Chilling In The Gulag

Anyone can spend a holiday at the beach. But what about at a teeming slum, a nuclear-meltdown site or a former concentration camp? A growing number of vacationers are looking for just such hardship holidays. Travelers are increasingly flocking to Sniper's Alley in Sarajevo and the Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam; they are taking Belfast's Tour of the Troubles, visiting sweatshops in Nicaragua and El Salvador, touring Rio's shantytowns and staying overnight in Russian Gulag country. "The darker side of human nature has a huge hold over us--death, the black arts, mass murder, all of it," says John Lennon, coauthor of the book "Dark Tourism."

Is this a good thing? Visitors to such places insist they are gaining insight and valuable historical knowledge. But critics worry that packaging horror distorts such events. "Auschwitz has been altered so that tours end up at a crematorium that was actually located in a completely different place," notes Lennon. "Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam have been widened to accommodate American tourists."

Most hardship holidaymakers are Westerners who have already seen much of the world. A Moscow tour company has increased the number of its package tours to the city's KGB museum by 10 percent a year, thanks largely to foreigners. And American and European travelers are heading to the Solovetski Islands, not--like the Russians--for the clean air and gorgeous lakes but because that's where the Gulag was born in 1923. Apelsin Tours walks visitors through the central island's evolution from an outpost monastery to a totalitarian experiment in mass repression, where political dissidents were imprisoned. They visit the island's newly created Gulag museum, hear how prison guards forced inmates to use altars as urinals and walk the steep outdoor stairway where prisoners were once thrown to their death. "Our Russian public still views tourism simply as relaxation," says human-rights activist Yana Zykova, who helped open a museum at Perm-36, another concentration camp in the Urals. "Foreigners are the ones interested in places like Perm-36 or Solovetski because it is exotic for them."

Those who really relish life on the edge can visit the still radioactive site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, the worst nuclear disaster in history. A bus tour of the region costs $30 for two hours; children under 18 are not allowed. "There are still no guarantees," says Nikolae Dimitryk, deputy director of Chernobylinterinform, the group that organizes tours around Chernobyl. "But some tourists like to ski down steep cliffs. This risk is not much different." The $30 per person merely covers costs; it doesn't actually benefit the region, says Dimitryk. "But it is good if the world knows the truth about what happened here."

Whether such tourism ever brings any payoff is debatable. Rio's Favela Tour Web site reassures potential customers that their visit to a giant slum will be "beneficial to the community--not voyeuristic at all." Visitors can buy handicrafts made by local children as part of a social program partially financed by the tour. Cape Town's Township Tour Web site offers tourists the chance to meet "real" South Africans. "This tour is not for the fainthearted," it reads. "Poverty runs high, and most tourists are initially shocked by this." Officials estimate that 5 to 10 percent of tourists visit the townships while in Cape Town. In some cases the tours have helped finance day-care centers and other services.

Accommodations at such destinations are hardly five-star--but that's precisely the point. South Africa's Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, allows day-trippers and is currently considering developing a permanent conference venue. Some guests have already had the opportunity to sleep in the cockroach-infested homes of former prison guards and bathe in cold, salty communal showers. "This is for the type of tourist that is impatient with 'sights' and wants to learn," says Robert Ross, Clark University's former chair of sociology and a specialist in labor-rights abuses.

Tourists also like to visit the sites of notorious accidents and murders, like Lockerbie, Scotland, where Pan Am Flight 103 exploded, and the Paris tunnel where Princess Diana died in a car crash. Few are looking to witness disasters firsthand; there hasn't been much demand for, say, tours of the West Bank or downtown Kabul. But if the general trend continues, even those may not be far off. "That's the future," says Lennon. "People are wondering how close they can get to death." Before snapping their photos and hopping back on the bus.