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Tired of beach vacations and the same old tourist trails? Many are choosing the more serious – some might say horrible – alternative and visiting the sites of some of the world’s worst disasters and mass murders.
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Academically known as “tanatourism”, dark tourism involves visiting places associated with tragedy, death and destruction. Locations with a bloody past have always been incredibly popular – think Gettysburg or the Tower of London – but the trend really took off in the 2010s.
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John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, coined the term “dark tourism” in 1996. Lennon said it was human nature to be fascinated by such haunting sights.
. “This is reflected in our consumer tastes in many ways, be it movies, TV series or books.”
— but despite its popularity, dark tourism remains controversial. While many advocates have highlighted the historical significance of dark tourism, others see the trend as immoral, especially when linked to selfie culture and thrill-seeking.
Lennon believes these sites serve their purpose, particularly from a conservation perspective, but he is uncomfortable with the commodification or glorification of specific destinations.
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He said: “Sometimes in all these places a person will find that history. It’s important to preserve them.
“On the one hand, you have these very important and prestigious sites, and on the other hand, [there are sites] with very clear business ethics that can be in poor taste.”
Whether you’re a dedicated obscure tourist or looking for a different kind of vacation experience, these haunting museums and monuments are visited by thousands each year.
A ferris wheel in the abandoned amusement park in Pripyat. In 2019, 124,423 people visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the surrounding exclusion zone. Pe3check/iStock/Getty Images Plus
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Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant – the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster – and the surrounding exclusion zone were one of the most popular dark tourism sites in the world.
Thirty people died when one of the plant’s four reactors exploded in 1986 – two on the night of the accident and another 28 from acute radiation poisoning in the following weeks, although some estimates suggest the death toll could be much higher. The explosion released radioactive material into the atmosphere, raising radiation levels as far away as Sweden and Great Britain.
In 2019, 124,423 people visited Chernobyl, likely influenced by the HBO series of the same name. Visitors can take a guided tour of Pripyat – where the plant’s workers once stayed and which is now a ruined ghost town – and the huge steel structure that now houses the damaged reactor.
Victims’ clothing on display at the Murambi Genocide Memorial, Rwanda. 50,000 Tutsi tribesmen were massacred at the former technical school where the Murambi Genocide Memorial now stands. Christophe Calles/Historical Corbis
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One of six national sites commemorating the Rwandan genocide, the Murambi Genocide Memorial contains the remains of 50,000 members of the Tutsi community who were massacred there during the Rwandan Civil War. On April 21, 1994, the group was housed in a technical school under construction.
Opened a year after the massacre, the museum displays the partially decomposed bodies of 800 victims who were exhumed, mummified with lime and put on display – including babies and children.
Atomic Bomb Dome on the banks of the Motoyasu River in Hiroshima. Now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome, the product display hall became a shell during the 1945 atomic attack on Hiroshima. Philip Fong/AFP
When the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, 80,000 people were killed instantly and 70% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. Thousands of people were injured and died from radiation poisoning in the following weeks, including mostly civilians.
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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was conceived four years later, as the city began to recover, and features the shell of the Atomic Bomb Dome (formerly the Production Exhibition Hall) and the Peace Pagoda. The site receives over a million visitors a year and serves as a memorial to the victims and a reminder of the devastating effects of nuclear war.
Monica Aiken places photos and flowers of her husband Michael Patrick Aiken at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. More than 10 million people have visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum since 2014. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images North America
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 to tell the story of the attacks, as well as share personal stories of loss and recovery from victims and the families of survivors.
More than 10 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 2014, but tourists flocked to the site long before the memorial was established – in the years following the attacks, about seven out of 10 New York City tourists visited the site. Zero.
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Close-up of flag with Star of David in front of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. 155 buildings and 300 ruins still stand at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site near Auschwitz, Poland. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP
More than a million people died at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, one of the largest death camps in history. About 960,000 of them were Jewish, while other victims were persecuted because of their sexual orientation, political beliefs, religion or ethnicity.
With around 155 buildings and 300 remains still standing near Auschwitz, Poland, two of the three camps – Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau – are open to visitors. The tour guide is recommended by the former concentration camp visitor guide, and tourists are urged to treat themselves with “due seriousness and respect”.
Stupa at Choeung A Genocide Center, Cambodia. The former garden is one of several “extermination camps” created during the Khmer Rouge regime, containing 129 mass graves. Pipop_Boosarakumwadi/iStock/Getty Images Plus
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Once an orchard, the Choung Ek Genocide Center in Cambodia contains mass graves of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Located six miles from the capital Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was one of several death camps set up during the Cambodian genocide.
Between 1975 and 1979, 17,000 civilians were murdered at the site, with 8,985 bodies exhumed in 1980. The 17-story glass stupa contains 8,000 skulls, and 43 of the 129 tombs are currently incomplete. Human bones and clothing can be seen scattered around the burial site.
Information boards around the site explain the journey of the victims in their final days, as well as detailing what was found in the various burial pits.
Plaster casts of Pompeii victims preserved in ashes. An estimated 2,000 citizens of Pompeii died after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Math/iStock/Getty Images Plus
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Pompeii is not only a major grim tourist destination, but also one of Italy’s most popular cultural destinations, with nearly 4 million people visiting the ruins in 2019. Once a thriving Roman city, Pompeii was buried under 13 to 20 feet of volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.
An estimated 2,000 civilians died in the disaster, but millions of tons of ash preserved many of the city’s buildings and artifacts, as well as the bodies of the victims. Tourists will need three days to fully explore the 525,000 square meter site, however highlights include the amphitheater, forum and Vila dos Mistérios.
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A Republican donor and top adviser to Florida Governor DeSantis was found dead in December while under investigation for sexual misconduct. Each destination has its station. Bad weather, monsoons, cyclones, hot and cold days can ruin a vacation. But don’t worry, now you can use this cheat sheet for a hassle-free vacation.
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This map is a quick reference for deciding which country you can visit next, considering the weather at its top attractions. The microclimate in different parts of each country can vary.
(Greece, Croatia, Malta, Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Albania, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Slovenia , Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova)
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The easiest way to explore Europe’s attractions is to hop on a hop-on hop-off bus. Check bus passes for Paris, Rome, Barcelona and Amsterdam.
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A rail pass makes exploring East Asia easy. We recommend the JR Pass for Japan, the KR Pass for Korea and the 5D Train Pass for Taiwan.
Traveling to Southeast Asia? Be sure to grab WiFi to ensure you’re always connected, whether you’re in Bangkok, Bali or Hanoi.