Top 10 dark tourism destinations (including WUHAN!)
11th February, 2023
The top dark tourism destinations in the world are macabre and sorrowful. Yet, this attract millions of tourists each year.
What?! Hang on a minute, I thought holidays were supposed to be fun? Well, it turns out that as our needs and desires change as tourists, we are seeking more unusual, authentic, cultural and educational experiences as part of our overall tourist experience. No, the vast majority of people are not laughing and joking as they walk around cemeteries or former death sites. Instead, they are gaining and insightful and valuable experience.
But what is dark tourism all about? And what are the top dark tourism destinations? Read on to find out…
- What is dark tourism?
- The top 10 dark tourism destinations in the world
- Dark tourism destinations: Further reading
What is dark tourism?
Dark tourism, also known as black tourism, thanatourism or grief tourism, is tourism that is associated with death or tragedy. It is a type of niche tourism.
The act of dark tourism is somewhat controversial, with some viewing it as an act of respect and others as unethical practice. At the same time, many have argued that the best way to understand history is to see it for yourself- and dark tourism attractions do just this.
Dark tourism attractions can be world-famous, such as Auschwitz, Chernobyl and Ground Zero. Dark tourism can also occur in places that are less well known, such as small cemeteries, zombie-themed events or historical museums.
Dark tourism attractions allow us to able to emotionally absorb ourselves in a place of tragedy. This is an excellent facilitator of educational tourism and cultural tourism. By visiting dark tourism sites, we are able to give ourselves time to reflect on history.
Dark tourism takes many different shapes and forms. Some types of dark tourism are extreme and serious (e.g. visiting a concentration camp), whilst others are of a more light-hearted nature (e.g. a zombie-themed running race). To learn more about the dark tourism spectrum and the different types of dark tourism, head on over to my article dark tourism explained.
The top 10 dark tourism destinations in the world
OK, so now we understand what dark tourism is, lets take a look at the top dark tourism destinations in the world…
#1 Wuhan, China
When it comes to new dark tourism destinations, Wuhan is set to top the list.
If you haven’t heard of this somewhat uninspiring Chinese city, then you must have spent 2020 living under a rock! Wuhan was the birthplace of the Coronavirus outbreak…. and apparently it holds plenty of fascination for travellers from across the globe….
Motivated by curiosity and a desire to visit a city that was unwillingly thrust into a global spotlight, tourists and avid travellers have been quick to express their Wuhan desires on social media. People are keen to see for themselves the impact that Covid has had on the city.
Quoted in Vice, Beijing resident Niu Chen said of her September 2020 trip to Wuhan: “I wanted to know more about what was going on and to see it firsthand […] To get a sense of how things were and how people are living their lives now, as well as to look back on what happened.”
Many people see a trip to Wuhan as a way to learn about the pandemic and the way it has changed the world as we know it. Whilst this fascination is yet to be put into practice in large numbers, I foresee an influx of tourists in the coming years.
#2 Chernobyl, Ukraine
Personally, I find this one a little scary still, but evidently not everyone shares my apprehension. The Chernobyl disaster site welcomes thousands of tourists each year, despite ongoing radiation concerns.
So what happened at Chernobyl?
The Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 was one that rocked the entire world, and still impacts local residents to this day. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is located near the city of Pripyat in the north of what was then the Ukrainian SSR. This area is now a ghost town, but one that attracts curious tourists every single year.
Being that it is one of the most well-known disasters to have ever happened, people are keen to see where the events unfolded….
Read more: Chernobyl – 2019 Sky Atlantic Drama [DVD]
Visitors must apply for a day pass at least 10 days in advance, and these are only available through certain established tour operators; you’ll need to show your passport and this permit at various checkpoints at Chernobyl.
Tour operators have professional monitoring equipment with them throughout the tour, meaning they can gauge how much radiation guests are being exposed to; it is safe to visit Chernobyl, but it is recommended that you wear throwaway overalls.
A trip to Chernobyl feels dystopian. It’s like getting a glimpse into the apocalypse, and this is a huge draw for a lot of people.
Regardless, the Chernobyl disaster is fascinating to most people – and the 2019 HBO dramatisation has definitely piqued a lot of peoples’ interest in one of the world’s most popular dark tourism destinations.
#3 Fukushima, Japan
The only other nuclear disaster to be labelled as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Similarly to its Ukrainian counterpart, the location of this nuclear accident is one of the world’s leading dark tourism destinations. Caused by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, this nuclear disaster caused 18 injuries and one indirect death.
A visit to Fukushima can again only be arranged with a tour company. Real Fukushima offer an unbiased look at the disaster and the recovery efforts. This is thanks to permission from the Fukushima Prefectural Government. You can enter the red zone, and see the impact of the disaster. From abandoned cars to bags of contaminated soil, there is plenty to see here.
You can also visit the abandoned town centre of Okuma. It once had a population of 11,000 and now lies empty and semi-destroyed: shops with stock still hanging from rails, a street frozen in time. The tour shows visitors how the earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster affected the area, and how the local people are trying to rebuild their community.
#4 Auschwitz Concentration Camps, Poland
Poland, and Krakow in particular, has shot up the rankings in terms of popular tourist destinations. And many people visit Krakow because it is a gateway to Auschwitz, the most famous World War II concentration camp – and probably the most visited of the world’s dark tourism destinations. Visiting a concentration camp is an incredibly sombre experience. It is also very educational, and helps tourists understand the sheer scale of the holocaust.
Now a museum, Auschwitz can be visited independently or as part of a tour. There is a wealth of information here explaining each part of the camp, and you can see various artefacts here. There are toys belonging to children who were killed, hair shaved from the victims’ heads, suitcases that were packed when the owners believed they were heading somewhere safe.
Read more: The Twins of Auschwitz: The inspiring true story of a young girl surviving Mengele’s hell
World War II is a topic that fascinates many people, and is a topic taught in educational settings too; therefore it is no wonder that visiting concentration camps is something many people aim to do.
#5 Sedlec Ossuary, Czechia
Sedlec Ossuary is one of the lesser-known dark tourism destinations, but still one that is worth visiting. I certainly found it fascinating!
Not far from Prague, Sedlec Ossuary is a church decorated entirely with human bones. It is located in Kutna Hora, which is a short train ride from the Czech capital. The church itself is around 10 minutes from the station on foot, and you can buy a ticket that grants you access to the ossuary itself as well as Saint Barbara’s Cathedral. The money goes towards the upkeep of the churches.
The Sedlec Ossuary is breathtaking – there are bones everywhere. They form chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and they make words on the walls.
You’re face to face with death and morbidity inside this chapel in the middle of Bohemia. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and somewhere you should definitely consider visiting if you’re already in Prague. Death is a huge part of dark tourism, which is why the Sedlec Ossuary is the perfect example. It is pretty much the only guarantee when it comes to human existence, so it’s no wonder that it is a subject which fascinates so many of us.
#6 Oradour-sur-Glane, France
Another disaster site linked to World War II, the village of Oradour-our-Glane was massacred just days after D Day. Nobody is quite sure why, but it doesn’t matter – the impact is still felt today as you walk the ruined streets.
You can enter the church where the women and children were rounded up and killed, and see the residential streets where the 642 victims lived.
From rusted bicycles to abandoned sewing machines, evidence of daily life remains here. President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the village remain as a permanent memorial, and there is a museum on site where tourists can learn about this massacre.
It is again one of the less popular dark tourism sites, but still one that captures the curiosity and imagination of visitors. If you are travelling through France, this fascinating tourist attraction should definitely be on your itinerary.
#7 Aokigahara Suicide Forest, Japan
Aokigahara Suicide Forest is one of the most intriguing and eery dark tourism destinations in the world. This stunning forest in Japan, located on the north-west flank of Mount Fuji, has become warped over the years. It is a location where thousands of people have tried to take their own lives, and many have succeeded.
The forest is littered with shoes, photographs, bottles, letters and more – evidence of those who entered the depths of Aokigahara with one clear motive…
Suicide is fascinating to many. People who have no first hand experience of feeling suicidal are often curious about the subject – and for those affected by suicide in terms of having lost someone in this way, a trip to the Suicide Forest might help them feel closer to understanding why.
At any rate, it is certainly one of the more well-known dark tourism destinations. It was boosted by controversial YouTuber Logan Paul’s visit, where he filmed himself discovering the body of one of the forest’s victims.
#8 Volcano Creeks in Pompeii, Italy
A visit to Pompeii is a must for any history lover. However, it does also form one of Europe’s most popular dark tourism destinations!
The city was completely frozen in time when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. causing most of the inhabitants to flee. Some were not so lucky, however. When the city was rediscovered 1700 years later, bodies were found that had almost been turned into statues by the layers of ash and pumice that fell upon Pompeii. You can visit the city on tours from Rome and Naples.
And you can also visit the volcano itself, Mt. Vesuvius, and see for yourself the impact that nature can have. Tourists can get close to the crater rim. This serves as a reminder that the destruction of Pompeii is something that could happen again, here or elsewhere. This seems to be why it is popular in terms of dark tourism.
#9 Killing Fields, Cambodia
The killing fields at Phnom Penh are chilling. They will shock and horrify you, providing vital education about the genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Across four years in the late 1970s, around 1 in 5 Cambodian citizens were killed under dictator Pol Pot. There are actually around 300 killing fields across Cambodia, but the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are one of the world’s most visited dark tourism destinations.
On the surface, the fields are beautiful. But any tour guide or historian will be able to tell you about the horrors that unfolded here. You can see the remnants for yourself: mass graves, holding rooms, trees where soldiers would hang speakers to drown out the cries of those being savagely beaten to death.
There is a pagoda, closed in with glass walls, where you’ll find a tower made from bones and skulls. It climbs higher and higher, a stark reminder of just how many people were killed at this one site alone. It really is a harrowing experience, but again one that does serve to educate visitors.
#10 Robben Island, South Africa
Located just outside Cape Town, Robben Island is a prison island.
This is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned alongside many others, and subject to some of the harshest conditions. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and tourists can visit on tours led by ex-prisoners.
The island was once also a leper colony, and later an asylum. But it was its use as a prison during the Apartheid years that has led to its notoriety.
This is why it is one of the top 10 dark tourism destinations in the world. Crime and punishment is a topic that so many of us are eager to learn about. A tour of this prison island is sure to educate you as well as leave you with some burning questions…
Dark tourism destinations: Further reading
Dark tourism is a fascinating subject and is extremely educational. I personally find that reading a book with personal accounts and stories helps me to really understand the dark tourism sights that I visit. Here are some of my recommendations:
- Chernobyl – 2019 Sky Atlantic Drama [DVD]
- Hell Hole, Robben Island: Reminiscences of a Political Prisoner
- The Last Road to Cambodia
- By Loung Ung First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (New Ed)
- Apocalypse Pompeii
- The Twins of Auschwitz: The inspiring true story of a young girl surviving Mengele’s hell