Courting Controversy – 5 of the World’s Most Questionable Attractions

For some of us, visiting the popular tourist attractions around the world adequately satisfies our naturally inquisitive nature. Locations such as the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China are morally safe visitor destinations.

The Great jump at the Great Wall of China.

Generally speaking, ethics are not questioned, nobody scowls when you mention where you’ve been, and a good time is had by all. But what about those attractions on the planet that court controversy? Places that raise an eyebrow or garner a disapproving comment should you choose to pay them a visit. Some of you might be familiar with the term “dark tourism” – a phenomenon whereby tourists deliberately seek out locations of suffering and death – a practice that has been steadily increasing in popularity for some years. Let us take a look at five controversial tourist “attractions”…

Auschwitz-Birkenau

If you’re looking for the poster boy of dark tourism, you’re most likely to see the infamous train gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Located a short distance outside of Krakow, Poland, the Nazi death camp needs little introduction.

The site of the extermination of a disputed number of Jews and POW’s (estimates vary wildly from 510,000 to 4.1 million); nonetheless it stands as the location of the largest mass murder in history. Today it serves as a memorial and museum, a sobering and emotional reminder of the tragedy that occurred behind the barbed wire. It’s important to pay your respects here at least once, but what isn’t OK is posing for grinning selfies beneath the notorious “arbeit macht frei” iron gate. That needs to stop.

Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Ground Zero

The world watched in horror on the 11th September 2001 as two hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Centre in New York, and everything changed. Ten years later the city completed the memorial and museum, but visitors had been flocking to the site no sooner than the dust had settled.

One of the most respected places in the USA.

The memorial consists of a list of the victims of the attack, as well as two large sunken voids where the towers once stood, into which flow serene waters. Guided tours of the site are available, but while the site itself is respectfully done, the souvenir shop has attracted heavy criticism for tasteless, cash-in items. Nonetheless, Ground Zero will continue to receive millions of visitors a year.

Pripyat, Ukraine

When the nearby Chernobyl power plant exploded on the 26th of April 1986, the town of Pripyat was evacuated. A population of just under 50,000 was relocated while some 500,000 workers valiantly attempted to contain the radiation. 31 people died in the first few days, a figure that has been on the rise in the years since the disaster, an event which ultimately led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In 1986, a sudden surge of power during a reactor systems test destroyed Unit 4 of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union.

Pripyat has become an eerie tourist attraction; an uninhabitable ghost town reclaimed by nature, but still containing fascinating artifacts, belongings and buildings reminiscent of its once human presence. Gas masks, school text books, dolls, shoes and toys litter the abandoned school. The famous Ferris wheel stands lonely in the crumbling amusement park. Soviet iconography is evident across the urban decay. It’s a photographer’s paradise and little wonder it attracts so many curious visitors – strictly by guided tour only.

The Killing Fields, Cambodia

From 1975 to 1979, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia with an iron fist. During those bloody years, more than one million people where executed on various sites around the country. The communist party in power suspected the victims of being in contact with foreign governments, or supporting Cambodia’s previous one. Also known as the Cambodian Genocide, around 20,000 mass grave sites have been excavated following the killings, with expectedly macabre results. Located at Choeung Ek, 17 kilometres south of capital Phnom Penh is one such site, and includes a stupa containing thousands of human skulls and bones. It is estimated around 800 tourists a day visit this location alone – which hampers preservation when people don’t respect it.

North Korea

You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors – and this is certainly the case when it comes to the mysterious, secretive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. You’ve all heard the stories of a brainwashed populous, concentration camps and killings, but regardless tourists still want to peek behind the curtain. We certainly did, and side on the opinion that it’s important for the outside world to not forget the people there, who we found to be warm and welcoming during our recent visit.

Inside the Pyongyang Metro.

The country is certainly becoming more open to visitors, but with the current climate and a madman rattling his sabre in the White House, the prospects for tourism here could be very dark indeed.

“With its mosaics, chandeliers and gilded statues, the Pyongyang metro can feel more like a series of palatial ballrooms than a subway.” – The Guardian.

Dark tourism shows no signs of slowing down its appeal, and with these five examples we’ve only scratched the surface. There’s something fascinating about the macabre, which continues to grab the curiosity of tourists and drive them to visit sites of death and suffering – perhaps as a way of understanding. But there are important points to note and lessons to be learned if you’re planning on following in dark footsteps:

Be respectful

Laughing and joking with your tour group while visiting a mass grave site is a no-no. Obey the rules. If there’s a sign which says no noise – then don’t make a noise. Wear appropriate clothing, and respect local customs.

In places like this one, laughing and joking with your tour group while visiting a mass grave site is a no-no.

Don’t take giggling selfies in a location where millions of people perished. Sheer idiocy.

Only take pictures

Unless of course you’re not allowed to – as some sites forbid photography. But certainly don’t remove anything to claim as a souvenir. At Prypiat this is likely to be covered in radiation. In Cambodia – it’s not unknown for tourists to take human bones. Don’t be so silly.

Only leave footprints

As well as not taking anything, likewise don’t leave anything. Littering at a memorial site isn’t a clever idea. And don’t even think about causing any damage.

Now it’s over to you. Have you been to any of these locations? What are your thoughts on dark tourism? Where would you like to visit?

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12 Comments

  • I think that these places are just as important to visit as the glitzy ones. Well, somewhere like Auchwitz I mean. To realise the scope of humankind at its worst as well as at it best or most beautiful. Great post

    • Thanks a lot, Andrew. Auschwitz should be added to your bucket list for sure. My mom is a historian and she always wanted me to go there so I did last summer which turned out to be a very emotional place to experience.

  • I read somewhere that there’s is a growing trend of people participating in dark tourism more and more nowadays. I mean, I am also interested in dark tourism as well, not for the excitement, but for the history and lesson it could teach me personally. The problem with some people is that they are there for a photo op which is just wrong.

    I think the key is to be respectful which should have already been a common thing to do for tourists but unfortunately, that is not the case. Taking smiley photos with stupid poses in Auschwitz is a no-no. You will not believe how many tourists I saw at Auschwitz that do not understand human decency.

    It’s good that you raise this point though, as more and more tourists are visiting places like these more.

    • Most of the time thanking photos in such places isn’t right, but when I was exploring Auschwitz we were allowed to take a few images for the blog to share with our readers so they know more or less what this place is like. However, we did hear some stories of people who took selfies which is absolutely wrong and inappropriate in many ways. :(

      Yes, the key is to be respectful and tactful!

  • I haven’t been to Pripyat, North Korea and the Killing Fields in Cambodia but would love to try to go there to know personally how would I feel or how it feels like to be on a place that is somewhat mysterious and unlikely place for a tourist to be visiting. Thanks for this amazing write up, Agness!

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