The dark attraction of tourist sites associated with disasters and mass murders appears to be growing, but the Dark Tourism craze covers a whole spectrum of questionable taste, writes Thomas Bywater
Following the success of HBO's television drama, visitors to Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone have mushroomed. Tourism companies reported a 40 per cent increase in visitors. Now Craig Mazin's Chernobyl is luring people back to the site from which 50,000 people were displaced by an invisible, radioactive death.
But it's not just destinations featured by hit TV dramas that are enjoying growth from the dark tourism trend.
Last year twice as many people visited Auschwitz Birkenau than were killed in the Nazi concentration camp.
The site which oversaw the extermination of 1.1 million people was visited by 2.152 million tourists.
There is a growing interest in visiting the sites of human tragedies and destinations that resonate with historical events —not always happy ones.
Even New Zealand has its own collection of so-called "dark attractions".
Mt Tarawera and the buried village — Rotorua's answer to Pompeii — might be considered a dark tourism attraction of a sort. Though perhaps it is one where you could take your Nan for tea; something that would be incongruous at a Polish death camp.
Then there are places where tragedy is still too raw to contemplate a visit. The idea of casual tourists visiting Christchurch to see the scars of the 2011 earthquake seems repulsive. The idea of building a visitor museum at the Al Noor and Linwood Islamic centres is unthinkable.
Although how different would this be to building a 9/11 memorial museum, 10 years after the fact?
Clearly not all sites of tragedy were created equal, and our connection to an event is bound to change over time.
The ethics surrounding Dark tourism are several shades of questionable. Six to be precise.
In 2006, academic Philip Stone came up with a Dark Tourism Spectrum as a way of separating the increasingly eclectic mix of destinations tarnished with the "Dark Tourism" label.
From the lightest disclaimer ("Warning: history happened here") to the darkest corner of the Cambodian killing fields, Stone devised a six-degree scale for assessing the "darkness" of a tourist destination.
But, what makes one disaster darker than another? Body count? Time passed?
Near Naples, the ruins of Pompeii in which 2000 Roman men, women and children perished are considered a family friendly day out.
Meanwhile, an increasingly popular "Helter Skelter" tour of the Manson Murders in West Hollywood promises to "give you nightmares". (One presumes this is a selling point for prospective tourists.)
The fact is, these taboos are "fluid and dynamic", as Stone puts it.
Shifts in politics and culture can change opinions, either opening up destinations or make them increasingly controversial. There's nothing like a hit TV show to increase curiosity in a dark location and seemingly grant permission to visit.
Colombia, which for the last 40 years was a front line in a war on drugs, is now one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations in South America.
To the horror of the national tourism board, the memory of the cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar has become one of Colombia's biggest tourism draws.
In the last five years visitors have almost doubled to 3.1 million tourists. During those years there have been three feature films and a wildly popular Netflix series Narcos, telling the story of Colombia's favourite antihero.
A quick search of the internet reveals a cartel-worth of "Escobar" themed tours around Cartagena and Medellin.
Beyond ghoulish appeal and titillation, much of dark tourism is about education and finding answers to the questions they raise.
Even without a personal connection to the sites, people visit simply out of respect and a healthy curiosity for the events that happened.
More difficult to morally condone are the businesses which follow the influx of tourists.
Now at the entrance to the Chernobyl exclusion zone are souvenir shops flogging luminous signs and hazmat suits. Ticket booths sell tours to the abandoned town like it was a radioactive theme park. Commerce and catastrophe rarely mix with dignified results.
Earlier this year, Ukrainians were horrified to see the exclusion zone hold the site's first music festival Artefact . "That thing killed my grandmother … and now it's a disco?" read one appalled response on a festivalgoer's Instagram account.
There is a fine line between tourism and disaster exploitation.
However, dark tourism is a trend being pursued by ever larger and established operators.
At some point these tour guides have had to face the moral dilemma of selling itineraries to disaster sites.
"For me, the dilemma of dark tourism isn't about where you visit," says James Thornton CEO of Intrepid. "It's why you're visiting – and how you choose to travel when you get there."
As the CEO of a company that oversees travel to dark tourism sites as benign as the Tower of London or as bleak as the Pripyat nuclear exclusion zone, Thornton justifies Intrepid's itineraries into the moral greyzone as educational missions.
Intrepid recently recorded a "131 per cent increase" in bookings to Chernobyl following the release of HBO's television show.
"We believe that travel allows us to learn about places and people. Stories about tragic events should be told, because they help to stop history from repeating itself."
It's clear that the renewed interest and the increased accessibility have helped shed new light on Chernobyl.
But you have to ask: Has the television show and the tours made the disaster zone become less dark? Or just more in demand?