Infamous dark places not to visit
Here are listed a few places that you may think qualify as particularly dark travel destinations but which, for various reasons, are excluded here from dark tourism (e.g. because they are too dangerous – and danger tourism
is not promoted here
Obviously enough, this is only a very incomplete list of examples – there are naturally lots of other places one shouldn't go to. If anything in particular appears worth mentioning here, I will amend this list in the future …
– it's too obvious to even mention here, but still … This sorry parched country has been torn apart for decades by a series of invasions, civil wars and terrorism. It still features with unfailing regularity in the news for its lack of stability and omnipresent volatility which all too frequently leads to bloodshed. There are suicide bombings on the one hand and "collateral damage" on the other, i.e. killing of civilians as well as "enemy combatants" in military strikes by the de facto occupational power, the USA
, who have been in the country since shortly after 9/11
. Things are not improving palpably in Afghanistan – possibly on the contrary. In any case, this is not the time for tourism to return to the country … as the foreign military has failed to stabilize it and its home-grown (internationally trained) security forces are not faring much better. Maybe in the rather distant future this will change and tourism can come back – and then there will be a potential for dark destinations too. For the time being I can only refer you to a little place in Hamburg
that can be visited in lieu of going to the real Afghanistan, namely the endearing Afghanistan Museum
– if it will ever be safe to go there again, hopefully, one day, then it does have the potential to be a huge draw for dark tourism. But for the time being, this capital city, like most of Iraq, really is out of bounds for tourism (see also danger tourism
). The widespread daily chaos and terrorism that developed in the wake of the USA
's invasion of the country in 2003 means that it is only for security professionals, soldiers and maybe hardy journalists, but not for tourists other than suicidal ones. And I do not promote suicidal tourism. So my advice still is: stay away.
However: the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq, which compared to the rest of the country has proved safer, has already begun reopening to a small trickle of tourism recently – and even some other parts have started to see a few probing travellers (a recent advert I saw by the company Hinterland Travel offered an Iraq itinerary that even promised the off-chance of seeing one of those former Saddam Hussein palaces!).
… watch this space in future, though – things may change further. And in fact at some point I may have to delete this section and instead create a new entry for Iraq … we'll see. Right now I am not yet sufficiently convinced …
UPDATE June 2014 ... and there you have it: the foreign troops have gone and what happens: the country is being engulfed in a surge of Islamist fundamentalist terror group attacks, which overran the north, plunged the country back into a quagmire civil war, triggered a mass refugee crisis and may even elicit the return of foreign toops, possible from Iran even. Who knows. It's all utterly depressing (and they said Iraq would be a better place without Saddam Hussein ... which has hardly been the case ever since his demise and certainly isn't now).
What is definite from our perspective is that Iraq is currently even further than ever from becoming a tourist destination of any kind.
Grozny, Chechnya, Russia
– here too, the conflict is far from over, and personal safety potentially a grave issue. It's also ethically
dubious to go gawping at this sad place and its desperate inhabitants. However, like in other former war zones of the recent past (cf. for instance Bosnia & Herzegovina
), things may eventually change. For the time being, it's probably better not go to Chechnya as a tourist …
UPDATE 2017: meanwhile the war is "over" and Grozny has been largely rebuilt and these days pretends to be a glitzy regional capital where everything is just hunky-dory. But it isn't. The veneer may be shiny, but beneath that it's still very grim in Grozny. The region is ruled by a de-facto autocrat (controlled by Moscow) who still ruthlessly suppresses any opposition or aspirations for independence. So while it is no longer directly, physically dangerous to go to Grozny as a tourist, there are ethical issues to be considered.
UPDATE 2021: neighouring Dagestan (which also received lots of bad press in the past) is opening up to tourism on a small scale and may become a temptation, not least for the stunning scenery and a very unique Soviet relic: the only Lun-class ekranoplan (a ground-effect "flying boat"-cum-missile-launcher), now beached and dragged on land south of Derbent on the Caspian Sea where some kind of "military park" is said to be in the planning.
– a nuclear plant near Chelyabinsk, Russia
, where the USSR
produced most of its nuclear weapons material, and the site of the worst ever nuclear disaster other than Chernobyl
or now Fukushima in Japan
(or the actual atimic bombings of Hiroshima
). This occurred in 1957 but was kept secret until the early 90s (as the cloud of radioactive material wasn't propelled high into the atmosphere, as was the case in Chernobyl, but moved closer to the ground and thus kept the contamination comparatively "local", it went unnoticed in the West at the time). The nearby town of Kyshtym was seriously contaminated then, as was the town of Ozyorsk as a result of the spread of radioactive dust. Nearby Lake Karachay was used to dump nuclear waste – and the now completely concreted-over former lake is still one of the most deadly radioactively contaminated spots on Earth, so deadly that you'd receive a lethal dose of radiation within hours if you were to venture too near. (The lake is even threatening to leak into the River Ob, and through that into the Arctic Ocean – you don't want to begin imagining what that could mean …). Because of this, travel to the area cannot be responsibly recommended – even though it is, without a shadow of doubt, one of the 'darkest' places on the planet. Just too dark for tourism (way off the Darkometer
scale). Pretty much inaccessible anyway.
, northern Italy
– the name Seveso alone conjures up the whole concept of chemical disaster. And in fact it was one of the worst of its kind, certainly in Europe, even if in the end the effects turned out to be less disastrous as initially feared (Bhopal
was a far grimmer catastrophe). In fact, it would be quite safe to go there today, as the place has been thoroughly decontaminated (dioxin levels are even said to be lower here than naturally occurring levels). But there'd be little point: the plant itself, as well as the surrounding houses, were demolished, and soil was taken away to be disposed of (although that turned out to be a controversial story in itself). Apparently there are only two unspectacular mounds, under which rubble from demolished structures allegedly lie buried, are still in situ as faint reminders of the disaster. And one street still bears the name of the company that ran the plant. Otherwise, there's nothing to see.
Former US embassy in Teheran, Iran
– this was the place where a 444-day hostage drama took place, which was one of the key events that turned Iran into one of the USA
's premier enemies (and in part vice versa). The hostage-taking on 4 November 1979 followed the Islamic revolution in Iran which ousted the US-supported (and indeed originally US-installed) Shah regime. Amongst the radical student hostage takers, incidentally, was allegedly one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who later made it to president of Iran – though those allegations have not been proven. What is certain, on the other hand, is that a failed US rescue mission in April 1980 further exacerbated the crisis for the USA. Only in January 1981 were the last hostages released – to great fanfare on the part of the incoming Reagan administration, which then proceeded to support Iraq under Saddam Hussein in its war against Iran (it's often forgotten that back then Saddam was considered a "good guy" on "our" side – much in contrast to the picture painted of the same guy from 1991 – see also under Baghdad
). The diplomatic stand-off between the USA and Iran continues to this day, of course. And in Iran anti-American propaganda is commonplace, even state doctrine. This also extended to the building of the former US embassy itself. It's covered in anti-US murals and slogans. At one point it would even have made a venerable dark tourism destination in its own right: as Dom Joly reports in his book "The Dark Tourist"
(p 15-16), the building used to house a "Museum of the Great Satan
" (they mean the USA
, of course), but that this has been closed for a long while. Now even tourists just taking pictures from the outside can attract the wrong kind of attention from security guards and guides will admonish you to abstain from even attempting it. Shame. So there we are: what could have been a prime site deserving a dedicated separate entry on this website has been lost – a chance squandered by Iran. OK, then, no proper entry for Iran. The rest of tourism in Iran isn't of the dark sort anyway, but rather regular tourism (mostly of the ancient cultural relics category, i.e. rubble from antiquity, or, yes, skiing(!), which is what Dom Joly did there …). The only dark aspect of tourism in Iran is that it's in a country that has a kind of dark ring to it in the West, that's all. People report, though, how friendly and welcoming the people are in actual fact. Doubly shame, then, that there's no reason (any longer) to include the country here …
South Ossetia & Abkhazia
– two provinces that nominally are part of Georgia
but have declared themselves independent states – even though hardly any other countries recognize this independent statehood (see also Transnistria
). Only after the brief war that broke out in August 2008, when Georgia tried to seize back South Ossetia by force but was stopped with even greater force by Russia
, did the latter formally recognize these countries' independence (partly also in retaliation for the West's recognizing Kosovo as independent). Well, you can't bait the big Russian bear like that and hope to just get away with it … For the traveller this means that both provinces cannot be travelled to. Not via Georgia anyway (the borders are closed and any travel to South Ossetia is considered illegal by Georgia – and even though feasible with regard to Abkhazia, it isn't easy). But even going via Russia would be extremely difficult in the case of South Ossetia, and still not really advisable for Abkhazia either. Furthermore, these "rogue" countries are not necessarily safe to travel in anyway. That's different with another "breakaway republic" of the Caucasus region, by the way, namely Nagorno-Karabakh
, which can quite easily be reached by tourists via Armenia
UPDATE: I've meanwhile been informed that Abkhazia is, after all, visitable - and actually intriguing, by what travellers are reporting. So I may have to change its status here. South Ossetia, on the other hand, still appears dicy. I've heard from one traveller who sneaked in and got arrested (and then was quickly deported, so he never really saw anything of the country other than the arrest cell)
(literally 'Rebirth Island', which is a bit of added irony really) – a (former) island in the Aral Sea
, site of the Soviet Union
's biological weapons testing facilities (with its secret military base at Kantubek) during the Cold War
era. The place was officially cleaned up in the 1990s, but apparently still poses the threat that not properly sealed old containers may release anthrax spores into the environment. Since the drying out of the Aral Sea (itself an environmental disaster of the highest order) is causing the island to increasingly connect to the mainland (so it's turned into a peninsula and these days is becoming just a place in the middle of the desert) it is feared that animals moving in and out across the land bridge may subsequently spread the danger. And, obviously enough, if animals shouldn't go there, then the same applies to humans, esp. of the species 'tourist'. So stay away. UPDATE 2019: I have meanwhile heard of one tour operator offering an optional excursion to the site, but whether that is still current I don't know. I'd think carefully about joining such an excursion though.
The coal fires of Wuda
(and others elsewhere in the country) – currently the worst coalfield fires on Earth, in the north-eastern Chinese mining areas already suffering from this massive industrial exploitation. Pollution levels are extreme. This puts an enormous strain on the population – and that in a country that hasn't exactly been at the forefront of dealing with problems openly. Together, both the political situation and the high levels of health and safety
risks, therefore rule out justifiable (dark) tourism in the area. There is/was one similar phenomenon in the USA
, however, namely Centralia
, which is quite easily accessible (though less dramatic, visually).