Content:
  1. From Maidan to Chornobayivka
  2. Entertainment dating back to gladiator era
  3. It's not just about money

Every year, millions of tourists around the world visit some of the most horrific places on Earth: former war zones, accidents, disasters, and crimes against humanity. From Auschwitz to Chornobyl, from Anne Frank's house to Alcatraz prison, memorials to 9/11 and the Kigali genocide. The desire to see tragic or dramatic events with your own eyes is not new to history. This phenomenon is called dark tourism, and although it sometimes violates ethical norms, it is centuries old.

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The war, no matter how cynical it may sound, also creates opportunities for Ukraine in this area. According to Anton Taranenko, CEO of Visit Ukraine, there are already guides in Ukraine who accompany journalists and volunteers in de-occupied villages and towns.

LIGA.net analyzes what dark tourism is and how much Ukraine can earn from it after the war.

From Maidan to Chornobayivka

At 5 a.m. on February 24, Pavlo Biletskyi, co-founder of the KhersOn travel agency, was about to dive into the sea. He was preparing a new destination for his joint business with his brother Oleksiy. In addition to tours in Ukraine, he planned to organize diving tours in Egypt. Pavlo threw his equipment into the car and drove to the coast with his contractors. However, all business plans were suddenly disrupted by the war as Russia started its invasion and was heading towards his city of Kherson.

Forgetting about diving, Pavlo first of all contacted his family in Kherson and started looking for opportunities to return to Ukraine. His brother, parents, and pregnant wife remained in the city at the time. In April, his family finally managed to leave the occupied regional center, and the entrepreneur put his business on hold and became a volunteer. 

According to Biletskyi, it was through volunteering that he came up with the idea of creating a tour to Chornobayivka, a village that has become a meme and one of the symbols of Ukrainian resistance to the aggressor state. In his opinion, this place should be museumized to preserve the memory of the terrible war, and the availability of this product on his company's website is a form of collecting donations for the needs of the Armed Forces and the population in the de-occupied territories. "We have already raised about $3,000 through the website," the co-founder of the KhersOn travel agency told LIGA.net.

Dark tourism or trips to sites of triumph. What it is and how it will help Ukraine after war
Picture: Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance/Facebook)

Image: Ukrainian Institute of National Memory / Facebook

This is not the only example of a future dark tourism location in Ukraine. Back in 2013-2014, the Chornobyl Tour operator, in addition to trips to the exclusion zone, also organized volunteer trips to the Maidan during the Revolution of Dignity and to the ATO zone. According to the company's co-founder Yaroslav Yemelianenko, several hundred foreigners grasped this opportunity.

"It was one of the instruments of assistance," says the co-founder of the Chornobyl Tour, emphasizing that it was not dark tourism. In his opinion, it was an opportunity for people to better understand the cause-and-effect links, such as why the Maidan started and what provoked the conflict in eastern Ukraine. "If a person wanted to help the Ukrainian Armed Forces, we provided them with a list of things they needed for the army: body armor, helmets, radios. They collected it, and we went with the volunteers to the front line. The tour cost tourists up to $1,000 per day," he adds, emphasizing that the company did not make any money on these trips.

Entertainment dating back to gladiator era

For history, dark tourism is not a novelty explains Oleksandr Babich, founder of the Tudoy-Syudoy agency, in his lectures on the topic. He cites the American writer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, as an example. He was one of the tourists who visited the south of modern-day Ukraine in 1867 to see the battlefields of the Crimean War near Sevastopol. Another example is the nineteenth-century tours of Civil War battlefields in the United States or tours of public hangings in England by Thomas Cook, the father of the travel industry.

"Ever since humans began to travel, they have been traveling to observe death, corpses, and relics," writes geographer Tony Johnston in The Geographies of Thanatourism, "Roman gladiatorial battles drew crowds from across the Empire. Medieval European pilgrimages to Christian death sites were commonplace. And in the nineteenth century, tourists and locals in France visited Parisian morgues, which could receive up to 40,000 visitors a day."

If we dive deeper into the history of dark tourism, it becomes clear that there are actually many cases of this trend in Ukraine. Lychakiv Cemetery, the Chornobyl zone, Lontskoho Street Prison, and Babyn Yar. These are some of the many classic dark tourism locations that Babich mentions in his lectures. Other locations are places associated with the Second World War and the cult of the Great Patriotic War, which was rapidly gaining popularity in the USSR.

"This story was so powerful that they even organized tourist trains that traveled to the sites of World War II," Babich recalls. However, it was not only the USSR that did this. Perhaps the world's most famous examples of dark tourism are the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum near Auschwitz, the Alcatraz prison, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

In general, according to a study by Future Market Insight, last year the global dark tourism market was valued at $30 billion. Europe, America, Asia, Africa — an online guide created by tourist Peter Hohenhaus contains more than 1,000 sites across 116 countries that are considered to be dark tourism locations. For example, in Israel, there are tours that offer to feel like an IDF soldier, in the United States, you can visit a military unit, and in Poland, the Schindler's Factory offers to "plunge into the history of the inhabitants of Krakow under Nazi occupation."

It is possible that there will be even more such projects over time. According to Future Market Insight, by 2036, the size of the dark tourism market could increase by 20%. Demand is fueled by wars, political events, and even movies. For example, after the release of the Chornobyl series on HBO, the demand for tours to the Exclusion Zone increased by 30-40%. In 2019, according to Yemelianenko, 124,000 people visited Chornobyl, 80% of them foreigners.

It's not just about money

After the war, Biletskyi believes that Ukrainian tourism will revive, and foreigners will remain interested in Ukraine. "This terrible war is a global catastrophe. Now the whole world is helping Ukraine, and after our victory it is important to preserve the memory of this war. It is important to tell and show what happened here truthfully and very carefully," he said. The interest in Ukraine is also confirmed by a survey of 900 US citizens cited by The New Your Times. About 30% of them said they would like to come to Mariupol after the war and see the destroyed Azovstal plant.

According to Anton Taranenko, CEO of Visit Ukraine, there are already guides in Ukraine who organize tours for foreign journalists to de-occupied villages and cities. There are also more and more projects in the country offering online tours to Bucha, Hostomel, and other former sites of hostilities. More substantive projects are also emerging. One of them is solidarity tourism, which, according to Yaroslav Yemelianenko, is supported by USAID.

"This is how we went to Moshchun. Solidarity tourism is when a person comes to Ukraine not for entertainment, but to help in some way — to clear the rubble, etc. This is a good project, we have been working on it for six months. Unfortunately, the government, as always, says it's not the right time," he adds. According to Yemelianenko, government agencies usually reacted in the same way to their attempts to organize tours to Chornobyl.

Dark tourism or trips to sites of triumph. What it is and how it will help Ukraine after war
Destruction in Moschun (Photo: RebuildUA)

Destruction in Moshchun (Image: RebuildUA)

At the same time, Visit Ukraine's experience shows that it is impossible to implement serious dark tourism projects without the support of the population and the state. According to Taranenko, in August, the company planned to organize tourist tours of the de-occupied cities. However, due to public criticism, the company was forced to shelve this idea. "The idea itself has a right to life, but probably later. After the war, after our victory, if people and local authorities don't mind if the guides organize safe and appropriate locations," adds the Visit Ukraine CEO.

However, Babich, Biletskyi, Taranenko, and Yemelianenko are convinced that the main idea of post-war dark tourism projects should not be money, but a message to foreign tourists about the grief the war brought to the homes of Ukrainian citizens. For this reason, Babich advises not to destroy all damaged residential buildings, but to leave some of them as a sign of memory of past events. As an example, Babich cites the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a ruin of a house next to which the United States dropped an atomic bomb in August 1945.

"I am categorically against travel to Ukraine being perceived as dark tourism. These will be trips to sites of triumph. To those places that will demonstrate to the whole world how Ukrainians did not run away, how they fought for their land, and how the whole world helped us in this," Yemelianenko agrees.