The first question to ask yourself is, if you are a regular tourist and then decide if you are or might be in future, a dark tourist. You may not have thought about it up to now. The term has been around for some time but has come to even more prominence through the Netflix series, A Dark Tourist. When you visited Cambodia, did you visit the Killing Fields? Maybe you took in a day trip to Auschwitz or climbed the Tower of London. If you yourself have not, then the likelihood is there is a dark tourist among your friends
Dark Tourism is the same as regular tourism, but instead of the ‘travelling’ part by itself, it involves travelling to places that have witnessed tragedies of varied descriptions. These places are usually historical in nature. Although some push the boundaries and will visit parts of Iraq, Syria or Nigeria. Ravaged by armed groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and others, places like Iraq still receive a large number of tourists each year. People that visit are adventure, culture and social seekers who know that each new destination offers a unique experience.
We are long familiar with terms like adventure tourism, eco-tourism, sport tourism, agri-tourism, full blown war tourism and of course, space tourism. Tourism as a whole, with the advent of cheaper air travel, a more interconnected world and changing tastes, has evolved to cater for over 1.2 billion tourists each year. It was inevitable that dark tourism would evolve the way that it has. Dark tourists are not inherently dark people which is welcome to know! They are more so looking for an adventurous and unique experience that is outside of the ordinary. It’s important to mention that no countries reputation is limited by its attraction of dark tourism. As dark tourists know, the particular site of tragedy or death at their destination is really a fraction of what they will experience during their time in the country. A visit to Chernobyl for example allows some space to see great cities like Kiev or Odessa and easily onto any one of Moldova, Romania or Belarus.
For the purposes of this piece of writing, we will look at some of the slightly more accessible destinations on the dark tourist destination map.
Chernobyl - You may not think that the site of one of the world’s worst environmental disasters sees around 60,000 tourists each year. But It does. A visit here is fascinating. A vast area surrounded by nature where you visit the destroyed reactor, now covered with an enormous sarcophagus. You can also visit Pripyat abandoned city. It is unusual to walk around a city built for over 50,000 inhabitants complete with all the community amenities and facilities a town of this size would need. You can explore the area, which is made all the more interesting due to for its time, being an ultra-modern soviet utopia surrounded by forests. You will get a real feel for how spectacular both rural Ukraine and Belarus are, and maybe be surprised that the area is an ecological reserve where a wide variety of wildlife thrive such as elk, wild boar and wolves.
Turkmenistan – it is difficult to think initially about why Turkmenistan could be a dark tourist destination. Its snow white, sleek and modern capital city, Ashgabat is anything but dark. However, government controls here are tight and have been since the country was governed by its eternal president Saparmurat Niyazov, who constructed much of the city buildings and monuments. The country is opening up ever so slightly, however it is one of the most difficult to travel to as a tourist with only a few thousand visas issued each year. So why go there? Well, in addition to the peculiarity of life in the City of White Marble, the jaw dropping Darvaza Crater (Gates of Hell) is an incredible experience. Turkmenistan is also home to the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa and The Yangykala Canyon. Throw in the hospitality of the people and you have a travel experience like few others. Our last group to Turkmenistan for the independence day festivities ended up on Turkmen national TV.
Eritrea – a country that became more familiar in Europe with the 2015 refugee crisis and one that still has a high number of citizens leaving to seek a better life abroad. Although it doesn’t have a reputation as a top dark tourism destination, it is often referred to as Africa’s North Korea, and the country is ruled with an iron fist. Life is tough for the resilient and extremely friendly locals. That’s the dark, so where is the light? Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city is like a film set from a vintage Italian movie. Old-school Italian coffee machines and unbelievable examples of Art-Deco architecture. Crime against tourists here is virtually unheard of, the streets are immaculate, peaceful and incredibly welcoming. Dahlac Marine National Park, which is an archipelago of over 124 Red Sea Islands is also located in Eritrea.
Cuba – I hear you say! Is Cuba a dark tourism destination? It can be, it depends on where you choose to visit and what you would like to see. A resort hotel by the beach is a long way from Chernobyl, but in Cuba too there are places to make the most discerning of dark tourists excited at prospect of checking out. On group tours and customised date tours, you visit the best beaches, drink in some very cool bars, enjoy excellent food and visit 5 Cuban cities. You can enjoy all that but still experience something related to dark tourism. For example you can visit an off the tourist trail, and until recently closed off, Soviet storage facility for thermo nuclear warheads.
Dark tourist sites and places of interest are not necessarily unsafe. Quite the contrary usually speaking. Often, dark tourist sites and locations are in areas of extremely high security and often in countries that are as receptive of foreign visitors as your own. You just won't know that until you experience it for yourself. For example, for dark tourists that are most interested in political or governmental 'darkness' they may decide to finally visit somewhere like North Korea, often in a dark tourists radar, and see what it is like for themselves. Taking this example, for anyone that has been to North Korea they are will likely tell you that safety there is paramount. Incidents against foreign visitors are almost unheard of. Chernobyl is another example, in addition to having anywhere from 1-3 official guides and minders with you, one cannot get anywhere near the exclusion zone without first passing through several military checkpoints.
Sites with dark tourist appeal are sensitive in nature, not only from an international point of view but more importantly, for the people that live in the locality. It is important to show due respect when visiting a site of any tragedy and follow the advice of your local guide. This should be common sense, for some dark tourist destinations it can often be better to leave the selfie stick at home. In reality, dark tourists themselves are most interested in the history and legacy left by the events that unfolded there and understand the sensitivities of a place better than most.
It depends on what interests you the most. If you do not fancy taking a trip to another country, maybe you can find a site for a dark tourist that would give some of the biggest dark tourism places in the world, a run for their money! Interested in the Supernatural? One can imagine there is a haunted house or tree fort not too far from where you live. Longing for the macabre life? Arrange a dark tour of your nearest castle and let them tell you about the fate of thieves or those who fell afoul of the household. Hell, just head down to your local cemetery and stroll around until you find the meanest person buried there. At this point you may as well be a card carrying dark tourist.
But, locations of interest to dark tourists are varied in terms of who they might appeal to. Interested in countries that are governed completely differently to your own and thereby meaning very different lives for the people that live there? North Korea, Turkmenistan, Belarus or Eritrea could be right up your dark street. If you are more interested in dark tourist sites of ecological disaster and social collapse, then Chernobyl or Fukishima would be a fascinating visit. Perhaps there was a point in history that has always interested you, such as the Cuban Missile crisis. Then no trip to Cuba would be complete without a visit to an off tourist trail Soviet nuclear missile base.
Options are a plenty for dark tourism destinations, the most important thing to remember is that apart from visiting the darkest of dark sites, once you leave you can switch off and enjoy whatever else the country or city you are visiting has to offer. Dark tourism doesn't have to permeate the food you eat, the hotels you stay at or the bars you drink in!
At Global Village Tours we would not describe ourselves as a dark tourism tour operator. Certainly not when we eat BBQ on the beach in Cuba, hike around the majestic Namsto Lake in Tibet or pay a visit to Persepolis in Iran. Sure though, the destinations where we travel are unapparelled in terms of their allure for adventure seekers and there may be some small instances of dark tourism interest in some itineraries.
Our philosophy is simple, we take our customers to completely unique destinations either as part of one of our group tours or a customised tour on what is a cultural and social adventure rat We plan unrivalled, authentic itineraries and give our customers a week they will remember for a long time.
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