The abandoned Pripyat amusement park, near Chernobyl. Photo by Flickr user Martin L.
People have been drawn to disasters, both natural and manmade, throughout history.
Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, has been a tourist destination since the 18th century. In more recent history, tourists have flocked to places like Auschwitz, the killing fields in Cambodia and the 9/11 Memorial. Some pay their respects to those who perished, and others are attracted by a macabre fascination. This is known as “dark tourism” and although it is not a new phenomenon, the advent of selfies and social media has brought it widespread attention. Many wonder where one crosses a line between genuinely wanting a memento of the visit and appearing glib and disrespectful in the midst of horrible tragedies.
The HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” which aired in May, has sparked an uptick in public curiosity about one of the world’s greatest nuclear disasters. Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant in Ukraine about 80 miles from Kiev, was the site of a massive explosion on April 26, 1986. On that ill-fated night, engineers attempted to run a long-overdue safety test. This test went horribly wrong, and the No. 4 nuclear reactor exploded, sending radioactive material throughout the nearby town of Pripyat. In the hours that followed, several plant workers were exposed to such high levels of radiation that they died within weeks, sometimes days. The Soviet government evacuated the town of Pripyat and set up an exclusion zone of 1,000 square miles. The people of Pripyat left with the clothes on their backs, never to return.
The town and surrounding areas are still so irradiated that it will not be safe to live there for tens of thousands of years. The Soviet Union’s official death toll for the Chernobyl disaster is 31, and this number has not changed since it was first reported in 1986. However, estimates by the World Health Organization more than 30 years after the disaster put the number in the thousands. Many of the townspeople in the surrounding areas eventually developed thyroid cancer, leukemia or other cancers potentially related to the high levels of radiation to which they were exposed. Cleanup of the nuclear reactor nearly bankrupted the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet head of state at the time of the disaster, wrote in 2006 that the meltdown, “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”
High levels of lingering radiation have not prevented tourists from visiting sites within the exclusion zone. Victor Korol, the head of a company that gives tours of Chernobyl, told The New York Times that the amount of travelers booking tours with him has increased by almost 50% following the HBO series. Tourism had been increasing even before the show, however. A spokeswoman from the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management reported 8,404 visitors in 2014; 71,862 tourists visited in 2018. In May 2019 alone, officials logged 12,591 visitors.
Recent Instagram posts of visitors to the ghost town of Pripyat have sparked fury among some observers, who say these tourists are being disrespectful to those who were and still are affected by the disaster. While it turns out that some of the racier pictures were actually taken hundreds of miles away and ironically tagged as being taken at Chernobyl, there are still hundreds of pictures on Instagram of visitors touring the control room of the reactor plant and observing Pripyat’s famous Ferris wheel. Smiling faces seem incongruous against the backdrop of the abandoned city in light of the tragedy that occurred there. Visitors can also purchase merchandise, including hooded sweatshirts with the biohazard symbol and “Chernobyl” written across the front, like a bastardized version of a Venice Beach tank top.
Korol and other tour guides have said that most visitors are respectful. But social media means that more of us can see the few who behave tastelessly.
Chernobyl tourism may have spiked in popularity due to HBO, but other sites that draw people fascinated with the horror that occurred there have dealt with disrespectful photos for years. In March, the Auschwitz Memorial Museum tweeted pictures of visitors playing on the train tracks that brought many Jews (including my great-grandfather) to their deaths with the message: “When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths.” Visitors have also posted smiling selfies in the concentration camp or performed yoga poses on the grounds. Dachau has had similar problems with visitors, with the author of one article admonishing visitors to remember that “Dachau is not Disneyland.”
Shahak Shapira, a Jewish satirist based in Berlin, was so incensed with the impertinence he saw that he created a project called “Yolocaust.” Shapira lives near the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and has observed visitors taking inappropriate photos that do not convey the appropriate gravitas. To illustrate the absurdity of some of the actions he witnessed, he collected some of these pictures and created composite images to contrast the visitors with real historical images of the victims of the Holocaust. (A warning: The images at this link are, by design, upsetting.) The juxtaposition of a man juggling in the aisles of the memorial against a photo of a mass grave is intentionally horrifying. Shapira stated that he will happily remove any of these photos from his website. All the offenders have to do is email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to apologize for their actions.
Where do we draw the line in how we behave while visiting these sites? Obviously, passage of time is one factor. Almost 2,000 years after the disaster at Pompeii, visitors do not risk running into a survivor of the tragedy, nor will they meet anyone who has been directly impacted by it. However, those who tour the 9/11 Memorial, the Chernobyl nuclear plant, or Auschwitz or other World War II concentration camps may well encounter another visitor who has either survived the tragedy or lost close family or friends to it.
Such sites invite and, in some cases, actively encourage visitors. But there is a respectful way to engage with the aftermath of disaster or atrocity. Websites devoted to dark tourism suggest that the best ways to behave is to remember the horrors that occurred at this site and to show respect for those who died or were forever affected by the place you are visiting. In many instances, you are walking on a mass grave. Travel guides also advise talking as little as possible, or not at all, to preserve the solemnity of the site. I support documenting your visit with photos, and even sharing those photos. After all, there is a photo of me at the Halifax Explosion Memorial, as documented on this blog. But the photos should be appropriate to the site’s mood.
Dark tourism has become more prevalent, or at least more visible, due to social media. People may have been just as disrespectful at these monuments years ago, but now we can view everything with a few clicks of the mouse. It is important to visit these sites to glean the history they record and feel the solemn energy found there. When visiting, however, the regard we have for those affected by these tragedies is paramount.