Death and disaster draw tourists

Death and disaster draw tourists

Many are taking to ‘dark tourism’ after TV series ‘Chernobyl’ showed the beauty of a nuclear devastation site

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum records the Cambodian genocide that took place between 1975 and 1979. It’s a tourist hotspot now.

A couple of years ago, freelance photographer and avid traveller Divya Shirodkar visited Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi.

She recalls sitting by the banks of the river and watching bodies being brought in for cremation. She saw families come with their loved ones to say their final goodbyes. Amidst all the noise and chaos, she felt a sense of calm.

Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi is one of the sacred riverfronts.
It’s believed that a dead person’s soul attains salvation
and breaks the cycle of rebirth when cremated here.

Divya is not the only one who likes visiting grim places. Many travel enthusiasts are visiting places of catastrophe and disaster.

These travels are termed ‘dark tourism’ now. Thanks to the hit HBO series ‘Chernobyl’, it’s the ‘dark’ place that many want to visit now.

Chernobyl is where a nuclear power plant meltdown took place in 1986; scientists say because of the accident, the place is uninhabitable for 20,000 years.

Even with rules against sitting and placing bags on the ground, these travellers are unstoppable. 

“Honestly, travellers just want to feed their curiosity. You want to know the story behind these places. In Manikarnika, it’s believed that fire is the purest form of the elements. When you submit the dead to fire, you are creating its purest form. It was fascinating to experience that,” Divya says.

Tourist spots like the concentration camp in Auschwitz, genocide spots in Cambodia and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan are frequently visited.

Closer home, we have The Taj Mahal Palace that was attacked in 2011, and Kodagu after the floods last year.

Divya also visited Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Cambodia, a former secondary school that was used as a security prison by the Khmer Rouge regime when it rose to power in 1975.

The classrooms were used as chambers to torture people. When you go visiting, you find skulls and bones in the cupboards, and photographs.

“It’s spooky to see all those things but I wasn’t uncomfortable. The region makes money out of tourism,” Divya says. “There are two survivors of the genocide in the campus and if you want to take a picture of or with them, you need to pay them.”

Dr Mahesh Natarajan, counselling psychologist of InnerSight Counselling & Training Center LLP, says different motives push people to such dark places.

“It could be their simple wish to do something different that will set them apart, to truly feel how powerful these disasters are, or to feel grateful for not being part of it. Though it is the first motive that gets noticed, given people post selfies; the second and third motives aren’t as apparent,” he told Metrolife. While the visibility and attention that comes from being in such places is certainly a trend, it need not be the only motive.

“It’s best that you do enough research and are equipped for your physical safety. Travel in groups and since such trips can affect you emotionally, have someone you can fully trust to take you through your experience,” he advises.

Tour packages

Some in-demand international destinations are Hitler’s headquarters in Gierloz, Berlin for WWII related tours, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan, Auschwitz concentration camps, Poland, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, and Skeleton Lake, Uttarakhand.

Haunted? Dhanushkodi after cyclone

Not too far from Bengaluru, there’s Dhanushkodi, an abandoned town at the south-eastern tip of Pamban Island, Tamil Nadu. The town was destroyed during the 1964 Rameswaram

Dhanushkodi town in Tamil Nadu was destroyed during
the 1964 Rameswaram cyclone.

cyclone and remains uninhabited even 55 years later. Many talk about the paranormal activity there, and say only fishermen live there.

Photographer Prashanth Sharma and his friends from Bengaluru went on a ride to check out the place. “We went on three bikes but one of them broke down on the way. We had heard stories of paranormal activities but we had also heard how beautiful it was; we just couldn’t stop ourselves,” Prashanth recalls.

The town looks haunted as everything from the train stations, churches and houses are destroyed, he says. In his words: “Once it’s dark, the cops chase you out of there. It’s dangerous.”

Rise in bookings

Travel agencies report a significant rise in bookings to disaster sites. Daniel D’Souza, president and country head, leisure, SOTC Travel, says, “The trend comprises visiting international locales like Ukraine, infamous for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, clubbing it with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bombed in 1945. Moreover, with television channels adapting the Chernobyl disaster to a full-fledged hit series, the trend is picking up in key cities of India.”

Rajeev Kale, president and country head – holidays, MICE, visa, Thomas Cook (India), adds, “Historical sites and visitor centres with a tragic past, like Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Ground Zero in New York and the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, have been a part of the existing itineraries. Social sharing and ‘Instagrammable travel’ is powering this new trend, especially among millennials.”

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