(in Russian, external link, opens in a new tab)
Q: Peter, please tell our readers about yourself, and how did you get into Dark Tourism?
A: Well, I’ve basically been a dark tourist all my life, longer than the term ‘dark tourism’ has been around (that was invented sometime in the second half of the 1990s by British academics); I’ve always been drawn to dereliction and the darker sides of modern history, since childhood or at least since adolescence. I first discovered the existence of the term ‘dark tourism’ in 2007. By then I had already been to various dark-tourism destinations such as Chernobyl, North Korea, Robben Island (South Africa) as well as a couple of concentration camp memorials and so forth. Once I found out about the concept of dark tourism I got into the subject matter more, read up about it and tried to find more information about yet more destinations that fall under that broad umbrella term. I discovered that while there is plenty of academic material about dark tourism, there was precious little systematic guidance for actual travellers wanting to explore dark tourism. That’s why I started such a resource myself, in the form of my main website dark-tourism.com, which provides such travel information, historical background, and first-hand reports of what there is to see at those places. By now the website covers well over a thousand individual destinations, over 90% of which I have already visited myself. But the list is always growing, of course. It’s a never-ending project.
Q: Your book “Atlas of Dark Destinations” covers 300 individual destinations in 90 different countries. Tell us how you decided to make a book like that.
A: The book was actually commissioned from me by the publishers, who had basically headhunted me on the basis of my website. I had toyed with the idea of a book already, though, so it didn’t take me long to draft a proper formal book proposal once that was requested. The editors and I quite quickly decided on the current format, as an overview of what the world of dark tourism has to offer, a selection of the most important such sites all over the world (that’s why omissions had to be made – you simply cannot fit a thousand places into the ca. 350 pages of the book). On the one hand it’s to whet so-inclined readers’ travel appetite and also to provide some more background information about various thematic aspects involved (e.g. about radiation, about the slave trade, about volcanism, etc., etc.). Some destination chapters are quite short, other, more significant ones, e.g. about Chernobyl or Auschwitz, are a few pages long. There are also lists of further destinations of certain categories (e.g. more ex-prisons, other cemeteries worth seeing, and so forth). It’s a mix, and designed not to be read cover to cover but for dipping in and out of, like a coffee-table book. For that purpose it’s also richly illustrated with photos (about a third of them my own). It’s quite a beautiful tome, if I may say so myself …
Q: Dark Tourism covers several aspects like historical places, weird ghost places and abandoned places. On which of them do you focus and why?
A: To begin with, I focus on the real world, which I think is really dark enough, so I see no need for adding imagined or “paranormal” dark aspects such as allegedly haunted places, ghosts or UFOs. I’ll leave that to others and just deal with real history. And I focus on modern history – following one school of thought in dark-tourism research that situates dark tourism in the modern era, that is: starting roughly with the advent of mass media in the late 19th century and the beginning of tourism in the contemporary sense of the word. That means I generally don’t cover anything from, say, ancient Rome or the Middle Ages or so. There are a few exceptions on my website where there is enough overlap with modern dark tourism so that e.g. places such as Pompeii or the Colosseum get a mention too. But overall I tend to not go back in time further than the late 19th century. One particular historical era that is close to my heart is the Cold War period – that’s a demographic thing: I grew up during the Cold War and came of age in the first half of the 1980s, which was one of the most dangerous phases of that period. Hence I can relate to that part of history personally more than I can, for instance, to the First World War. For my website, though, I try to cast the net as wide as possible and endeavour to cover all of the many subcategories of dark tourism (my website currently lists over 40 such subcategories).
Q: You have visited some 100 countries. Which is the most ‘dark’ one and why would you recommend it to dark tourists?
A: Going by the sheer number of dark sites, the answer has to be Germany. And it’s not really surprising. Just think of that country’s 20th century history: from imperial rule to two world wars, the Nazis, the Holocaust, and then the Cold War, with the starkest representation of the Iron Curtain running right through the middle of the then divided country, most visibly so in the form of the Berlin Wall, and all the East German communist history on top. No wonder, then, that Berlin can be called something like the “capital of dark tourism”. Not only does my website list more individual sites within that city than many whole countries get (currently there are ca. 50 subchapters for Berlin), the city also embraces that dark heritage more than other cities do. Here things like the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Stasi Museum or the Holocaust Memorial are very much part of the city’s general tourism industry. Germany is also at the forefront when it comes to “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, which is a very German word roughly meaning “coming to terms with one’s (dark) past”. You can see that at the various concentration camp memorial sites within Germany, which all come with elaborate, state-of-the-art visitor centres and exhibitions to complement the authentic relics.
But there are of course other countries that offer a lot for dark tourists too, not least the USA (especially in terms of the Cold War and nuclear heritage), France, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Japan, and many more. And then there are those places that may not feature such a wide range of dark sites, but which are pretty unique in their own ways, such as the islands of Montserrat or St Helena or the Falkland Islands, which are of course also very “exotic” destinations not easily reached.
Q: What are your Top-5 of dark places on earth?
A: There is some agreement in dark tourism that its “Big Five” are: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York. These are also amongst the most visited dark places, where dark tourism and mass tourism overlap, as it were. Personally I would also highlight Rwanda, which has some of the emotionally most “demanding” dark sites, or the spectacularly unique Ijen volcano in Indonesia, or the Polygon, the former Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. These are much less visited, but for me they are amongst the most fascinating places, not least precisely because they are so off the beaten track.
Q: Visiting such places is pretty hard and sometimes very dangerous. Did you ever face any real dangers visiting those places?
A: No, not really … hardly ever, in fact. The idea that dark tourism is dangerous is a common misconception but mostly a misconception nonetheless. You have to differentiate. The vast majority of dark-tourism destinations pose no dangers at all. Visiting, say, concentration camp memorials or war museums or ex-prisons like Alcatraz is perfectly safe. The issues touched upon there may at times be hard to stomach, but there are no physical risks at all. But then there are subcategories of dark tourism where certain risks may come into play. For example, in the subcategory of urbex, i.e. exploring abandoned buildings, where unstable structures that could collapse can pose potential dangers; so you have to tread with care and not take excessive risks. Or think of nuclear tourism, e.g. in Chernobyl, Fukushima or at the Polygon. Here you need to have a good understanding of radiation and what poses a health risk and what doesn’t. Generally you can be quite safe at those places too, provided you follow some common-sense rules (e.g. never ingest anything out in the open) and don’t spend too long at any radiation hotspots.
The only times I faced real dangers on my travels these had to do with transport – e.g. I was once on a boat in Komodo, Indonesia, that wasn’t really fully seaworthy and had no life vests or navigational aids or even lights. And in some countries simply being on the road in chaotic and anarchic traffic is an inherent risk (I had that e.g. in China and India). But those things are quite independent of dark tourism and apply to any traveller in such places. Generally, though, ‘dark’ does not mean ‘dangerous’ but only dark in the same metaphorical way as in the expression “a dark chapter in history”.
Q: You have also been to Ukraine and Russia, what dark places did you focus on in those countries?
A: In Ukraine the No. 1 dark place is of course Chernobyl, and in particular the legendary ghost town of Pripyat within the Exclusion Zone. But there are also things like a former nuclear intercontinental missile base or various museums and memorial sites in Kyiv, such as Babyn Yar. Of course, all of these are currently out of reach of tourism because of the ongoing war. The same applies to Russia at the moment, at least for Western travellers (who couldn’t so easily get into the country at all). That’s a shame, because Russia features quite a rich portfolio of dark-tourism attractions, especially in St Petersburg and Moscow, or think of Volgograd, but also places as far away as Perm, with the only proper gulag memorial site open to tourists (Perm-36).
Q: Cyprus. How did you end up here? Cyprus in the mind of most tourists is the brightest place on earth.
A: Indeed, most people think of Cyprus primarily as a beach holiday destination, and maybe the locus of some ancient history. But there are also quite contemporary dark aspects – not least the division of the country into the EU-member Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish North, with a UN-controlled ‘buffer zone’ between them. Nicosia is the last divided capital city in the world. The border strip between North and South, called the Green Line, is sometimes likened to the former Berlin Wall – although it actually looks quite different. What many people aren’t so aware of is the colonial history of the island, and especially the violent struggle for independence that was fought between 1955 and 1959 by the EOKA paramilitary organization until independence was finally granted in 1960. This was then followed by internal ethnic clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. These were also very bloody and basically led to the division of the country and the creation of the buffer zone, which in fact predates the Turkish invasion of the north in 1974.
For me Cyprus was actually one of the last countries in Europe that I hadn’t yet visited (the other two being Andorra and San Marino), so it was quite overdue to finally go and fill that gap. And thanks to your good offices I received many valuable tips about less well-known dark places, ones that the standard guidebooks never even mention. So that was quite helpful. And I’m very grateful!
Q: What was your road trip on Cyprus? What Dark place on Cyprus would you recommend most?
A: It was only in part a road trip. For much of the time I was based in Nicosia, where I visited various dark museums, especially the Museum of the National Struggle in the south and its Turkish counterpart, the National Struggle Museum in North Nicosia. In addition I obviously explored the Green Line as far as that is possible, from both the southern and the northern side, and also visited the memorial site at the so-called “Imprisoned Graves”. That’s where in the 1950s the British colonial military executed a number of EOKA freedom fighters and buried them within the prison grounds. The prison is still there, as are the graves, but you can now visit the site and also see the original gallows used in those executions. It’s one of the principal colonial-era-related dark sites in Cyprus.
I took to the road by rental car in Northern Cyprus, especially to drive to Famagusta and go and see the fabled ghost town of Varosha, which the Turks controversially opened up to visitors in late 2020. Politically this move may have been contentious, but for the dark tourist it offered a great addition to the country’s dark-tourism appeal. In fact, I’d say that Varosha was the top highlight of this trip of mine. But those places like Kokkinotrimithia, with its former British colonial concentration camp, or the mining relics near Mitsero, that we visited together on our driving excursion, were also highlights. These are a bit tricky to get to without insider knowledge, but I’d say the easier to get to sites like Varosha, the Imprisoned Graves, the Green Line and the Museum of the National Struggle in South Nicosia can all be highly recommended.
I’ve recently uploaded a new post on my DT Blog, which I run parallel to my main website, and this Blog post gives an overview of my Cyprus trip and comes with a few representative photos. It will take me more time to expand the existing Cyprus chapter on my main website and then I’ll have to add several all-new chapters and provide photo galleries for all those individual places I visited. All that will keep me busy for several weeks to come …
Q: Do you think there is any chance for a tourist agency that will focus on dark tourism?
A: To be honest, I don’t think so. Dark tourism is generally something undertaken by individuals on an independent, self-organized basis. The term dark tourism is mostly shunned within the tourism industry, partly because of ignorance or because of the many misunderstandings about what dark tourism really means, not least through some misguided negative media features about dark tourism. Even companies that do offer subcategories of dark tourism (e.g. WW1 battlefield tours in the Somme) hardly ever use the expression ‘dark tourism’. There are no off-the-peg dark-tourism package holidays anywhere, and only a couple of very small outfits offer individually packaged short dark trips to very few select dark destinations. In general, dark tourism is useful as a cover term, but it is hardly ever used on the part of tourist agencies and tour operators. In fact very few places would require such offers, namely those where guided group travel is the norm, such as in North Korea or Turkmenistan. But almost everywhere else it’s something that individuals do independently.
Q: Have you ever travelled as a standard classic tourist?
A: Not really. I’ve never been on a classic beach holiday, for instance – and to be frank, a beach crowded with sun worshippers and all the paraphernalia of beach holidays to me are hell on Earth. But even on a non-crowded beach I get bored almost instantly. I want to connect with the country I’ve travelled to – I don’t want escapism. I’m also not very keen on the standard cultural holiday focus on old palaces, churches and the like, the things that standard guidebooks tend to concentrate on. I always want to go beyond those prescribed “ordinary” tourism “must-dos”.
That said, I have used standard tour agencies, but mostly for highly tailored trips, e.g. to South America and Africa; but the last time I was on a non-dark, off-the-peg package tour was in 1987, namely to Leningrad, as it was then still called (today’s St Petersburg). Although you could argue that going to the Soviet Union as a Westerner while the Cold War was still on also had a dark element to it. Other package tours I booked more recently were to North Korea and Turkmenistan, where, as I already said, such group travel is the norm. But of course both trips had quite a few dark elements built into them.
But even on my self-organized trips I always try to balance the dark with the non-dark, sometimes more, sometimes less so. My latest longer trip before Cyprus was to Namibia, and that trip was only about one third dark, if that. I also enjoy grand scenery, wildlife watching and the culinary aspects of travelling. I think such a balance is important. Nobody, not even me, could do only dark tourism and nothing else.
Q: I know that you are a craft beer lover. Did you manage to taste any Cyprus craft beers and which one you liked most?
A: This picks up from my previous answer about non-dark aspects of travel. And indeed for about the past decade or so, seeking out local craft beers has been one of my travel delights, and Cyprus was no exception. I managed to sample several Cypriot-made craft beers, and one that impressed me the most was the Red IPA made by Golem (by a Czech brewer, though) right by the Green Line in the Old Town of Nicosia. Their stout was also very good indeed. I even found a very respectable West Coast IPA in North Nicosia namely at The Walls Inn, also brewed locally. Their nice and spicy Belgian-style Tripel was very good indeed too.
Q: What about the second edition of your “Atlas of Dark Destinations”? Will there be a chapter about Cyprus?
A: At the moment no proper second edition is planned, but that may change if the current second print run of the first edition should sell out too. We’ll see. The current first edition already has a Cyprus chapter and a single subchapter, namely about the Green Line. Of course, now that I have explored Cyprus myself and in more depth I would like to add a couple of chapters more, while taking a couple of e.g. Ukrainian ones out for the time being. I’d also have more for several other countries, so there’d be scope for a second edition, if not even a Volume Two. But at the moment that’s speculation into an uncertain future.
Q: Where is it possible to buy your current book "Atlas of Dark Destinations"?
A: Anywhere, really. You can order it direct from the publishers (Laurence King Publishing Ltd., or its German and American branches); and as this is part of the global Hachette Group you can also get it through any bookshop – and of course from the usual online booksellers, including Amazon. It’s really very easy to find that way, even if you won’t see it very often in bookshop windows (I’ve spotted it only once so far – at the bookshop inside Tirana’s international airport!). By the way, there is also a Russian version, a Spanish one, and, so I’ve been told, a Japanese one. A German version was planned at one stage as well, but that’s currently on hold. But the English original is very easy to obtain in most parts of the world. For a description of the book and some sample pages and images see this webpage.