The orchestrated reality of the dark tourism industry

Why do people visit the Catacombs of Paris? Or Vladimir Lenin’s preserved body in a glass case like a bald and mustached Sleeping Beauty in Moscow? Or the DMZ, a hostile war zone between North and South Korea?

Mainly, because you can.

This industry is dubbed “dark tourism” — tourism directed to places that are associated with death and suffering.

People visit for a variety of reasons: personal connection to the event, academic research, genuine interest in the subject. Some travel to “indulge some morbid curiosity” as phrased by National Geographic writer, Robert Reid

Dark tourism, or the basic idea of it, has existed for a long time. However, the difference is the direct marketing of the “experience,” allowing some companies to profit. Reid suggests the more important distinction is about the intention of a traveler.

I pondered this subject heavily while visiting Ukraine in December. Everyone told me I had to go to Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster that left the surrounding area contaminated with radiation. I couldn’t deny my own interest, either

Chernobyl is a powerful reminder of the Soviet Union’s authority. The nuclear reactor was built flawed, due to increased pressure by the USSR to maximize nuclear energy as quickly as possible and a culture where the scientists didn’t want to contradict the higher-ups, so they went along with a bad idea.

Then, on April 28, 1986, Reactor Four exploded.

Radiation levels are still so terrible that it is covered in a giant metal dome, nicknamed “sarcophagus,” to keep the radiation at manageable levels.

Tourism for the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone began in 2011 as a way to generate funds for upkeep of the sarcophagus.

Some of the sites we visited were clearly staged, looking like sets designed for a horror film. One of the first stops was an abandoned daycare. On the walk up to the building, a naked doll with a blacked-out face laid on the snow. Had the doll truly been a dropped by a fleeing toddler in 1986, it would have been in much worse condition from living outside in harsh elements for over 30 years.

A tricycle was perfectly staged by the front door. Several toys were scattered amongst the decay in impossible ways. A headless doll was on top of an empty bed frame, her head conveniently nearby on the floor, missing its eyes, yet somehow still staring upward. The toys weren’t in their original places; they were moved, played with and designed to emit a creepy ambiance.

The whole tour is entertainment sold as reality. Of course, there are facts, and my tour guide did give us background information on the tragic event—but there are still gimmicks, like the cafeteria.

You can enjoy lunch (at an additional cost) in the outdated cafeteria, where you have to go through a radiation detector to enter. You stand in front and place your hands on some giant pads on the side of the metal contraption, which then beeps and opens a small gate to enter.

Several travelers expressed their opinions about the machine and if it actually has the capacity to detect radiation or if it’s just an interactive toy as part of the experience.

Then, after lunch, our tour guide took us to another abandoned building. “Please, be quiet,” he told us. “We are now going to commit a small crime.” The “crime” was entering a building which used to be a giant gymnasium and pool.

We “oohed” and “ahhed” because he told us the other tours didn’t get to visit this building and we were breaking the law.

I found out this was a lie when I talked with several other travelers in Kiev who had visited the same building through different tourism companies.

By far, the most outlandish site was the empty fairgrounds in Pripyat, consisting of only four rides. The Ferris wheel, never used, loomed over the snow-laden field, dominating the skyline. Other tourists filled the space and made it so busy that it almost looked real.

Sergei Mirnyi owns one of the largest tour companies for Chernobyl. He told Al Jazeera in 2018, “Tourism is a very powerful enlightenment tool. Many people leave Chernobyl with a different perspective than they arrived with.”

I expected to visit an entirely abandoned place. What I learned was that it was never really abandoned. Maybe the dolls had been moved around. Maybe the buildings weren’t all that secret. But they were remains of a colossal historical event that it’s hard to understand as a United States citizen.

Destiny Pinder-Buckley is a junior English and French major from Mitchell, South Dakota.

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