'Dark' tourism: walk through the valley of the shadow of death

When you think of Chernobyl — if ever, the last thing you probably imagine is that it welcomes over 10,000 tourists a year.

The site of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Russia has built around itself an aura of mystery and intrigue, like so many other places that have been witness to catastrophes and disasters. Tourism departments are now cashing in on a trend called dark tourism. It involves travelling to places which have witnessed mass human suffering and tragedies. These include sites of terrorist attacks, murders or good ol’ haunted houses.

'Dark' tourism: walk through the valley of the shadow of death

Take the Nazi concentration camps around Germany and Poland for instance. Most of the camps remained intact after the close of the War, and have become popular tourist sites today. Or maybe you could head over to North Korea. Yes, people do travel to North Korea. Most return as well.

Under the watchful eye of the state there, you will be monitored by guides at every step. You will be fed frightening amounts of propaganda. And remember to adhere to discipline as breaking even the slightest law could subject you to torture, prison or both. Of course, your passport is seized on arrival.

'Dark' tourism: walk through the valley of the shadow of death

Fancy a rendezvous with an ancient Egyptian curse? The Valley of the Kings, Luxor, might be just the place for you. It is said that the excavation of King Tutankhamen’s tomb unleashed a curse that triggers endless death and suffering. The legend decrees that this curse can only be turned back when King Tut is returned to the site and the tomb shut. The tomb will indeed be permanently shut soon — but only to tourists, after they were found to have caused heavy damage to the chambers.

Moving further East, Japan’s Aokigahara Forest might also be worth your while. Known as Japan’s Suicide Forest, this is one of the world’s most ‘popular’ suicide spots, with more than a 100 suicides in 2003, according to reports. At the base of Mount Fuji, the forest is dense, and cellular reception is minimal. And several trees are plastered with motivational messages, such as ‘Your life is a precious gift from your parents’.

'Dark' tourism: walk through the valley of the shadow of death

Closer home, two of India’s most popular dark tourism sites are Kuldhara and Bhangarh, both in Rajasthan. Less than 20 kilometres from Jaisalmer, Kuldhara was a prosperous village till a point in the 19th Century, when overnight, the village, and 83 others surrounding it were abandoned. Nobody knows where the people went, or why. The ghost town is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rajasthan, with people trying to tease answers out of the ruins. According to Karan Anand, Head of Relationships, Cox & Kings, Jallianwala Bagh is amongst the most popular dark tourism destinations in the country, and remains popular throughout the year.

'Dark' tourism: walk through the valley of the shadow of death

Vikas Bhanushali, 31, who visited Kuldhara a few years ago says he was intrigued by it. “Think about it. Villages that just vanished overnight. It’s scary, because it could happen to any of us.”

Peter Hohenhaus, a Vienna-based dark tourism enthusiast, who runs the website, says, “Most dark tourists visit these sites not as ‘conscious dark tourists’, and will probably not even have heard of the term ‘dark tourism’.”

It is easy to label dark tourism as a voyeuristic pleasure with moral and ethical grey areas. But Hohenhaus denounces this, claiming that people often have their own varied reasons to visit a spot of human tragedy. “Accusing the 1.8 million annual visitors at Auschwitz collectively as mere voyeurs is absurd. And if you ask visitors you tend to get different answers, like ‘paying respect’, ‘coming to learn’, ‘feel an obligation to have seen this’.”

'Dark' tourism: walk through the valley of the shadow of death

Anand says, “There are a set of travellers who step out to experience something new, no matter if it’s a weird thing to do.” He also notes that there was a surge in tourist interest in the Chabad House, Oberoi Hotel and Taj Mahal hotels after the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. “There is a growing demand for creepy characters, unpleasant history and mysterious places. Some people find it thrilling and entertaining, while others are keen to know the truth behind these stories,” he adds. “This trend that started quite sometime ago has picked up over the last four or five years. It is most attractive to people between the ages of 35-50,” he concludes.

So, as we approach Halloween, give the beaches and hills a break, and take a trip to the world of the dark and despairing. And don’t forget to carry your selfie stick.

Eerie tales

Here are some of the other popular destinations:

  • American serial killer Dorothea Puente’s house in California.
  • Dubbed the ‘Death House Landlady’, she was charged with the murder of nine of her tenants.
  • The Cambodian ‘Killing Fields’, where thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime were buried.
  • The Glamis Castle, Scotland, where the Monster of Glamis still roams, or is confined to one of the chambers, depending on which story you buy.
  • New South Wales’ Monte Cristo Homestead is said to be the ‘most haunted house in Australia’. It’s seen everything from torture, to murders and hosts a ‘ghost tour’ as well.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 12:30:31 AM |

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