This “best” of list is a bit contradictory in nature. I am compiling 7 Off The Beaten Path Dark Tourism Sights Of The World. Washington Post describes dark tourism as “visiting places where some of the darkest events of human history have unfolded. That can include genocide, assassination, incarceration, ethnic cleansing, war or disaster — either natural or accident”. I think many people can interpret this type of tourism to be off the beaten path. Many people will say I am traveling to Paris for the Eifel Tower or Egypt for the pyramids, but most people do not frame their travels as “I am going to travel to see the sights of a recent genocide”. So at some level, one might think that all dark tourism sights are considered to be off the beaten path.
But upon further inspection that is not the case. Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps are visited often by tourists in addition to being well known. Over two million people visit Auschwitz every year. Other noted dark tourism sights are the Rwandan genocide memorials in Rwanda and the Killing Fields of Cambodia. So, while I considered these tragic memorials, I considered them to be have already captured the eye of the media. Of course, some of the sights that did make my list are not considered off the beaten path to those who live in that country. Those residents might pass these sights on their commute to work.
Dark tourism occasionally is maligned as macabre form of tourism yet offers a sober lesson to many. As often stated, history is bound to repeat itself, yet dark tourism provides the opportunity to learn from man’s darker side. With the spread of social media some “influencers” have adopted an unfortunate trend of tone-deaf “bikini” photos at these sensitive memorials.
The list I compiled is limited to my travels. But here is my attempt to share the 7 Off The Beaten Path Dark Tourism Sights Of The World. Feel free to comment below and suggest your personal favorites.
7 Off The Beaten Path Dark Tourism Sights Of The World
Tank Cemetery – Asmara, Eritrea
Eritrea located on the Horn of Africa, is one of the more challenging visas in the world to receive. The country is rich in natural beauty, fascinating history, and welcoming people. Eritrea has been the sight of much despair with a civil war to gain independence from Ethiopia which lasted from 1961-1991, which resulted in their independence. And there was another war for two years in 1998, again with Ethiopia.
I touched down in Asmara, the capital, to celebrate their independence day. The week was full of exploring this wonderful country in addition to a pop-up war museum, street fairs, and parades. Only a handful of kilometers from the Fiat Tagliero is the Tank Cemetery or Graveyard. This is a sprawling monument to war’s destructions. Myriads of vehicles, many of them military are piled upon each. You can spend hours wondering this graveyard of destruction. This area is patrolled by armed guards so remember to bring your required permit.
Agdam – Agdam, Republic of Artsakh
Artsakh, is a de facto country born out of freedom’s desire. Artsakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave, was placed within the Azerbaijan Republic during the reign of Stalin. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Artsakh agitated for its independence. An early 1990s war ensued between neighbors, Armenian and Azerbaijan. Artsakh was victorious but with the accompanying tragic death and destruction. Agdam is a ghost town on the border of Artsakh and Azerbaijan. The town that once held up to 40,000 is populated today by only a handful of settlers.
Agdam is off-limits to visitors since it is close to a hot border. Years ago when I participated in a 7000 km road rally, I was able to visit briefly before being turned away by the police. The panorama is filled with decaying buildings overgrown with vegetation. A highlight of the visit is climbing the minaret of the mosque. Take special care when visiting since there are still landmines in the area.
Council of Ministries Building – Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Abkhazia is another de facto state that was borne in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union; albeit in a very delayed fashion in 2008. Abkhazia is a small patch of land with 250,000 citizens in the northwest corner of de jure Georgia. In 2008, there was a brief war between Georgia and Russia which resulted in two new de facto states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Besides this war, there were additional instances of violence and fighting in the 1992-3 civil war which resulted in death and destruction within Abkhazia, including the Council of Ministries building. While Abkhazia has many trappings of a sovereign state like a flag and required visa, it is a client state of Russia. So for instance, Russian soldiers man the border between the two countries.
I crossed into Abkhazia from Georgia and spent several days exploring Abkhazia from my base in the capital of Sukhumi. Sukhumi, a pleasant town located on the Black Sea, is an effortlessly walkable place. My constitutional took me to Freedom Square which sits the hulking and pockmarked Council of Ministries. It is straight forward to explore this unfenced, destroyed example of Soviet Brutalist style architecture.
Leopold Cafe – Mumbai, India
Mumbai was the scene of a horrific terrorist attack also referred to as 26/11 which resulted in the deaths of 174. The terrorists were Islamic terrorists who launched their attacks from Pakistan. This three-day attack targeted multiple sites throughout the city, including Leopold Café. Ten people in Leopold were killed by the terrorists. Leopold is both famous and infamous for the terrorist attacks. Leopold has been a popular hang our place, especially for the expat community, since the 19th century when it was founded. Leopold also gained fame as one of the central locations in the book, Shantaram.
I visited Leopold in the summer of 2010 before the start of the Mumbai Express, a multi-day rally on rickshaws. My favorite travel book is Shantaram so I was incredibly excited to visit Leopold, in fact it was the first place I visited as soon as I checked into my hotel. I stopped by several times during my stay, stopping in for meals and drinks. There are still signs of the terrorist attacks visible in the café today.
War Memorial – Hargeisa, Somaliland
Somaliland is another de facto state that makes the list of the 7 Off The Beaten Path Dark Tourism Sights Of The World. Somaliland gained its independence officially in 1991. Starting in the 1980s, there was tension which transitioned to violence as the central government attacked Hargeisa, the capital of present-day Somaliland. The central government targeted the clan that ruled this area, resulting in deaths of over 100,000 and displacing many more. Many of these attacks were large scale aerial bombardments which are said to have destroyed 70% of the city.
I visited Hargeisa on a solo trip for three nights in 2015. Many hours were spent ambling around the city which showcased many evident scars of the war. In Freedom Square, rests a monument to many of the victims who were felled in the war known as the Hargeisa Holocaust. On top of the monument stands a MIG-17 fighter jet that crashed after bombing Hargeisa. Colorful murals adorn the monument displaying jarring images from the war.
Behesht Zahra – Tehran, Iran
Behesht Zahra is the largest cemetery in Iran located in the capital Tehran. Over one million people have been laid to rest here with over 200,000 martyrs. These 200,000 souls perished in the 8-year war between Iraq and Iran.
I roamed through the martyr’s section of this graveyard on a sunny spring day which did nothing to abate the gloomy feeling of being here. It is a moving experience to see the personalized memorials to all the people lost in the war. The graves showcase keepsakes ranging from notes to dog tags to family photos. Between both sides over 1,000,000 people lost their lives in this pointless war.
Fukushima Disaster Area
In 2011, Japan was devasted by an earthquake and tsunami which combined for a viscous one-two punch. Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was affected by this natural disaster. Fukushima was ranked at a 7 on the event classification of the International Nuclear Event Scale with only Chernobyl earning the same classification. It created a 20 square km danger zone with over 150,000 evacuated. While many people have returned to this area over time, much of this area still remains uninhabitable. Arguably this region is not off the beaten path since it is easily accessible, and many people drive through here every day. My rational is there is very little established tourism to this area.
I took an organized tour that left Tokyo in the morning for a long, full day of exploring this region. There are a couple of companies which periodically bring groups to the area (my group was seven people). I was able to fleetingly see the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant from a great distance. We visited abandoned neighborhoods full of empty homes and schools.
Legacy – Bonus
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
It is difficult not to include Chernobyl on any list of dark tourism. But it is difficult to argue that this is off the beaten path. Chernobyl between social media and the HBO series has really captured the imagination of many. Many companies in Ukraine compete to bring slews of tourists to the zone on a daily basis. Regardless my two day trip was a definite travel experience of mine and highly recommended.
7 Off The Beaten Path Dark Tourism Sights Of The World
And you check out my extended series on the wonders of the world.
And don’t forget …
And the first in the series …