The appeal of vacations linked to sites connected to death, destruction and atrocities is a fast growing global sector known as 'dark tourism'.
Destinations as diverse as the Auschwitz concentration camp, New York’s Ground Zero and the 'killing fields' of Cambodia are well established locations in this expanding market, as tourists look for different experiences to the standard two weeks on a Costa del Sol beach or hill walking in Tuscany.
Ireland is not short of its own dark places - the National Famine Museum in Strokestown, the cells of Kilmainham Gaol, Belfast’s 'black taxi' tours and the former penal colony on Spike Island - named as Europe’s leading tourist attraction at the prestigious World Travel Awards in 2017, ahead of Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower.
Waiting for a connecting flight at Stansted Airport a few weeks back, I got chatting to a Limerick couple on their way to visit Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.
They were inspired to go as a result of the recent television series and "a deep curiosity to visit a place that would leave a lasting impression," they explained. Indeed, following that television series, tourism to the former exclusion zone has rocketed, with bookings up by 40% this year.
Tours of the post-apocalyptic wasteland cost up to €100 a head, and include Reactor Number 4, covered by a vast metal dome enveloping the exploded core, the bunker where officials made the fateful decision not to evacuate after the explosion and the ghost town of Pripyat, once inhabited by 50,000 people, complete with abandoned buildings, rusting amusement park and the giant Ferris wheel that had been scheduled to open a few days after the disaster happened.
Visitors fly into Kiev and are then bussed the 75 miles to Chernobyl, after being assured that the radiation levels at the site are only two micro-sieverts, "equal to the amount you’d get staying at home for 24 hours."
Visitors to the eerie place cover a wide spectrum from retirees to school tours to avid devotees of "disaster tourism". The lure of such a harrowing experience was summed up by Craig Mazin, the creator of the Chernobyl television series.
In 2018, 2.1 million people visited the former Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz, a record for the memorial.
"A visit here is not only a history lesson, but also a lesson in responsibility resulting from memory," according to Piotr Cywinski, director of the former camp’s museum. It is also listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, designated for its representation of "a dark chapter in the history of humanity and a warning of the many threats and tragic consequences of extreme ideologies and denial of human dignity."
Yet, while hallowed sites like Auschwitz, South Africa’s Robben Island, Russia’s Perm 36 gulag and Rwanda’s Kigali genocide museum attract greater numbers each year, the tourism industry continues to delve deeper for novel experiences demanded by certain niche sectors.
Along the Mexican-US border, for instance, special night walks are organised that simulate the illegal crossing of the border by undocumented immigrants, complete with tunnel hideouts and fictitious trafficking as part of the package.
The popularity of such travel was underlined by last year’s Netflix series, Dark Tourism, in which New Zealand journalist David Farrier dedicated himself to "the mad, the macabre, the morbid." His encounters included Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s chief henchman and a Jeffrey Dahmer serial killer enthusiast in Milwaukee. He also visited the Japanese town still deserted after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As the tour moves deeper into the exposed zone, the geiger counters start to register alarmingly high levels of radiation, prompting the Kiwi to quip: "Suddenly nuclear tourism doesn’t seem like such a great idea."
In certain tourism areas, however, the word 'dark' does not automatically conjure foul deeds and dreadful atrocities. Anything but, in fact.
Five years ago, the International Dark-Sky Association, a non-profit environmental organisation dedicated to preserving the world’s night-time environment and heritage, designated a specific area of Co Kerry as a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Reserve - one of only three such places, and the only one in the Northern Hemisphere.
The designation acknowledges the clarity of the skies in this area of Ireland’s south-west, where astronomical glories like the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebula are as plainly visible as would be seen from the desert plains of Africa or the remote vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
In awarding Kerry its gold tier status, the association noted "the exceptional achievements by local communities to protect and preserve dark night skies over southwest Ireland."
Encompassing 700 square km that includes Valentia Island, Portmagee, Ballinskelligs, Waterville and Caherdaniel, the reserve sits on an isolated region of the Iveragh Peninsula, and won its status as the result of a sustained campaign by the Kerry Dark Sky Group, established to counter the negative effects of light pollution and to exploit emerging 'astro tourism' opportunities.
"We hope this status will encourage other places to take positive action to protect their own dark-sky areas," said Julie Ormonde, chairperson of the Kerry Dark Sky Group and volunteer project manager of the Reserve.
"Tourists passing through the Ring of Kerry don’t realise they miss half the attraction. Come the night-time and there’s a whole different side that comes out. I think we’ve been stuck in a rut as regards tourism in Ireland. We’ve had the same agenda for too long and need to change the profile of tourism and work on all these magnificent natural attractions."
Kerry’s application for the dark-sky accreditation was supported by Fáilte Ireland and Kerry County Council, as an opportunity to promote the region in a new global market.
"Achieving dark sky status will allow visitors to view some of the exceptional skyscapes of south Kerry, which will create magical moments to treasure and experience along the Wild Atlantic Way," said Fiona Monaghan of Fáilte Ireland.