Earlier this year, VIP and I watched a documentary series on Netflix called Dark Tourist. Journalist David Farrier, New Zealand’s answer to Louis Theroux right down to the floppy hair and square-rimmed glasses, was presenting.
The series followed David as he travelled worldwide, visiting extreme travel destinations – from disaster sites and no-go areas, to war zones and places that practise unusual traditions.
The programmes revealed bizarre (and sometimes horrific) details of events that had taken place – or still do – and was both fascinating and shocking to watch.
The darkest of the dark
Now what typically happens after VIP and I watch a new programme or series together is that it sparks debate.
“I bet you would do that!” VIP suggests as we’re watching David try to sneak into part of the forbidden city of Famugusta in Northern Cyprus.
Well, if I was sure I wouldn’t get caught, he’s probably right – I’m a bit of a daredevil.
But in one episode David is offered the chance to shoot a cow in Cambodia and I can’t watch. (spoiler alert: he backs out of it at the last minute)
Although I’ve done some crazy things in my lifetime – bungee jumping, skydiving and swimming with sharks to name a few, there are some things that I find really upsetting.
I’m too emotional!
For my 40thVIP took me to the Big Apple. It was an epic adventure, spoilt only in part by the horrible cold I appeared to have caught somewhere over the Atlantic.
But that didn’t stop me from pushing through the pain to get out and make the most of our short visit in New York.
On one of the days we found ourselves visiting Ground Zero. For what felt like hours, we watched as the roaring fountains tumbled down into the pits below. And then we read some name plaques and messages to loved ones. It was a poignant moment and I was on the brink of tears the whole time we were there.
VIP asked if I wanted to go inside the memorial museum and I chose not to.
Not because I didn’t think it was important; after all, the terrible event was a piece of history that most of us reading this were alive to witness.
It was one of those days you never forget. I mean, everyone remembers where they were or what they were doing when they heard the news about the collapse of the Twin Towers.
No, I chose not to go inside the museum because a part of me was being selfish. I knew that I’d end up coming away being deeply affected. And on a whistle-stop tour of a city that I had longed to visit, I didn’t want any part of my trip dampened.
I just wanted to remember happy memories….riding bikes in Central Park (and feeling like naughty school kids as we got shouted out by one of the locals for venturing off the path!), our romantic Bateaux cruise and the feeling of the wind in my hair, and the wonderful food tours we experienced, especially the gorgeous cookies on the dessert tour.
These were HAPPY memories, memories that I will cherish forever.
The dark tourist
So for me personally, visiting a place or destination that was once home to a dark event doesn’t hold much appeal.
I’m happy to watch programmes on others venturing off on their dark tourism adventures, but that’s where I draw the line.
So it intrigues me as to what kind of traveller would choose to spend their hard-earned cash visiting places that are historically associated with tragedy and death.
But I appear to be in the minority. And, according to recent statistics, the growth in this type of extreme travel shows no sign of abating.
In fact, according to research undertaken by Kiwi.com, searches for ‘Dark Tourism’ have increased by a massive 307% since 2016.
The company also released details of the top 10 dark tourist destinations that Brits have visited in recent years, including nuclear bomb sites and the birth place of drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar.
The top 10 dark tourism destinations
- Chernobyl, Ukraine: considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history. Dark tourists risk being exposed to lethal levels of radiation in a bid to get a glimpse of the derelict town.
- New Orleans, USA: home to a real life vampire community!
- Phnom Penh (Killing Fields), Cambodia: one of the largest mass grave sites – in total more than a million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime which ruled the country from 1975-1979.
- Pompeii, Italy: In AD 79 the eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated Pompeii and surrounding areas, burying them (and many of its inhabitants) in 4-6m of volcanic ash and pumice.
- Hiroshima, Japan: the first city targeted by a nuclear weapon, when the US Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on 6th August 1945.
- Benin, West Africa: the birth place of Voodoo.
- Medellin, Colombia: once known as the murder capital of the world, where the most powerful drug cartels lived – the most infamous of which was Pablo Escobar.
- Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: otherwise known as “the city of the dead”. As David Farrier said: “If you had a camera in tow, locals refused to talk about their leader. Even if you didn’t, they only nervously said good things. This is a city where political dissent is not allowed.”
- Auschwitz, Poland: the largest of the WWII German Nazi concentration camps featuring preserved gas chambers and artefacts.
- Iraq: with the battle against extremists still raging in the region, fans of dark tourism look to experience war first-hand by visiting the front line.
Dark tourism influences
But perhaps the next generation has much more influence in dark tourism’s popularity than any other previous generation has had at their age.
You might remember when YouTube Star, Logan Paul, visited the Aokigahara Forest in Japan to go camping and do “a fun vlog”.
I suspect that Logan didn’t travel more than 10,000km from the States to Japan just to “make a fun video”.
He was probably well aware that the forest (more appropriately known as ‘Suicide Forest’) was a hotspot for people deciding to end their lives by noose.
And how fitting that one of the bodies should just so happen to make it into his video.
But unlike Logan, if you’re on a dark tourism tour you won’t be made to apologise for travelling to places to ‘check them out’ – or even for documenting them yourself on camera or by video.
But it does make you wonder the massive influence that these social media stars have on future generations.
And it’s this demand for new experiences – no matter how weird – that is keeping the tourism industry on its toes.
We’ve seen massive changes in airline, hotel and cruise ship innovations in recent years, and we’ve also witnessed changing trends in local tourism and living like the locals.
Plus of course, you’ll always see tours for ‘off-the beaten-track’ destinations to explore deeper and more wildly.
And now, as Brits look to ‘go one better’ in exploration, it appears that the demand for dark tourism will continue to soar.
However, I know that 20 years from now, when I’m taking the grandkids off on a holiday, I’ll be more inclined to promote the pleasures of the beach rather than the bravery at the battlefields.
Besides, I reckon dark tourism virtual reality tours from the comfort of their sofa will be commonplace by then!
Would you entertain a dark tourism tour? And if so – where would you head first?
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