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Dark Tourism: Why are Travellers Attracted to Sites of Death and Disaster?

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In the book 'Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster,' written by Malcolm Foley and John Lennon defined the concept as travelling to sites associated with death and suffering.

Hawaii, the Caribbean or the Riviera? No, thanks! When it comes to vacations, fans of so-called dark tourism would rather head to places that have witnessed some of history’s darkest hours, or check out natural disaster zones, treading a fine line between voyeurism and remembrance.

If you’ve got a taste for the macabre, the disturbing and the darkest corners of history, then dark tourism could be just the ticket. This travel trend was spotted by two American researchers, Malcolm Foley and John Lennon, in the ’90s. In their book “Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster," the authors defined the concept as travelling to sites associated with death and suffering. Nothing very cheerful, in short.

But dark tourism now has something of a following. So much so that it now has its own set of top must-see destinations. Leading the way are sites of nuclear disasters. These include Fukushima in Japan, of course, but also the lesser-known Pripyat in Ukraine — a ghost town next to Chernobyl — or Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) in Kazakhstan, a former site for Soviet nuclear testing.

Note, however, that tourists venturing into these areas potentially put their health at risk, as, for their part at least, the effects of radioactivity are still bound by the borders between pleasure tourism and dark tourism. Other travelers have a passion for visiting prisons, such as Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco or the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia, where the detainees of the Khmer Rouge police were imprisoned.

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While some have no qualms about visiting disaster zones like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — just for fun — others are tempted by tours of questionable taste. In Medellín, Colombia, for example, tourists can visit the city “in the footsteps of Pablo Escobar." In Rwanda, unscrupulous tourism companies offer tours taking in the great apes as well as the Tutsi genocide. Finally, some people are ready to pay good money for a chance to stumble across a corpse in the Aokigahara forest, better known in Japan as the “suicide forest."

So while curiosity and remembrance are an integral part of tourism, travellers can decide for themselves just how dark they’re prepared to go.

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first published:July 01, 2021, 16:35 IST