Chernobyl and the dangerous ground of 'dark tourism'

Article Image

Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear disaster in 1986, is experiencing bump in tourism since the start of HBO's series "Chernobyl." CNN's Matthew Chance reports.

Posted: Jun 25, 2019 9:40 AM
Updated: Jun 25, 2019 9:40 AM

It's the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, responsible for causing an incalculable number of deaths and exposing millions to dangerous radiation.

It's also a tourism hotspot, a place where visitors seemingly strip off for selfies in front of abandoned buildings and snap artistically macabre shots of ruined relics.

This is Chernobyl, which in 1986 became the scene of the world's worst-ever nuclear disaster when a reactor explosion pumped out radioactive contamination over a huge area, causing widespread human suffering and prompting an entire region to be evacuated.

Today, groups of tourists throng through the abandoned city of Pripyat, next to Chernobyl, to experience deserted nurseries, funfairs, stores and other grim spectacles of the site -- their bleeping radiation monitors adding an eerie soundtrack.

Chernobyl is one of the most popular examples of the phenomenon known as dark tourism -- a term for visiting sites associated with death and suffering, such as Nazi concentration camps in Europe or the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

"It's [...] living on the edge almost -- if you go to a place where people have really died," Karel Werdler, a senior lecturer in history at InHolland University in the Netherlands, tells CNN Travel. "It also confronts you with your own mortality."

Visiting such locations can be an edifying experience, driving home the horrors that humankind or nature is capable of. But the morals and pitfalls of dark tourism, and what constitutes acceptable behavior in such places, are becoming murkier in the social media age.

On the rise?

Chernobyl and Pripyat have been on the dark tourism map since the radioactive Exclusion Zone surrounding them opened up to visitors in 2011, but -- prompted in part by the launch of popular HBO mini series "Chernobyl" -- travel interest in the Ukrainian site has grown considerably in recent weeks, according to tour operators.

"After the show, I started to watch a lot of documentaries to find out more about what happened in Chernobyl, and I found out there are tours and you can come over," one recent visitor, Edgars Boitmanis, from Latvia, tells CNN.

Chernobyl isn't the only site of suffering that's topping "must-visit" lists. Some 2.15 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland in 2018, roughly 50,000 more than the previous year. That's a relatively small increase in numbers, but seems to reflect a global trend.

As international tourism skyrockets -- in 2018, there were 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals -- interest in dark tourism is also escalating.

"We've got two things at play here," says Philip Stone, executive director at the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the UK's Lancaster University.

"We've got dark tourism, which has always been around in different guises. And then you've got the issue of overtourism, where popular sites are becoming even more popular. And then you've got the mass movement of people -- so it's almost kind of a perfect storm."

Stone tells CNN Travel that, while it's impossible to quantify whether dark tourism specifically is growing, because it's too tricky to define the phenomenon, there is growing interest in the concept both academically and in the media.

Defining dark tourism

Dark tourism as a term was coined in the 1990s, by scholars exploring why tourists visited sites associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The concept's also sometimes called thanatourism, -- from the Greek word thanatos, meaning death, or grief tourism.

But visitors were traveling to sites associated with death and destruction way before the '90s.

Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by a volcano eruption in AD79, has been on the tourist trail since the 1700s, and is still one of Italy's most-visited destinations.

"It's not as new as it may seem," says Peter Hohenhaus, who chronicles his experiences visiting dark tourism sites on his website, Dark-Tourism.com.

Tony Johnston, head of Tourism at Althone Institute of Technology in Ireland, says motivations for visiting these places vary from individual to individual, and from site to site.

Some visitors are there just because they're on vacation in the area, others pursue a historical passion. There are also thrill seekers going for "fun," says Johnston -- and a small group might have a morbid interest.

Most tourists behave respectfully, he clarifies.

"Quite often the intention of the visitor is to learn about atrocity or a dark heritage in a useful way, and it could be a reflection on what went wrong in the past and what lessons they can learn from the future so that mistakes aren't repeated again," says Johnston.

Stone, of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, goes as far as to say there's "no such thing as dark tourists."

"People who are either on vacation or on study trips [...] that doesn't make us 'dark', that just makes us interested in what's happening at these particular sites and learning from them," he says.

But, says Rebekah Stewart, communications and outreach manager at the Center for Responsible Travel, a Washington D.C.-based research organization, motivations do matter.

"Before visiting places that are associated with death and tragedy, it's important to reflect upon your intention," she tells CNN Travel. "Are you visiting to deepen your understanding and pay your respects, or are you going to check a box or take a selfie?"

Inappropriate behavior

Recent months have seen some keen to define what is appropriate behavior at such sites.

In March, the Auschwitz Memorial Museum tweeted images of visitors posing on the train tracks outside the camp and wrote: "Remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed."

In June, Twitter user Bruno Zupan shared four photographs of people purportedly visiting Chernobyl. One in particular, showing a woman in a hazmat suit unzipped to expose her underwear, sparked outrage.

Some of the people whose Chernobyl photographs were shared have since spoken to outlets including the i, saying they aren't influencers, arguing that the context of the photographs has been lost or even that they weren't actually in Chernobyl at all.

Still, the viral images sparked a widespread debate on what kinds of photographs -- if any -- are appropriate at dark tourism sites.

Photographer Nigel Walshe, who visited Chernobyl a few years ago and took a series of evocative images in Pripyat, including photographs of an abandoned high school, says he largely avoided images that featured people.

"I also reject the common, but highly intrusive way in which people are often included in pictures of 'dark' scenes, almost as props, to add some 'human interest,'" he says.

Ciarán Fahey, another photographer whose striking images of abandoned sites in Berlin, including one location used for Nazi experiments on prisoners, were spotlighted by CNN in 2017, agrees with Walshe.

"I think respect is simply showing what you find, not bringing adornments, props or anything else. I don't think a fashion shoot in a place where Nazis tortured victims is appropriate or respectful, for example," he says.

For some, any photograph is disrespectful, but selfies are particularly bad.

"It's more than pure narcissism," Darmon Richter, a photographer whose doctorate studies focus on dark tourism, tells CNN. He says the way people communicate now is different.

"More and more people are very visually oriented orientated in the way they communicate with their peers."

Taking photographs, says Stone, is part of how modern day tourists document their travels -- the equivalent of writing "I was here" on a wall, however the egotistical appearance of selfies "doesn't sit well with these sites of conscience."

Ethical consequences

It's not just visitors who need to consider their treatment of sites of tragedy, the experts say.

Werdler, of InHolland University, points out that most tourist attractions need parking spots, bathrooms and food outlets.

"You have to be also thinking about the ethical consequences of entertaining your visitors," he says. "But where do you draw the line?

"I think it is very inappropriate to sit in a restaurant in Auschwitz and eat during my lunch break. But other people have less constraints with that."

The passage of time is also a factor to consider. Pompeii, for example, may feel like a more "acceptable" dark tourism site, because the disaster occurred so long ago.

"Memory is critical," says Johnston. "We will act a certain way around the gladiator outside the Colosseum in Rome, we might stand and pose for a photograph. But this is somebody who represents someone who was employed to quite brutally kill people, but because it was 2000 years ago, and it's distant in the past, it seems temporally acceptable."

Some sites actively try to resist dark tourism.

In Japan, in Fukushima Prefecture -- the site of a 2011 fatal earthquake, devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster -- authorities have made a conscious move away from promoting disaster tourism, instead marketing the region as a safe, interesting place to visit.

As part of that, Fukushima's tourism department head, Jun Muto, tells CNN Travel, they're focusing on "hope tourism."

Muto and his team want visitors to see "the Fukushima that is recovering after the nuclear disaster, but also make sure to see the side of Fukushima full of rich history, nature, and many fantastic sightseeing spots."

Personal stories

So where's the line between a thought-provoking, educational excursion and macabre, misplaced voyeurism?

For some museums and memorials, the key is to concentrate on the human stories behind the mass tragedy, re-centering the victims to the heart of the narrative.

At Japan's newly reopened Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, an extensive two-year renovation lead to an increased emphasis on personal artifacts and survivor's stories.

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum features portrait photographs of the people who were killed on September 11, 2001 and the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Audio recollections from loved ones are accompanied by victims' personal artifacts.

For many visitors to Auschwitz and the other European concentration camps, hearing the victims' stories, and seeing the belongings that were taken from them, is the most impactful and moving part of the visit.

Broadening horizons

Johnston recommends visitors educate themselves prior to their trip, to "really learn about the history of the site, the people that were there, the human stories of the tragedy that unfolded," he says.

Other experts, including Stone, suggest extensive research isn't integral, as long as you go in ready to learn what happened, and respectful of the significance of the site.

In Chernobyl, despite the recent controversies, visitors who spoke to CNN seemed mindful of the horrors that had befallen the location and the lessons on offer.

Among them, Joe Robinson, from Hull in England, said he was risking mild exposure to radiation and exploring the Exclusion Zone around the nuclear reactor to take stock of a situation caused, in part, by catastrophic political decision making.

"There's a consequence of the lies," he says. "You can watch the news and think nothing, but Chernobyl shows how far people would go to protect their reputation."

Dark-Tourism.com editor Hohenhaus thinks this applies to many dark tourism spots.

"If you've encountered and dealt with sites that are very much propaganda-lead -- like Nazi sites, Communism sites, and so on -- then you can see through propaganda better, you recognize it. So it also gives you gives you an advantage outside the tourism sphere."

The key, most experts agree, is to visit responsibly and respectfully.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 33068

Reported Deaths: 2068
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9524558
Lake3494175
Cass15897
Allen141966
St. Joseph122134
Hendricks114268
Hamilton113292
Elkhart110128
Johnson1092106
Madison58459
Porter50522
Bartholomew49034
Clark47941
LaPorte42022
Tippecanoe3823
Howard37824
Delaware37636
Jackson3721
Shelby36822
Hancock32727
Floyd31739
Boone30535
Morgan27724
Vanderburgh2592
Montgomery23417
White2308
Decatur22431
Clinton2221
Noble20421
Grant19721
Dubois1903
Harrison18921
Henry16910
Greene16824
Monroe16512
Warrick16528
Dearborn16521
Vigo1538
Lawrence15223
Miami1401
Putnam1357
Jennings1294
Orange12422
Scott1203
Ripley1106
Franklin1098
Kosciusko1011
Carroll933
Daviess8416
Steuben812
Marshall801
Newton7610
Wayne756
Fayette747
Wabash742
LaGrange682
Jasper661
Washington511
Jay490
Fulton471
Clay461
Rush452
Randolph453
Jefferson431
Pulaski410
Whitley383
Owen351
Sullivan341
DeKalb331
Brown331
Starke323
Perry280
Wells270
Benton260
Huntington262
Knox250
Tipton241
Crawford230
Blackford222
Parke190
Spencer191
Switzerland190
Fountain182
Posey160
Gibson142
Adams131
Ohio130
Warren121
Vermillion100
Martin90
Union80
Pike60
Unassigned0161

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 115833

Reported Deaths: 5186
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook753063519
Lake7933281
DuPage7460350
Kane6083167
Will5356268
Winnebago209153
McHenry148870
St. Clair105077
Kankakee83644
Kendall75119
Rock Island63923
Champaign5957
Madison54557
Boone42416
DeKalb3704
Sangamon34328
Randolph2674
Jackson25610
McLean21613
Ogle2002
Stephenson1992
Macon19219
Peoria1918
Out of IL1831
Clinton18017
Union1519
Unassigned1490
LaSalle14113
Whiteside13412
Iroquois1314
Coles12313
Warren1130
Jefferson10116
Knox960
Grundy952
Monroe9311
McDonough847
Lee791
Tazewell704
Cass690
Henry670
Williamson602
Marion500
Jasper457
Adams441
Macoupin442
Perry410
Pulaski410
Montgomery391
Vermilion381
Morgan341
Christian334
Jo Daviess320
Livingston322
Douglas260
Fayette203
Ford201
Jersey201
Menard190
Mason180
Washington180
Woodford182
Hancock160
Mercer160
Shelby161
Bureau151
Carroll142
Bond121
Franklin120
Piatt120
Schuyler120
Clark110
Crawford110
Fulton110
Brown100
Cumberland100
Logan100
Moultrie100
Wayne91
Alexander80
Henderson80
Johnson70
Massac70
Saline70
Effingham61
Greene50
Marshall50
De Witt40
Lawrence40
Richland30
Stark30
Clay20
Edwards20
Gallatin20
Hamilton20
Wabash20
White20
Calhoun10
Hardin10
Pike10
Pope10
Putnam10
Edgar00
Terre Haute
Overcast
67° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 67°
Robinson
Overcast
65° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 65°
Indianapolis
Broken Clouds
64° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 64°
Rockville
Broken Clouds
63° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 63°
Casey
Broken Clouds
64° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 64°
Brazil
Overcast
67° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 67°
Marshall
Overcast
67° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 67°
Cold Front Approaching
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events