Disaster Tourism Destinations

When visiting the Chernobyl site a couple of years ago, I ran into a guy that was writing about “Disaster Tourism”. I thought that was an interesting concept and for some reason I’ve been thinking about that conversation and disaster tourism destinations in general tonight…

Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Now, I should clarify what he meant by “disaster tourism” as opposed to “dark tourism” or some of the other tourism categories that are casually thrown around. This guy’s definition (and I don’t remember his name or I would refer to him by it rather than “this guy”) was that although the disaster could be man-made, to qualify as legitimate disaster tourism, the incident could not have been intentional. It had to have been accidental, or at least an unintended consequence, otherwise it would belong in the dark tourism category. Thus, an accidental nuclear meltdown or a devastating forest fire could be on the disaster tourism list, while an intentional event like Auschwitz would be off the list as, being intentional, it would fall under the dark tourism label.

Got it?

This is not a precise science and there can certainly be some overlap between the various categories since dark tourism is far more general and could apply equally to a place such as the JFK assassination site or to Chernobyl.

A place such as the “Bone Church” in Kutna Hora (pictured below) outside Prague, where a local artisan made sculptures out of human bones, is somewhat difficult to classify.  It’s not really the scene of an accident since the creation of the church was intentional, but the stacks of bones and bodies that needed to be dealt with were primarily the result of a series of disasters and accidents.  So, you can decide for yourself on that one.  I’m not interested in worrying that much about it.

The Bone Church - Kostnice Ossuary In Sedlec

Lastly, for those that reflexively recoil in horror at the idea of objectifying someone else’s misery… Tell me, have you ever craned your head to see a car accident along the side of the road?  Have you ever visited Pompeii?  Or wanted to?  Have you ever gone to the beach to watch the waves crash into the shore ahead of a big hurricane?  Or driven around after a blizzard to see all of the trees that were knocked down?  Or walked a block out of your way to see a building damaged by a recent earthquake?

Sorry, but all of those are a form of disaster tourism… After all, someone does not necessarily need to perish in order for a site to merit disaster destination status.

Anyway, the below is a list of the sites I could come up with off of the top of my head…  I’ve focused more on recent history because if there isn’t much to see, the site is less compelling, no?  And, yes, this list is almost certainly Western-centric since I am working from memory and events in the Western world naturally receive more play in the Western press.  Oh, and in a shameless act of self-promotion for your convenience, I have linked, above and below, to those areas discussed here that have previously been written about by The Velvet Rocket:


Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy

Buried by eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD

Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

Subterranean coal fire burning since 1962 has slowly consumed town

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

2005 Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and left more than 1,800 dead

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine

The world’s only Level 7 nuclear accident

Pripyat, Ukraine

Post-apocalyptic landscape following Chernobyl reactor meltdown was once home to 50,000 residents

Aberfan, Wales

1966 collapse of mine tailings above village killed 116 children and 28 adults

Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

The United States conducted 67 nuclear tests on Bikini atoll during the 1940s and 1950s

Nevada National Security Site, Nevada, USA

Almost a thousand nuclear tests since 1951

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

2010 earthquake left hundreds of thousands dead

Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

2010 eruption killed over 350 people and displaced another 400,000

Band Aceh, Indonesia

2004 tsunami left up to 310,000 dead

Gruinard Island, Scotland

520-acre island was British government’s World War II bioweapons test site

Stevens Pass, Washington, USA

1910 Wellington Avalanche which killed 96 people is still the worst avalanche in U.S. history

Donghekou Quake Relief Park, Sichuan, China

2008 earthquake killed more than 90,000, but the Chinese have made a theme park and tour out of the event

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Pacific Ocean

Conglomeration of trash in the ocean northeast of Hawaii is twice the size of Texas

Bethnal Green Tube Station, London, England

1943 panic left 173 trampled to death

Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant, Bhopal, India

December 1984 leak of toxic gas killed 2,000 people immediately and thousands more in the following years due to the aftereffects

Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland

2010 eruptions wreaked havoc with air travel

Mount St. Helens, Washington, USA

Dramatic 1980 eruption which killed 57 people was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States

Salang Pass, Afghanistan

2010 avalanches killed 172 people

The above list is far from complete, so please feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section below…


As is evidenced by Lisa Wade’s relatively recent commentary on disaster tourism, not everyone finds such an elastic line between insensitive voyeurism and education in the world of disaster tourism:

“Imagine having lost loved ones and seen your house nearly destroyed. After a year out of town, you’re in your nastiest clothes mucking sludge out of your bottom floor, fearful that the money will run out before you can get your house, the house that your grandmother bought and passed down to you through your mother, put back together. Imagine that — as you push a wheelbarrow out into the sunlight, blink as you adjust to the brightness, and push your hair off your forehead, leaving a smudge of mud — a bus full of cameras flash at you, taking photographs of your trauma, effort, and fear. And then they take that photo back to their cozy, dry home and show it to their friends, who ooh and aah about how cool it was that they got to see the aftermath of the flood.

disaster tourism

The person who made this sign… this is what they may have been feeling.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, I do not share the above sentiments… And I can say that having been on both sides of the issue.

In 1997 a forest fire devastated the Ames estate.  The fire started in a neighboring community and, through the coordinated efforts of ground and air crews, remained small throughout the day. However, the fire fighters were not able to get the fire completely out…

When night fell, the aircraft that had been containing the fire had to be called off as they risked crashing in the difficult mountainous terrain.  Almost immediately the blaze exploded into a firestorm that, within only hours, burned thousands of acres, destroyed well over 100 homes and resulted in a staggering loss of life for the local flora and fauna.  The Ames estate was dead center in the path of the fire.

However, despite the destruction that was visited upon us, I would have been happy to show anyone around that was interested.  The force with which the inferno roared over the area was interesting and I’m not going to be offended by someone’s curiosity.

As is the case for many people, my reasons for travelling to such destinations are very personal. I’m interested in visiting places that have had a particular effect on me in my life. Other people are maybe drawn to visit sites of destruction, historical tragedy or crime for various and different reasons. Some do it for pure rubber-necking thrills or even a spot of Schadenfreude. Others visit for education, even as a form of penance. For me, I think my travels are an attempt to connect with history. I’ve always been obsessed with current affairs. By visiting these places I get a perspective, a physical connection to events that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

9 thoughts on “Disaster Tourism Destinations

  1. I would add Lake Nyos in Cameroon. In 1986 the lake emitted a cloud of CO2 which suffocated about 1700 people. I hope to visit it some time soon. It is said to have a beautiful scenery too! Ans I still really enjoy your various insights to dangerously interesting places all around the earth!

  2. Large chunks of the Middle East seem like disaster tourist sites — Beirut is riddled with bullet holes; Kabul is bombed out; Bamiyan has empty caves where the buddhas used to be… and on and on. But it’s not as much to see the disaster as to see the resurgence in the years/decades/centuries after.

    • Adam –

      I can tell that you and I share similar travel tastes. Always a pleasure to meet like-minded individuals…

      Under the strict “disaster tourism” definition of the guy I met, he would say that places like Afghanistan would fall under the “dark tourism” category as those events were caused by man. For the guy I met, and I really wish I could remember his name, disaster tourism had to have an accidental or natural component.

      Now, personally, I don’t care about the semantics or categories of tourism. But the guy that inspired that post was quite passionate about the subject.

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  5. Thank you, Justin Ames. Am reading Asne Seierstad’s “The Bookseller of Kabul”, and trying to learn something about Afghanistan in the process. Searched for pictures of the Salang Pass and tunnel and got more than I bargained for. Interesting, frightening; like learning about another planet. The Afghanis are a hardy and courageous people. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

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