The seven best dark tourism destinations in the world

Tired of going on beach vacations and always following the same tourist path? Many people choose a more celebratory – some say macabre – alternative, visiting the sites of some of the world’s most horrific catastrophes and mass killings.

Academically known as “thana tourism,” dark tourism involves visiting destinations associated with tragedy, death, and destruction. Places with a bloody past have always been surprisingly popular – think Gettysburg or the Tower of London – but the trend really took off in the 2010s.

Some of the world’s leading dark tourism hotspots are:

  • Chernobyl
  • Murambi Genocide Memorial, Rwanda
  • Hiroshima
  • 9/11 Memorial and Museum
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau
  • Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia
  • Pompeii, Italy

What is the fascination with dark tourism destinations?

John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, coined the term “dark tourism” as early as 1996. Lennon said it’s human nature to be fascinated by such spooky places.

“As a race, we’re fascinated by the worst we can be,” he said news week. “This is reflected in our consumer tastes in many forms, whether it’s a film, a TV series or a book.”

Netflix even released a documentary series on the subject in 2018 –Dark tourist— but despite its popularity, dark tourism is controversial. Many proponents highlight the historical importance of dark tourism destinations, while others see the trend as unethical, especially when coupled with selfie culture and thrills.

Lennon believes these sites have a purpose, particularly from a conservation perspective, but he’s uncomfortable with the commercialization or glamorization of certain travel destinations.

He said: “Sometimes these sites are all that an individual will discover of this story. It is important to preserve them.

“But tourism can be politicized and there is a spectrum from acceptable to unacceptable.

“On one side you have these very important and iconic sites, on the other side [are sites with] a very clear commercial ethos that can be anything but tasteful.”

Whether you’re a dedicated dark tourist or looking for a different kind of vacation experience, these disturbing museums and monuments are visited by thousands of people every year.

Abandoned amusement park in Chernobyl
A ferris wheel in Pripyat’s abandoned amusement park. In 2019, 124,423 people visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the surrounding exclusion zone.
Pe3check/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Chernobyl, Ukraine

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant – site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster – and the surrounding exclusion zone was one of the world’s most popular dark tourism destinations.

Thirty people died after the explosion of one of the power plant’s four reactors in 1986 – two on the night of the accident and 28 from acute radiation poisoning in the weeks that followed, although by some estimates the death toll could be far higher. The explosion released radioactive materials into the environment, with increased levels of radiation recorded as far away as Sweden and the UK.

In 2019, 124,423 people visited Chernobyl, likely influenced by the hugely successful HBO series of the same name. Visitors were able to take a guided tour of Pripyat — where the power plant’s workers were housed and now a crumbling ghost town — and through the massive steel structure that now contains the damaged reactor.

Victims' clothing on display at the Murambi Genocide Memorial
The clothing of the victims on display at the Murambi Genocide Memorial, Rwanda. 50,000 members of the Tutsti tribe were murdered in the former technical school where the Murambi Genocide Memorial now stands.
Christophe Calais/Corbis Historical

Murambi Genocide Memorial, Rwanda

The Murambi Genocide Memorial, one of six national sites commemorating the Rwandan genocide, houses the remains of 50,000 members of the Tutsi community who were slaughtered at this site during Rwanda’s civil war. The group was taking refuge in a technical school under construction when it was overrun on April 21, 1994.

Opened a year after the massacre, the museum features the partially decomposed bodies of 800 victims, who were exhumed, mummified in lime and displayed – including infants and children.

Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan
The Atomic Bomb Dome on the Motoyasu River in Hiroshima. The product exhibition hall now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome was reduced to a shell during the 1945 atomic attack on Hiroshima.
Philipp Fong/AFP

Hiroshima, Japan

When the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, 80,000 people were killed instantly and 70 percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed. Thousands more succumbed to injuries and radiation poisoning in the weeks that followed, with most civilians dying.

Conceived four years later, as the city began to recover, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park features the shell of the Atomic Bomb Dome (formerly the Product Exhibition Hall) and a Peace Pagoda. The site has over a million visitors annually and serves as a memorial to the victims and a reminder of the devastating effects of nuclear war.

9/11 commemoration in 2021
Monica Iken places a photo and flowers on her husband Michael Patrick Iken’s name at the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Since 2014, over 10 million people have visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images North America

9/11 Memorial and Museum, New York

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York honors the victims of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers. Located on the former site of the World Trade Center, the museum uses authentic artifacts, images, and video footage to tell the story of the attacks and share personal stories of loss and recovery from the families of victims and survivors.

Over 10 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 2014, but tourists flocked to the site well before the memorial was erected — in the years after the attacks, an estimated seven out of 10 vacationers in New York City visited the ruins of Ground Zero .

In total, almost 3,000 people died in the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland
A closeup of a flag with the Star of David in front of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. 155 buildings and 300 ruins still stand at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, near Oświęcim, Poland.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

More than a million people died in Auschwitz, one of the largest death camps in history, between 1940 and 1945. About 960,000 of these people were Jews, while other victims were targeted because of their sexual orientation, political beliefs, religion, or ethnicity.

About 155 buildings and 300 ruins still stand at the site near Oświęcim, Poland, and two of the three camps — Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau — are open to visitors. A guide is recommended by the former concentration camp’s visitors’ guide, and tourists are asked to behave with “due solemnity and respect.”

Choeung Ek genocide center in Cambodia
The stupa at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia. The former orchard is just one of many “killing fields” established during the Khmer Rouge regime, with 129 mass graves on site.
Pipop_Boosarakumwadi/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, Cambodia

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in Cambodia was once an orchard and houses the mass graves of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Located six miles from the capital Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was just one of many death fields created during the Cambodian genocide.

Between 1975 and 1979, 17,000 civilians were murdered at the site, 8,985 of the bodies were exhumed in 1980. A 17-storey glass stupa houses 8,000 skulls, and while 43 of the 129 tombs currently remain untouched, fragments of human bones and clothing can be found scattered around the burial grounds.

Information boards placed throughout the site explain the journey taken by the victims in their final days, as well as detailed descriptions of what was discovered in the various burial pits.

Plaster casts of victims from Pompeii
Plaster casts of victims from Pompeii preserved in ashes. After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, an estimated 2,000 citizens of Pompeii died
Mathess/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Pompeii, Italy

As well as being a major dark tourism destination, Pompeii is also one of Italy’s most popular cultural sites, with nearly 4 million visitors to the ruins in 2019. Once a thriving Roman city, Pompeii was submerged under 4 to 20 feet of volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 from

About 2,000 citizens died in the disaster, but the millions of tons of ash preserved many of the city’s buildings and artworks, as well as the shape of the victims’ bodies. Although it would take a tourist three days to fully explore the 525,000-square-foot site, top attractions include the Amphitheater, Forum, and Villa of Mysteries. The seven best dark tourism destinations in the world

Rick Schindler

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