According to a recent survey, 68 percent of Americans prefer to bliss out on beach vacations. But in recent years, a new trend in travel has emerged – and it's far removed from getaways with bikinis and palm trees.
“Dark Tourism,” a term coined by professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley of Glasgow Caledonian University, describes travel to destinations associated with death and suffering. It's become so popular that Netflix has even released a new series about it, appropriately titled "Dark Tourist."
Unsurprisingly, the trend is not without controversy; in this age of choreographed Instagram photos, some wonder if visiting places of mass killing, nuclear disaster and oppression trivializes tragedy. Is it appropriate to take selfies on the train tracks at Auschwitz? Is it ok to strike a pose in the abandoned fairgrounds at Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history?
Most would agree it definitely is not. But others argue that Dark Tourism born out of good intentions – a desire to learn, not exploit – can make for a valuable trip.
Here are some intriguing Dark Tourism destinations to consider.
The Village of Oradour-sur-Glane - France
In the wake of D-Day, German troops stationed throughout Nazi-occupied France were ordered to Normandy to stop the allies’ advance. On the way, they were told to flush out any French resistance forces.
In June 1944, the Normandy-bound SS Panzer Division – a German military unit that included tanks, foot soldiers and large-caliber weapons – stormed the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane and murdered 642 villagers. The unsuspecting men, women and children of this rural village were shot, choked or burned alive. Before they left, the Nazis nearly destroyed the entire town.
After the occupation ended, the French decided to keep Oradour-sur-Glane precisely as it was left the day of the massacre. Today, the village, once full of life, acts as a memorial to all who died there.
The buildings still stand wrecked and dilapidated, while the town's butcher shop contains the same abandoned meathooks and scales left to rust the day the SS Panzer Division invaded the village.
To this day, historians can only theorize on the motive behind the killings, given that the people of Oradour-sur-Glane were not involved in the resistance effort.
Sniper’s Alley - Sarajevo
The three-year siege of Sarajevo is remembered as the most protracted in modern history. In May 1992, after a series of attacks on Sarajevo by Nationalist Serbs, and following the European Union officially recognizing Bosnia as an independent state, the Serbs completely blockaded the city.
By the end of the siege in 1995, 11,541 men, women and children were killed in Sarajevo. Some of those deaths occurred on Snipers' Alley, where Serbian snipers hiding in high-rise buildings indiscriminately shot at people, killing them with a single bullet to either the head or the heart.
While Snipers' Alley serves as a morbid reminder of the suffering endured by the people of Sarajevo, scars of the siege remain throughout the city. Near Snipers' Alley, buildings still have the words “Pazi Metak!” – meaning “Caution: bullets!” – spray-painted on their sides, while others still stand pockmarked with bullet holes and shell craters.
Chernobyl - Ukraine
On April 26, 1986, what started as a test to see what would happen if the Chernobyl Nuclear Station lost power became the worst nuclear accident in history. The test caused the station’s reactor No.4 to explode, causing radioactivity levels to rise at an alarming rate, reaching as far as Sweden.
At the time, thousands of workers employed at Chernobyl lived in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, in the Soviet Union. Given Pripyat's proximity to reactor No.4, all 43,000 residents had to evacuate immediately, sealing the town's desolate fate. With the exception of two plant workers who died the night of the accident, no residents perished during the evacuation. However, a few weeks after the accident, records indicate that 28 people died from radiation poisoning.
Today, Pripyat is stuck in 1986, with toys left scattered by fleeing children, a grand piano sitting disheveled in an auditorium, a paint chipped, debris-filled Olympic-sized swimming pool, and the remnants of an abandoned amusement park, complete with a rusting Ferris Wheel and bumper cars.
Punishment Island - Uganda
Akampene Island on Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda has long been known as Punishment Island.
For years, the Bakiga people banished unmarried, pregnant girls to the island to die. Pregnancy out of wedlock not only brought great shame, but also robbed families of bridewealth – the payment made by a man's parents to the family of the bride-to-be. In traditional Bakiga communities, virgin brides resulted in higher bridewealth, usually paid with cows, goats and other livestock.
If a pregnant girl stranded on Punishment Island didn't starve to death, then she died attempting to swim to safety. Survivors of Punishment Island were either rescued by their baby's father, or by a fisherman who wanted to marry but couldn't afford to pay a bridewealth.
Banishments were terminated in the 1940s, but tourists can learn about this history today by renting a canoe or hiring a tour guide to visit the island. While it’s highly unlikely to find bones or decayed body parts scattered about, you can get a sense of what it must’ve been like for a young, pregnant girl to be stranded on the island without food or adequate shelter.
Psychiatric Hospital of Volterra - Italy
Nicknamed "The place of no return," the Psychiatric Hospital of Volterra, or Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, was once an overcrowded asylum in Tuscany, infamous for abuse and cruelty.
Before being shut down by the Italian government in 1978, the hospital was home to 6,000 patients, a mix of the mentally ill and others deemed at the time to be deplorable by society.
Today the decaying building has become a sad testament to the misery the patients endured while receiving treatment at the hospital, the most famous being Oreste Fernidad Nannetti. Locked inside for more than a decade, Oreste used his belt buckle to carve a mysterious series of symbols and shapes into the courtyard walls.
Visitors can explore the hospital by accessing it via what was once the asylum's private street.
Battleship Island - Japan
Before being completely abandoned in the mid-1970s, Hashima Island (often called “Gunkanjima,” or “Battleship Island”) was one of the most densely populated places in the world.
Spanning 16 acres, the island sits on top of an undersea coal mine. During its prime, 5,000 people lived and worked there, helping to fuel Japan's industrialization. But prior to the island’s boom, during World War II, the Japanese government forced hundreds of Chinese and Korean laborers to work the mines. Treated as slaves, the men were tortured, starved, humiliated and murdered. According to one survivor, who was 14 years old when brought to the island, some laborers sealed their own fates by committing suicide.
When the mines dried up and closed in 1974, Battleship Island was left to rot.
Today, the island’s eerie skyline consists of buckling high-rises full of smashed windows. Overturned desks and shelves full of dusty books indicate where a school used to be, while twisted, rusted rods of metal jut out from piles of concrete boulders.
Interestingly, and to the dismay of many of the Chinese and Korean survivors who suffered on the island, Hashima was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
Beelitz Heilstätten Military Hospital - Germany
Beelitz Heilstätten's long history began in 1898, when it was built to treat the growing number of people suffering from tuberculosis. When WWI broke out, the hospital started taking in wounded soldiers, many of whom were casualties of new weapons like machine guns and mustard gas. It continued as a military hospital during WWII, when it tended to injured Nazis.
While accounts vary, some believe a young Adolf Hitler was treated at Beelitz Heilstätten while serving in WWI. In 1945, the Russians swooped in and made it their military hospital until 1995, when it was abandoned.
Only part of the 60-building campus has since then been revived, leaving what's left to deteriorate. A new canopy pathway allows visitors to explore the ruins, and tours are available.
Poveglia Island - Italy
The Venetian Lagoon is home to Poveglia Island, a place where the mentally ill and diseased were once tragically sent to die.
It started in January of 1348, when the Bubonic Plague hit Venice. All who contracted the hideous disease, and those who showed symptoms of it, were quarantined on Poveglia Island and burned in mass graves.
In the early 1920s, decades beyond the days of the Plague, a mental hospital was built on the island. Rumors abound regarding the sadistic doctor who performed twisted experiments on numerous helpless patients. He's believed to have administered lobotomies with no anesthesia, and butchered many of the ill to death. In 1968 the hospital was closed and the island abandoned.
It's estimated that over 100,000 people died on Poveglia, and some even believe that 50 percent of its soil is human ash. Today, visiting the island is considered illegal, but there is an annual Halloween-season boat ride you can book to sail by it.
Lake Chagan - Kazakhstan
In 1965, the Soviet government set off a nuclear explosion in northeast Kazakhstan that resulted in the creation of Lake Chagan, aka “The Atomic Lake.”
The experiment was part of a plan called, "The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions." If successful, the government hoped to use nuclear detonations to facilitate future construction of canals and reservoirs.
After the explosion in 1965, Lake Chagan was filled with water from nearby Chagan River, creating the pit of nuclear water that exists in Kazakhstan today.
While no fish or wildlife live in or go near The Atomic Lake, it's actually considered safe enough for humans to swim in.
Goli Otok Prison - Croatia
Described as a "living hell," Goli Otok, an abandoned prison sitting on an island in The Adriatic Sea, is one of the saddest secrets left over from The Cold War.
In 1948, Yugoslavian Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito broke ties with Stalin and the Soviet Union. In 1949, Tito opened Goli Otok, a political prison and forced labor camp for Stalin sympathizers.
Before 1989, when the prison was closed and the island abandoned, inmates were tortured and starved. Many prisoners who didn't die from the horrid conditions died from suicide. But what made this prison particularly hellish were the beatings that prisoners were forced to inflict on each other.
As author Antonije Isakovic shared in an interview with "The Washington Post,” "New arrivals, together with those inmates deemed still politically unreformed, were forced to run through a corridor of fellow prisoners wielding sticks and whips. The guards stood back and watched as the victim was beaten and verbally abused.”
Travel agencies on the nearby resort islands of Krk and Rab can arrange for excursions to the prison's grounds.
Aokighara Forest - Japan
The Aokighara Forest, at the base of Mount Fuji, has a reputation for being one of the most haunted locations in Japan. The Japanese believe Yurei, the disgruntled spirits of those who died violently or in a tortured mental state, roam Aokighara in perpetual agony. Beyond myth and folklore, the forest is also known as the most popular site in Japan for suicide, earning it the nickname the Suicide Forest.
Every year, volunteers and law enforcement sweep the forest floor in search of corpses and other evidence of suicide. Unfortunately, Aokighara's great density mutes both light and sound, making it an ideal location for someone seeking privacy.
In hopes of curbing Aokighara's popularity, Japanese authorities have stopped publishing suicide numbers linked to the forest. Additionally, signs have been added to the forest's entrance that in Japanese read, "Quietly think once more about your parents, siblings or children" and “Please consult the police before you decide to die!”
The Door To Hell - Turkmenistan
The Karakum desert in Turkmenistan is home to the Darvaza Gas Crater, or as it's locally known, “The Door to Hell” or "Gates of Hell."
In the early 1970s, Soviet geologists ventured to the desert looking for oil. When they thought they found an oil field, they began drilling. It wasn't until the earth underneath their equipment collapsed that they realized what they thought was an oil field was actually a pocket of natural gas.
The collapse created a crater that measured approximately 230 feet wide and 65 feet deep, and it oozed methane natural gas, which in large amounts can inhibit breathing. As wildlife in proximity to the hole began to die, scientists knew they had to do something.
Eventually, they set the crater on fire, thinking the gas would burn out in a couple of weeks. Instead, over 40 years later, the inferno still burns strong.
The area has since been declared a nature reserve, and is best explored at night.
Temple of Rats - India
Many important religious destinations around the world include an element of spiritually significant suffering. Among the most compelling is this marble temple in Deshnoke, a small town in Rajasthan, India, where pilgrims travel every year to worship the Hindu goddess Karni Mata and 20,000 rats.
According to legend, the rats of the Karni Mata Temple, aka Temple of Rats, are all reincarnated descendants of the revered goddess. Her devoted followers consider it an honor to pray, eat and sleep with the rats, and believe it's good luck to drink the water they bathe in.
Although rat excrement covers the floor of the temple, visitors must remove their shoes to enter. And if you should accidentally kill a rat by stepping on it, you must replace it with one made of silver or gold.
However, if you spot one of the few albino rats, it's considered an omen of good luck. The same is true if a rat scurries across the top of your bare feet.
Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden - Thailand
Built in 1986, the Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden in Thailand is another culturally significant religious destination. The site depicts the gruesome forms of torture waiting for sinners in Buddhist hell.
Buddhists believe that when they die, their post-life fate is determined by Phya Yom, the Death King. After he evaluates your worldly deeds, if he concludes you were more sinner than saint, you're sent to suffer in Nakara, the 136 dungeons of Buddhist hell. Each cell inflicts a specialized form of torture, all of which are on graphic display throughout Hell Garden.
While strolling through this morbid garden, you'll see a woman's midsection being compressed in a vice, blackbirds ripping out tongues and feasting on intestines, bodies being churned through something akin to a meat grinder, men hung by their cheekbones and raw skin being ripped off of bodies.
These sinners are not forced to live in hell for perpetuity; eventually they're given a new life through reincarnation.