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Talefeathers: The Latitude 35 Blog

Exploring the Depths of Humanity: Delving Into Dark Tourism

Dark tourism is important to me, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan, at night with stars above

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan

Why do you travel?

I travel to learn more about the world, its people and cultures. I love seeing local nature, eating new (to me) foods, doing fun activities, and sometimes, just relaxing. But I also love learning about history — the good and the bad.

Enter "dark tourism."

Those who know me know that I like the macabre (ghosts, haunted hotels, historic cemeteries, bats, vampires, taxidermy...), but dark tourism isn't that — it's deeper, more serious, more solemn. And very educational.

A pile of victims' shoes at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland.

Victims' shoes at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

What Is Dark Tourism?

Dark tourism, also known as thanatourism or grief tourism, involves visiting places associated with death, suffering, tragedy, or other dark events. It's not about ghoulish thrills or glorifying these events; it's about confronting the past, understanding the depths of human experience, and fostering empathy and compassion.

Why Does Dark Tourism Matter?

While some may find the concept unsettling (and why is that such a bad thing?!), dark tourism serves a crucial purpose. You can certainly read about these places and events, but experiencing them personalizes them in a way no history book can. These sites serve as reminders of the fragility of life and the resilience of the human spirit. They challenge us to reflect on the past and strive for a better future.

A long-deserted building in Pripyat, Ukraine. A lone piano stands on a stage, surrounded by broken furniture and parts of the building.

A long-deserted building in Pripyat, Ukraine

Six Must-Visit Dark Tourism Destinations

Here are a few thought-provoking dark tourism sites to consider for your next trip:

1. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan: Dedicated to the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, this memorial park serves as a poignant reminder of the devastating consequences of nuclear warfare. You can explore the Peace Memorial Museum, hear survivors' testimonies, and reflect on the importance of peace and nuclear disarmament.

2. Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, Poland: This Nazi concentration camp showcases the horrors of the Holocaust. Anne Frank was interned here before moving to Bergen-Belsen, and her mother, Edith, died here. Authors Elie Wiesel and Primo Levy were interned and survived (I highly recommend Night and Survival in Auschwitz). You can explore the barracks, gas chambers, and memorial sites, paying tribute to the millions of lives lost and reaffirming the commitment to never forget — and never let this kind of dictatorship happen again. (Which we're not very good at, are we?)

Inside a school room converted to a prison cell at Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A rusty bowl, metal box, and heavy chain rest on a mattress-less metal bed.

Inside a school room converted to a prison cell at Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

3. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine: The site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, Chernobyl is frozen in time, offering a haunting glimpse into a world abandoned overnight. You can explore the eerie remains of Pripyat, the ghost town near the power plant, and witness nature reclaiming the land amidst the remnants of human civilization. (Of course, wait to visit until the war is over.)

4. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia: Formerly a high school turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge regime, Tuol Sleng stands as a testament to the atrocities committed during the Cambodian genocide from 1975–79. You can tour the prison cells, view haunting photographs of victims, and gain insight into one of the darkest chapters in Cambodian history. I highly recommend a tour guide for this, though there is also an audio guide. My guide survived it as a kid and he made the experience more special. (The Killing Fields is an excellent movie, too.)

Nelson Mandela's small cell at Robben Island, South Africa. There's a mat and blankets on the floor, a covered bucket, and a small table with metal dishes.

Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island, South Africa

5. Robben Island, South Africa: Once a notorious prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held during the apartheid era, Robben Island is now a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over oppression. You can take guided tours led by former inmates who tell you about their first-hand struggles for freedom.

6. National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City:  This site honors the victims of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Twin Tower footprints transformed into reflecting pools, the Heroes' Wall bearing victims' names, and the poignant exhibitions in the museum all serve as a call for unity, resilience, and the fight against terrorism.

Aerial view of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City. There are two big fountains, the museum, and dozens of trees with orange autumn leaves..

Aerial view of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City

Dark tourism may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I believe it rounds out travel in a really important way. If you're willing to confront our history's darker aspects, it offers a unique opportunity for reflection and education.

So, the next time you're planning a trip, consider venturing off the beaten path and exploring a dark tourism destination. It just might be the most profound travel experience you ever have.

Remember: When visiting dark tourism sites, please, please be respectful of the history and those who were affected. Dress appropriately, be mindful of noise levels, and don't take disrespectful photos. Don't steal "mementos" from the sites. And no selfie sticks! These are not appropriate places for smiling and giving the peace sign or thumbs-up while making sexy poses or duck lips at your phone. (Yes, I've seen that!)


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