Chernobyl and the dangerous ground of ‘dark tourism’

CNN  — 

Step inside the abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine, decades after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster left it uninhabitable.

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 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 tourism CROPPED VR
Explore Chernobyl's exclusion zone in 360°
02:06 - Source: CNN

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?

The abandoned city of Pripyat has become a popular place to visit and photograph.

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,

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.