Riveting, tragic and insightful; HBO’s historic drama Chernobyl skillfully unfolds the events that occurred during the catastrophic nuclear disaster of 1986 in Ukraine. Following the colossal success of the show, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has drawn millions of curious tourists, eager to add to their knowledge and experience a more up-close interaction with the dark slice of history. Engaging with places that have been known to represent death, tragedy and suffering has been termed Dark tourism. Increasing participation and awareness of dark tourism have even led to an in-depth portrayal of the industry through a Netflix show called Dark Tourist. Recently, however, this form of tourism has drawn flak and media scrutiny. And there are multiple valid reasons for it.
When I was young, I was introduced to the harsh reality of political, natural and manmade tragedies through my civics textbook. Upon reading about Guantanamo Bay, I refused to talk to anyone for an entire day, completely distraught by the incidents of the past. It is undeniable that heart-wrenching stories in history are impactful and hold explanations for the present state of the world. And it is only upon studying and understanding this history, that one can gain perspective to the social, economic and political conditions of today and ensure to avoid any resurfacing of such tragedy.
Apart from morbid conditions that seem to define these attractions, one cannot discount the fact that these spots are steeped in historical significance. In my opinion, exposure and acceptance of the dark side of history -just like the more victorious and pleasant events- is vital for reasons mentioned above.
If dark tourism seems so profound theoretically, what has made the unusual outlook on history so infamous? Two words, social media. As a millennial, social media is inevitably appealing to me and can be used to connect and share information cross-culturally. However, the same can be - and unfortunately, often is- misused to glorify and glamourise misfortune on one’s account to gain followers. A quick search through different platforms expose disrespectful and frankly, unnecessary portrayals of these iconic sites. Sexualised selfies and derogatory acts caught on video mock the emotional value of these places. In fact, Craig Mazin, the writer of Chernobyl took to Twitter to urge people to refrain from such acts. The writer was compelled to discourage these posts when photos of people dropping their protective clothing in an inappropriate manner surfaced on social media.
It's wonderful that #ChernobylHBO has inspired a wave of tourism to the Zone of Exclusion. But yes, I've seen the photos going around.
If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed.— Craig Mazin (@clmazin) June 11, 2019
If you decide to take on a journey to a dark tourism site, ensure clarity of two things: intention and behaviour. An experience like such can be eye-opening and profound if your intentions are honest. Attempts should be made to learn beyond textbooks, gain perspective and exit richer in knowledge, instead of seeking ways to satisfy morbid curiosity.
Intentions can only be conveyed by actions. Do not use the site or its content as backdrop to comical or sexual pictures. Acknowledge the tone of the place and be courteous of it. In addition, jokes made in bad taste, destruction of property and simple put, capitalising on the popular site for personal benefits have led to contemptuous opinions of dark tourism, unfair to those who wish to simply pay tribute or research on the site.
Policing at certain sites has been enforced as a consequence of unappreciated behaviour. For example, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Vietnam now has personnel ensuring that people walk in straight lines and do not partake in out-of-conduct activities.
Let’s keep in mind that although certain places have seen tourist circles and guides glorifying history in order to entice tourists, the dark tourism industry has helped suffered communities share their stories and try to get back on their feet. Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Auschwitz in Poland and Rwanda are prime examples.
If you wish to partake in the culture of dark tourism, check out our list of dark tourism places that will leave you with a newfound respect for these sites.