Disaster tourism: Does tragedy like company?

Would you be interested in visiting a place that was destroyed by war and destruction? Source: Shutterstock.

DISASTER TOURISM, also known as dark tourism, is the act of traveling to a disaster area. For thrillseekers, it’s pleasure. For others, it’s out of curiosity in a very honest way.

Although it’s not a new phenomenon, there have been debates about whether or not it’s ethical. But there are always two sides to the story.

As tourists, of course, there are always rules. Travelers should always go in as people who genuinely want to learn about war and destruction. It’s like stepping inside a history book.

Thus, actions that lack sensitivity is what makes disaster tourism questionable. For example, you wouldn’t play Pokemon Go at a Holocaust museum or make inappropriate poses while taking countless selfies at Pearl Harbor, where 1,177 lives were lost, making it essentially a grave site.

Furthermore, locals visit the same places to learn about their country’s history and to make sure they avoid repeating the mistake. Tourists need to be respectful and not trivialize a tragedy and the destination’s dark past.

Disaster/dark tourism continues to draw tourists from all over the world. Source: Shutterstock.

There’s a burgeoning demand for disaster/dark tourism, with places becoming more and more accessible to visitors.

The Chernobyl exclusion zone saw 50,000 people touring the area last year, a 35 percent increase from 2016. And 70 percent of those visitors were foreigners.

For the uninitiated, the Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident that happened 32 years ago. Although nearly 350,000 people were evacuated from within a 30-kilometer radius around the plant, the explosion exposed thousands of people to high levels of radiation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) previously reported that a total of 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure in years to come.

Tourists are usually screened before and after they visit the exclusion zone.

That having said, with so many Chernobyl tour companies to choose from, the tourism numbers are set to increase.

Closer to home, these are the formidable disaster/dark tourism destinations that continue to lure tourists.

Here’s what you need to know about them.

Cambodia: Anlong Veng Peace Centre

Cambodia is home to many grim sites left over from the Khmer Rouge years, during which a regime was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century.

From 1975 to 1979, 1.7 million people (a quarter of the population back then) died from either execution or illness or were worked and starved to death.

Anlong Veng was one of the main strongholds of the Khmer Rouge after their regime was toppled in January 1979.

The Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a non-governmental organization, has been working on the Anlong Veng Peace Centre located on the Thai-Cambodian border to tell a story about the country’s dark past.

It’s home to 14 Khmer Rouge-related landmarks, including Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s cremation site and Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok’s home.

Tip: Read up on its past and study its sensitivities beforehand.


In April 2015, a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal, killing almost 9,000 people.

Buildings, temples, and ancient structures were destroyed. Till this day, more than 50 percent of its people still live in temporary shelters or live in traumatic conditions.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal which was severely damaged after the major earthquake. Source: Shutterstock.

While the recovery has been slow, Nepal is getting back on its feet thanks to volunteers, mercenaries, worldwide aid, and tourism.

Tour operator Royal Mountain Travel offers “adventure and local experience” to curious travelers. Tourists can opt for the company’s 17-day earthquake programme which will take them to Nuwakot, a badly hit village.

Tip: Be sensitive to the locals. Don’t stick your camera into their shelters or damaged homes.

Japan: Hiroshima Peace Museum

Japan’s Hiroshima story is perhaps the most important moment in warfare history.

Only twice did the US ever use nuclear weapons and that was in Japan. In 1945, Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima were obliterated three days apart by atomic bombs.

The bombings left death and destruction in its wake, killing at least 129,000 people, most of whom were civilians. Many others perished due to radiation and illness.

Modern-day Hiroshima may be far from the destruction that the bomb left in its wake, but the trauma that hangs in the air is hard to extinguish.

Located in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Hiroshima Peace Museum exhibits belongings left behind by the victims, photos, and other materials that convey the horror of the event.

Tip: Remember to pay your respects at the various monuments and memorials dedicated to the victims and survivors of the bombing.

South Korea: DMZ

Although South Korea’s demilitarized zone (DMZ) didn’t suffer physical damage or destruction, it’s still reminiscent of the war that tore the Korean Peninsula apart, killed more than a million people and left thousands more unaccounted for, and separated family, friends, and loved ones for decades.

The 250km-long border barrier was created in 1953 by North Korea, China, and the United Nations, and is guarded by heavily armed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers.

Tours need to be booked via companies that operate DMZ tours.

As there have been incidents of military and civilian casualties in the past, tours to the Joint Security Area (JSA) are irregular and infrequent, and highly dependent on the often tense political situation between the two countries.

Other destinations along the border include the DMZ tunnel, Imjingak park, the Freedom bridge, and Dorasan station, just to name a few.

Tip: Rules are strictly enforced for tourists, right down to the dress code and picture-taking etiquette.