Why HBO's Chernobyl is reinvigorating the dark tourism market

As I spent the weekend bingeing the first few episodes of the HBO series Chernobyl, it peaked my profound and deep interest into the world of dark tourism.

I quickly fell down a rabbit hole researching what really happened when the reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986, and what tours are available within the region. 

And it seems I’m not the only one. Since the show has been released Chernobyl has seen a rise in tourist visitation, with Ukrainian tour company SoloEast seeing a 30% rise in tourists compared to May 2018 and a 40% rise in trip bookings. 

Dark tourism is not a new trend, but it can be misunderstood. 

It centres around the ‘attraction’ of sites, museums and specific locations associated with historical or social atrocities, macabre events, tragedy, death and torture. Some examples of dark tourism sites include concentration and war camps, war battlefields and cemeteries, Hiroshima, Port Arthur, Cambodian Killing Fields, Ground Zero, and Tiananmen Square. 

The notion of dark tourism reflects on the psychological desire and intrigue humans have for sites associated with death, it is a morally grey area. Reasons for visiting these sites are often varied. They may be paying respect to a fallen family member, wanting to understand more about one’s familial, faith, or cultural history through collective memory, or a desire to seek out a site for the purpose of education or learning. 

Chernobyl and the post-apocalyptic wasteland of nearby town Pripyat is one of the original dark tourism ‘hotspots’. Despite some areas still being highly toxic, it has seen a growth of visitors since it was opened by the Ukraine government in 2011. 

More countries around the world are looking to this phenomenon as a way to attract more tourists. It allows for destinations which are not aware of their history and destination image, the opportunity for a wave of tourism marketing, rebranding and placemaking. Destination image is important to ensure branding and marketing is consistent, and make sure it is not depending solely as being a dark tourism destination. Post-war or post-catastrophe marketing, can be considered as “phoenix tourism”, where a site is reborn to enhance a destination image and promote a resilient tourism industry.  

Some countries and governments have attempted to honor and present their history through way of memorialising a site, hosting reenactments, building visitor centres, hiring tour guides, etc. However, it is important for this to be done in a tasteful and symbolic way, and not just as a means to make a profit or for propaganda purposes. 

The key is to focus on the human stories that need to be told. 

The secular pilgrimage of going to Gallipoli for ANZAC Day has been popular for Australian and New Zealanders for more than two decades, with visitor numbers continually increasing. A surge of Australia visitors began in the 1990’s with visitors in the months of March and April ranging between 1,000 and under 10,000 each year (Source: Australian Visitors in Turkey 1976-2009). 

From 2000, each year has seen more than 10,000 Australian visitors (Source: Australian Visitors in Turkey 1976-2009). Tours to Gallipoli are embedded in concern for nationhood and patriotism which impacts greatly upon the individual. The motivation to go is an attempt to engage with a place where collective identities were forged, because for many people, they will have a familial connection to someone who fought or died at Gallipoli or in WWI.  

There are a number of ethical issues surrounding the creation and promotion of an experience, as well as ethics surrounding the appropriate behaviour of visitors in the social media age. 

Effective consultation and engagement with members of the community within a destination, involved family members, and religion is important in ensuring the truth is contributed, acknowledged and messaged correctly at a site, museum, and experience, etc.

The appropriate behaviour for visitors must be encouraged and in some instances policed. With the rise of social media, visitors appear to be able to post ‘selfies’ in these places of horror and tragedy. 

Recently, there have been instances of viral images of influencers posing seductively in HAZMAT suits and gas masks in Chernobyl, and people posing and smiling in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

This has sparked a widespread debate on the use of cameras and phones in these sites, but also enforcing the notion to visitors of thinking twice before posting a photo and simply showing respect to those who have lost their lives.  

A successful dark tourism site, museum, or location should respectfully honour the past and not hide the truth - no matter how dark. It is these experiences which allow visitors to reflect and contemplate, both life and death. In this way, dark tourism has more to do with life and living, rather than the dead and dying.

About the author:

Sparrowly Group’s Jackie Hicks is passionate about the tourism industry and the future of travel in Australia and the world. She has a keen interest in dark tourism, having visited numerous sites on her travels, as well as accessible tourism. Check out her LinkedIn profile here.