I spent the last year travelling to some of the top dark tourist destinations the world has to offer, making a show for Netflix called Dark Tourist.
I’m not sure how many people have heard the term ‘dark tourism’ – but it’s been around since 1996, and describes a weird sort of industry built up around people visiting places associated with death and disaster.
So instead of visiting Ibiza to see James Blunt do a DJ set, you head off to the Polyon, the most nuked place on earth. Or instead of going on a skiing weekend in Switzerland, you go to a festival of voodoo and watch a bunch of animals get sacrificed to the gods.
There are lots of theories as to why travellers do this, from morbid curiosity, to learning something new about a different culture, to simply being reminded to make the most of the time we have on this earth before we die (possibly in some kind of tragic way that leads you to becoming a dark tourism destination yourself).
It’s a strange travel phenomenon, and it’s on the rise – just the other day I read that the cave the Thai boys were rescued from may become a dark tourist hotspot.
Maybe Elon Musk will pay it a visit.
Anyway – these are five of my favourite spots. You might look at going next time you’re eying up Fiji, or a lads weekend at Mykonos.
I’m not sure about you, but I binge watched all of Narcos, drawn into the utterly riveting story of Pablo Escobar.
Medellín used to be the most dangerous city on the planet – some of the people I met there remembered seeing dead people in the streets when they were kids, victims of the Medellín Cartel and its various enemies.
These days, Medellín is much more peaceful, although there’s still a hell of a lot of cocaine around. I found myself on a rooftop with the local kids watching a cockfight, and we were offered the stuff almost immediately. One kid had it all over his face. It’s horrible, really; but they seemed very happy (well they would be, wouldn’t they). And they all had free homes thanks to Escobar.
Narco Tourism is very prevalent, thanks in part to the TV show. You can go on various tours to places like Escobar’s old prison, La Catedral. Awful, awful stuff went on there, but these days it’s also a pop-culture touchstone.
I had the bizarre experience of going there with Escobar’s most loved hitman, Popeye. Walking around with him, we were accosted by Popeye’s fans. This is a man who shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend, because Escobar told him too.
It’s ethically murky stuff, profiting off the tragedies of the ’80s and ’90s – there’s fierce debate around whether narco tourism is educational, or purely exploitative.
Benin, west Africa
People here aren’t too keen on swimming, so chances are you’ll have a wonderful beach all to yourself.
It’s also home to voodoo – as in, this is where voodoo came from, before travelling to the rest of the world due with the slave trade.
There is a rich and tragic history in Benin and I found myself there on the biggest day of the year: its annual voodoo festival. Voodoo is the national religion in Benin, and a variety of deities are worshipped and followed.
I spent some time with a voodoo priestess and was inducted myself, during a ceremony that was very bloody.
Do your research first. I am not particularly religious or superstitious, but this place had a pretty intense energy around it. It’s heavy stuff.
The Robot Hotel in Sasebo, south-west Japan
Look, to be honest, this isn’t a dark tourist hotspot, but I dropped in while investigating nuclear tourism in Fukushima, and was really glad I did. This is the hotel staffed by robot velociraptors – the most vicious of dinosaurs. That’s pretty dark, I guess.
I was mostly blown away by the novelty of it all, and how decidedly average the raptors were at checking you in. Japan is known for its technological innovations, but they’re not really found here.
I mean, sure, the desk is staffed by robots, and there’s a robot luggage trolley that takes your bags to your room – but none of it really works very well. It’s chaos. That’s its charm.
The lights in my room were controlled by an evil pink robot next to my bed, and there must have been a major language barrier because my lights never went off. I had to use duct tape to cover up the bulbs.
Oh, next door there’s a mostly vacant amusement park that’s based on a Dutch town. It’s like you’ve taken a bunch of LSD when you walk into that place. Why is there a sprawling fake Dutch town in Japan? I still have no idea.
New Orleans, USA
Most people think jazz when they think of New Orleans, but dark tourists go here for the vampires. It feels like there are vampire tours on every street corner, examining the city’s rich history of vampire lore.
But if you look a little deeper, there are real vampires here, too. As in, people who are 100 percent convinced they are real vampires that need human blood in order to survive. It’s like Twilight but with less sparkles and way more blood. They’re fun to hang out with.
The Giant Marble City of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Part of dark tourism is the need to go visit countries that your mother probably doesn’t want you visiting.
I sort of see Turkmenistan like the new North Korea, in a way – a mysterious place that outsiders don’t know much about, run by a dictator. The two countries have lots in common, including a deep suspicion of journalists (you know, locking them up and stuff).
Turkmenistan is nestled between lots of ‘Stans, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Its current dictator, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who I saw in the flesh – loves breaking world records, like World’s Biggest Indoor Ferris Wheel and Biggest City Made of White Marble. He also once fell of a horse.
I snuck in as a “sports reporter” to cover a large Olympic event they held that no one heard about, the Indoor Martial Arts Games. Excited to prove themselves a great country, they built a US$5 billion city just for the event.
The airport cost over US$2 billion dollars, and is shaped like a big bird.
Yep. Told you it was a full-on place.
If you can find a way to get in to Ashgabat, I suggest a visit. Just try not to end up in hospital like I did.
Dark Tourist premieres on Netflix on Friday.