Too Soon? Ukraine's War Crime Tours And The Limits Of "Dark Tourism"
It took decades to transform Hiroshima and Auschwitz into authorized destinations that welcomed visitors to explain the sites of unspeakable horrors. Ukraine is encouraging people to see such places as Bucha and Irpin, where Russia is accused of war crimes. Exploring the line between the morbidity of dark tourism and the value of historical memory.
Seventy-seven years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, instantly killing 70,000 people and poisoning tens of thousands more, the city has become one of the top family tourist destinations in Japan. Already so far in 2023, more than 1.1 million people have visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, coming to interact with the location and its collection of raw witness testimonies, as well as see the human shadows imprinted upon the remaining walls where people were instantly obliterated by the blast.
The interest in the site was virtually immediate in the wake of the bomb, first with scientists and journalists arriving to document the unprecedentedly scarred Japanese city — and eventually human rights activists and curiosity seekers bearing witness to such massive and momentous death.
The first public display of atomic bomb materials in Hiroshima came four years later, with visitors drawn to what came to be known as “A-Bomb Dome”, an Exhibition Hall that had survived despite being directly under the blast. Indeed, the Dome was bound to become the centerpiece of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park as the ruin’s preservation was eventually made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The story of Hiroshima over the past seven decades exemplifies the evolution of what is known as "dark tourism," where a recent site of death and destruction eventually becomes an institutionalized historical destination.
Dark tourism, defined as “an attraction for places associated with death”, where humans' morbid fascination for places of mortality and destruction can be fulfilled, was coined in 1991, even if it has existed for as long as we have had past tragedies to commune with.
Visitors to these sites go for a wide range of reasons, that often go well beyond voyeuristic attraction to horror. They might wish to reconnect with their family history or pay their respects, feel empathy or identification with the victims, or wish to educate themselves and understand the tragedies that have taken place in the past.
Visiting dark tourism sites
Recent years have seen an increase in participants visiting “dark” destinations such as former concentration camps, war memorials, decommissioned prisons, natural disaster sites and places of atrocity.
Along with Hiroshima, Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum in Poland is perhaps the world's most infamous dark tourism location, a site where 1.1 million people were killed by the Nazi's "final solution." Another world heritage site, pre-pandemic, it received two million visitors a year. Founded by former prisoners, the museum was formally recognized two years after the camp was liberated with an exhibition in the barracks. Since its opening, over 25 million people have visited the museum in remembrance of those killed during the Holocaust.
A place of horror often needs decades for the pain to fade.
But memorials take time, legislation and infrastructure to put in place. In many cases, years pass between a site's dark past and its opening to the public. A place of horror often needs decades for enough of the pain to fade in order to be transformed with plaques and railings from graveyards to sites fit for touristic consumption.
Plenty of time has passed at the ancient catacombs in Paris, where visitors can explore the remains of the long gone housed in a structure built in the 1700s when the city's centuries old cemeteries began to collapse under the weight of the dead.
The oldest "dark tourism" site is considered Rome's Colosseum, where people made death a spectacle (sometimes between the teeth of lions) more than 2,000 years ago.
The Paris catacombs
Yet there are some dark tourism buffs who prefer the practice of "Urbex," specifically seeking out newer destinations of death for the thrill of exploring sites that have yet to be institutionalized and open to the public, and may not necessarily be fully safe.
Since the early 2000s, “illegal tourism to Chernobyl has flourished [...] despite obvious health and safety concerns” says Dr. Philip Stone, head of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) in his 2013 paper on the case of Chernobyl, where history's worst nuclear accident took place in northern Ukraine.
The radioactive Exclusion Zone surrounding Chernobyl opened up to visitors in 2011, the 25th anniversary of the disaster, and since the “ghost town” of Pripyat – deserted since the nuclear power plant explosion on April 26, 1986 – has been the site of government sanctioned guided tours (radiation levels permitting).
Multiple companies in the area provide days-long tours through the abandoned urban landscape, taking paying customers to exclusive locations. Well known sites include a rusting Ferris wheel, Cyrillic signage, and the Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators, those who risked their lives handling the consequences of the nuclear fallout.
Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine’s brand. It’s time to change it.
Stone discusses the “commodification” of Chernobyl, which “has become a destination associated with dark tourism – that is, visits to sites of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre.”
In July 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that the Chernobyl site would become an official tourist attraction – despite some areas remaining highly contaminated by radiation.
“We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life,” Zelensky said of the site at the center of the exclusion zone. “Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine’s brand. It’s time to change it.”
He emphasized not only the location's tragic past, but also of its value in showing how a place evolves after a global man-made disaster. “We have to show this place to the world: scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists.”
Abandoned city of Pripyat and closed Chernobyl nuclear plant
Yet Ukraine is again at the center of hard questions about dark tourism. Since Russia's full-scale invasion, the Visit Ukraine travel agency made headlines last summer by offering tourist trips to the scene of “the largest civilian massacres of the Russian attack on Ukraine,” including to the cities of Bucha and Irpin where Russia is accused of war crimes.
Has this dark tourism promotion come too soon?
Some have pointed out that life continued in these places after the wave of photojournalists left. Graves were dug, streets repaved and buildings rebuilt. Ukraine holds these places up as “Hero Cities”, which have gone through atrocities and come out the other side, honored by Zelensky for showing the resilience of the nation in face of the Russian invader.
Whether visitors come now or later, events in Bucha and Irpin will be remembered for posterity. Such unspeakable episodes serve as a reminder of the brutality of this war — and even our hyper-connected times, bearing witness ultimately means being there.
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