The rise of dark tourism

Abandoned bumper cars
Edge of darkness

A nuclear disaster zone has become a hot tourist attraction – in more ways than one. With so-called ‘dark tourism’ trending, Robin Gauldie finds out what it means in practice, and whether it should worry travel insurers.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, off limits for many years since the Soviet-era reactor went boom in 1986, now seems to be a bucket-list destination for many. Visitor numbers are expected to reach 100,000 this year, largely due to curiosity aroused by HBO series Chernobyl. Launched in May, it tells the story of the explosion and clean-up operation, and the investigation into its causes that followed.

According to Reuters news agency, local operators offering tours of parts of the zone have reported increases of up to 40 per cent in bookings for short visits, which cost around $100 each.

Chernobyl is top of the bucket list for aficionados of dark tourism

Chernobyl is top of the bucket list for aficionados of dark tourism – travellers who seek out locations associated with natural disasters, man-made catastrophes or humanitarian tragedies. But the Ukraine disaster site is not the only place on the list.
As is shown in the recent Dark Tourist, a Netflix series hosted by the New Zealand journalist David Farrier – which shows the presenter visiting macabre destinations – such sites range from Chernobyl to Fukushima.

Hazard sign

One of the problems of dark tourism is that it’s an imprecise designation

There are other popular tourist sites that have their roots in nuclear activity, though. Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands was used by the US for 23 nuclear tests above and below ground between 1946 and 1958. Its original inhabitants were allowed to return in the 1970s but removed again when tests found the atoll was still too toxic to live on. Yet today, Bikini is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the ‘nuclear ghost fleet’ of wrecked warships that were used as test targets and now lie on the seabed are among the world’s top scuba diving sites. White Sands, where the world’s first nuclear bomb was tested, is now regarded as a heritage site, and the US Army offers official tours. 

“One of the problems of dark tourism is that it’s an imprecise designation,” notes journalist Kent Russell in a 2018 article for the Huffpost website. “If being a ‘dark tourist’ means visiting ‘death spaces’, well, who hasn’t been to a death space?” It could be argued, he writes, that visits to such destinations as Hiroshima, the Taj Mahal (burial place of a Mughal emperor’s consort), battlefields or war cemeteries contain a dark tourism element. Others might argue too that ‘poverty tourism’ trips to slums and shanty towns in destinations like Mumbai, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro can be regarded as dark tourism.

Dark tourism also embraces visits to genocide museums and atrocity sites, visiting recent war zones and – a little more light-heartedly but perhaps more dangerously – posting Instagram selfies from abandoned theme parks and post-industrial locations. But does this macabre travel trend create worries for insurers? Some voices in the insurance sector and the broader travel industry have expressed concerns over the risks involved in visiting such locations, but others appear more sanguine. Visits to many places that might be defined as ‘dark tourism’ destinations – such as Nazi-era death camps like Auschwitz or atrocity sites like the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia – would be covered by most off-the-peg travel policies.

Recovery and rehabilitation

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says he hopes that Chernobyl can be converted from ‘a negative part of Ukraine’s brand’ to a positive benefit. Similarly, Japan hopes to use next year’s Tokyo Olympics to help rehabilitate Fukushima, where an earthquake and 15-metre tsunami caused the meltdown of three reactor cores at the Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. The region will host a number of events during what has been branded the ‘Recovery Games’.

However, radioactivity in Pripyat, the closest town to the Chernobyl power plant, can be dangerously high and the Ukrainian government warns against entering buildings, touching objects, or taking potentially highly radioactive ‘souvenirs’ from the site. “Radiation poisoning and sickness is not covered by travel insurance, so we recommend you leave these destinations off your itinerary,” states Anne Wentworth, a blogger for Australian travel insurance site Holiday Rescue.  

Travellers would not be covered for any ill effects that they suffer after returning home from a trip to Chernobyl, agrees Rebecca Kingsley, Brand Manager for Travel Insurance Explained, a British consumer awareness initiative (see ITIJ 223, August 2019). Many travel insurance policies make this explicitly clear. “Our policies have a general exclusion for any claim related to or arising from exposure to radiation or nuclear event,” said Phil Sylvester, Head of Public Relations and travel safety expert at World Nomads, a Sydney-based travel lifestyle insurance information brand. “To that extent, you go to Chernobyl or Fukushima at your own risk. The level of radiation a person is exposed to on a guided tour of Chernobyl is negligible. But we do warn against self-guided tours and say it makes sense to use a proper, reputable tour company with the right monitoring and personal protection equipment.” Anyone entering an exclusion zone or restricted area may face an exclusion of cover, Sylvester adds.

The same applies to Fukushima. “The most contaminated area lies within a line to the northwest of the nuclear plant, extending to some 25 km, and official exclusion zones apply,” explained Sylvester. “However, there are areas in which exclusions have been lifted.” According to the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, radiation levels in decontaminated areas of Fukushima are now less than the global average.
In December 1984, an explosion at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, in India’s Madhya Pradesh state, released clouds of toxic methyl isocyanate, resulting in an official death toll of 15,000. Many children born to survivors suffered severe birth defects that have been attributed to lingering toxic pollution. The former Union Carbide factory remains derelict. Local authorities officially bar foreigners from the site, but according to at least one source (www.dark-tourism.com, which gives Bhopal a ‘darkometer rating’ of 9/10), local residents have no difficulty entering, so it could tempt less risk-averse visitors.

The Remember Bhopal Museum, which opened on the 30th anniversary of the disaster, attracts a trickle of visitors, some of them inspired to visit by an ongoing international campaign aimed at gaining higher compensation payments for those affected by the disaster and its aftermath. However, visitors to Bhopal should be aware that visiting the derelict and still-toxic factory site would be excluded from travel insurance cover. “The exclusions relating to unnecessary risk and defying official restrictions would apply,” said Sylvester. “It is very unlikely any claim for ill health as a result of a tourist visit to the Bhopal factory would succeed.” 
 

‘Trespass tourism’

Many of those drawn to derelict or weirdly picturesque post-industrial locations are looking not for macabre chills, but for thrilling backdrops that will boost their online following. Let’s call this sub-sub-culture ‘trespass tourism’. In the Instagram world, self-imposed pressure to build a social media following is driving millennials to seek increasingly outrageous and attention-grabbing backdrops for their selfies. A BBC Newsbeat report on the trend is illustrated by an image of a young woman perched perilously atop a 180-metre disused factory chimney in Romania.

Such stunts are not risk-free. Dangers on derelict sites include unsafe structures and toxic waste; in Berlin, emergency services have in the past been called to the Spreepark, a derelict Soviet-era theme park in the former East Berlin that closed in 2001, to rescue trespassers who became trapped in the gondolas of its big wheel when it unexpectedly rotated in high winds.
“Unauthorised entry of a derelict building may be considered trespass and therefore illegal, so no coverage would be extended,” commented Sylvester. 

Even postcard-pretty blue lagoons can be toxic hazards. In July, a Russian power company had to caution Instagrammers against taking a dip in the polluted waters of the ‘Novosibirsk Maldives’ – a vivid blue lake that is in fact a heavily polluted waste dump – after images of cavorting swimmers went viral on social media. In Galicia, northern Spain, would-be ‘travel influencers’ reportedly suffered from poisoning after swimming in another toxic ‘blue lagoon’ at Monte Neme, where water is dyed turquoise by waste from a defunct tungsten mine. 

Unauthorised entry of a derelict building may be considered trespass and therefore illegal, so no coverage would be extended

Abandoned warehouse

Frozen conflicts

Even more adventurous travellers looking to impress their peer group by visiting off-beat destinations have created a cult following for destinations like Northern Caucasus, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno Karabakh that are sometimes categorised as ‘frozen conflict’ zones, where hostilities may have ceased but where some governments still advise against travel. Some such destinations may create issues for insurers and for assistance companies, ranging from kidnapping for ransom by local militias turned organised crime groups, to danger from unexploded ordnance, lack of formal diplomatic representation, and inadequate emergency care and medical evacuation infrastructure.

Many insurers wouldn’t sell a travel policy to customers they knew they couldn’t help if they got into difficulty, though. Sylvester points out that travel cover for destinations like these is subject to the same caveats that apply to better-known destinations worldwide, so would-be visitors need to be guided by their government’s travel advisories. “We are unable to extend cover to anyone entering a destination to which their government has advised against all travel,” he told ITIJ. 

North Caucasus falls into this category, he says, but no such advice from UK, US or Australian governments applies to Transnistria, so cover would be available to all travellers. However, Sylvester notes that conditions may change for the worse as well as for the better in some such zones, depending on local events.
“There may be exclusions that apply around events such as ‘civil unrest’ and ‘war, whether declared or not’ and any claim arising out of a visit to the region would be tested against this,” Sylvester said.   

Good intentions?

If tourists had been ordered to evacuate a natural disaster zone, anyone staying behind would be in defiance of an order by an authority

Many travel industry analysts identify ‘disaster tourism’ or what might be called ‘aftermath tourism’ as a form of dark tourism. In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami of 2004 or the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some are drawn to visit as onlookers or as volunteer ‘helpers’. Once again, the unnecessary risk caveat applies to travel to such zones, where risks may range from disease and accidental injury to violent crime, even when the initial incident is over.

“If tourists had been ordered to evacuate a natural disaster zone, anyone staying behind would be in defiance of an order by an authority,” said Phil Sylvester. “Usually, in the event of a natural disaster, the region is immediately declared a ‘do not travel’ zone, so anyone outside the area who intended to travel [independently] into the zone to assist would not be covered. People who wish to lend their expertise and assistance should contact one of the NGOs or government authorities involved and offer their services. These organisations will have the appropriate insurances in place,” he concluded.

In the US, someone who goes out of their way to look at crime scenes, road accidents and other disasters is sometimes called a ‘lookie-loo’ – defined by Merriam-Webster, the US dictionary, as ‘an intrusively curious onlooker’. That seems to cover many ‘dark tourists’ too. How curious, and how intrusive, such travellers are is surely the biggest factor in insuring them – or , of course, in rejecting any claims that result from too-intrusive activities.