace bell’ and a few words or a prayer.
There is also an Atomic Bomb museum in Nagaski, the site of the second Nuclear Bomb during WW2. The museum contains research rooms, video screening and an extensive exhibition showing what Nagasaki was like right after the bombing. A clock which stopped at 11:02, the exact time the bomb landed, is displayed to demonstrate how so many people were killed in an instant.
As the survivors are reaching old age, it is becoming more and more important to have destinations like this to educate future generations.
War Remnants Ho Chi Minh City
From Nov 1955 – 30 Apr to Vietnam War occurred between communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and the United States as it’s Ally. It was intensified by the cold war and more than 3 million people (over 58,000 Americans) were killed.
If you visit the Ho Chi Minh War Remnants Museum you will be greeted with the unexpected – An American helicopter, fighter plane and a tank. Whilst these are striking, what’s inside is harrowing. The photographs of mamed bodies and corpses of children are not ideal for anyone of a nervous disposition.
Why is it important? To remember the victims and understand how the Vietnam war has shaped modern day Vietnam.
The Berlin wall was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin between 1961 and 1989. It was built by the Communist Government of East Germany (Germany was split into East and West Germany at the time) apparently to keep the people in, but people in West Germany believed that it was built to keep capitalism out. It became one of the most prominent symbols of the iron curtain (the boundary that divided Europe in two political areas: Western Europe with political freedom and Eastern Europe under communist rule).
It is possible to visit the Berlin wall today, along with several remaining towers and checkpoints. The Berlin Wall is one of the best free dark tourism destinations. The most popular places to visit are:
- Checkpoint Charlie (Crossing point)
- Bösebrücke (Border crossing)
- East Side Gallery (below)
- Potsdamer Platz (Memorial)
- Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer)
Ground Zero New York
The 9/11 Memorial Museum has been set up to remember the victims of the September 11th 2001 terror attack on the twin towers. Two planes were hijacked and crashed into the towers just minutes apart killing everyone on board. The towers were not evacuated quickly enough costing further loss of life.
On a positive note, at the memorial museum, you can listen to personal stories of remembrance and resilience following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is possible to book tickets in advance to skip the line.
Further Reading on Dark Tourism Destinations
- Plea of the Atomic Bomb Survivor
- Black Lives do Matter
- Vietnam War History
- Berlin Wall Map
- Building of the Berlin Wall
- Further Reading – ‘Night’ by Elie Weisel