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Dark Tourism and Fascination With Strange Places

Dark tourism in Sulawesi Indonesia

The terms “dark tourism” and “dark tourists” have been around a long time, but the Netflix show that has been running the past couple years shined a brighter light on the fascinating and even dangerous places that pull in tourism based on death, tragic history, or disasters.

I’ve never been one to seek out these places as my main goal, but occasionally if I’m there, it’s a “Why not?” kind of thing. For others though, dark tourism can be their primary driver for visiting in the first place.

At my Perceptive Travel online magazine, we’re running a whole dark tourism issue this month, rounding up some of the stories from our past that stray out of the light. One of them actually had the phrase in the title, while the others overlap with places visited on the Netflix show Dark Tourist.

First up, a story we published a couple years ago was about visiting the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health, the historic building where One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed. Check out this story titled, “Compassionate Education Versus Dark Tourism at an Oregon Mental Hospital,” by Teresa Bergen.

Chernobyl dark tourists destinationFor a lot of bad reasons, Chernobyl has been in the news a lot lately and the recent miniseries on TV showed just how badly everyone screwed up when the Russian nuclear reactor melted down. Thanks to heavy promotion by Ukraine though all these years later, the abandoned site has become a big draw for thrill-seeking dark tourists. Tom Coote gave us the scoop back in 2015 with Chernobyl, Mutate and Survive.

Coote apparently had an eye for this type of thing…or just strange tastes in travel attractions. Back in 2016, he also highlighted the strange relationship and fascination many people in Colombia have with the murderous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. See Complicated Crime and Punishment in Colombia.

Imagine if an oceanfront resort city like Cancun or South Beach got invaded by soldiers and everyone who lived and worked there was forced out. Now imagine that the place is still empty 45 years later and you can’t go in unless you’re in the Turkish military or you’re a UN peacekeeper. That’s what Darrin DuFord found in Cyprus, on an island shared uneasily by Greece and Turkey. See his award-winning story, The Concrete Corpses of Cyprus.

I visited Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia in the mid-90s, long before anyone called it a “dark tourism” destination, so observing local funeral rites there is nothing new. It was tough to stomach then though and it still can be for outsiders since very little has changed for generations. Many travelers who come to observe a funeral celebration there don’t realize what a bloodbath they are in for. Marco Ferrese gets more gore than he bargained for in Bring Your Daughter to the Torajan Slaughter.

Benin voodoo dancerThe travel stories we featured in this dark tourism issue aren’t the only five that veer into this subject area, of course. We’ve got a great piece from James Dorsey on voodoo in Benin back in 2012, for starters. (Plus I’ve talked about Day of the Dead in Mexico on this blog a few times.) One writer apparently encountered a nuclear lake and its effect on the locals in Kyrgyzstan.

Stay tuned for new issues and you’ll probably see another dark travel story or two in the coming months. We like to go where the mainstream travel press is not going and seek out interesting stories.

Sign up for the monthly newsletter there and you will have a good shot at some of the travel gear we give away there each month. From a heavy-duty rechargeable flashlight to a new travel backpack, we set someone up well each month when we put out a new issue.


Ari ale

Friday 13th of September 2019

Hi very very good your post and website. thanks ari ale


Monday 9th of September 2019

Thanks, Tim, for another excellent newsletter. I'd just like to point out that Cyprus is not "shared uneasily by Greece and Turkey". It is a sovereign nation divided into two parts, populated by Greek Cypriots (the south) and Turkish Cypriots (the north).

Tim Leffel

Monday 9th of September 2019

I'd still consider that an island shared, the same as Hispaniola or Borneo.