Almost all of us have been dark tourists at some point in our lives. A controversial vacation trend, “dark tourism” refers to travel to sites connected with death and atrocity. This could be places like Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but arguably also school trips to World War Two memorials or a visit to the Berlin Wall.
Wuhan, the former epicentre of COVID-19, is the latest destination for dark tourism trips. After the city’s 76-day lockdown ended in April, residents have attempted to return to some kind of normality, with recent GDP data now suggesting that China may be the first major economy to recover from the pandemic. And as the country’s economy improves, so does Wuhan’s tourism sector, attracting visitors curious about the deadly virus’s initial focal point.
In June, The Telegraph reported that Wuhan would become a “popular dark tourism destination”. Indeed Wuhan was previously overshadowed by places like Beijing and Shanghai, but the city is quickly becoming a hub for those outside of the Hubei Province. According to a study from the Tourism Research Centre in China, Wuhan is now a top destination in the country and as borders reopen, the number of foreign travellers is likely to increase.
In February, travel vlogger Anton Lyadov attempted to visit Wuhan from Shanghai. His experiences were captured in a YouTube video for his channel, The People. It has since amassed over 3.5 million views.
“My motivation was curiosity,” Lyadov tells VICE News. “I wouldn’t say that I’m concentrated on dangerous places – I’d say different. I’m interested in the way people live, in the details.”
Although he couldn’t enter the city, which was blockaded at the time, Lyadov travelled to the outskirts before being apprehended by the police. Looking back, he describes his visit as a unique experience: “It was a very special trip. It’s like you come to the country which lives in the Hollywood movie, when the sky’s about to fall down and everything’s so tense.”
For Niu Chen, a Beijing native, the reason for her visit to Wuhan in September was a desire to witness the impact of COVID-19. “I wanted to know more about what was going on and to see it firsthand,” she says. “To get a sense of how things were and how people are living their lives now, as well as to look back on what happened.”
It’s understandable that Wuhan attracts travellers who live in China, many of whom are keen to support a recovering city as well as better understand the context of the pandemic in their country. But the city is also a destination for international travellers like Dominic, who lives in Arizona in the US, and hopes to visit when it is safe to travel.
“I’d already been planning to go to China this year before everything went down,” he explains. “Now, I’d like to pay a trip to Wuhan in particular, once I can reschedule. I feel like the media shows a glimpse of what happened, but I’d like to see it for myself.”
Dominic sees dark tourism as a way to learn and engage with contemporary history. When asked about the ethics of visiting a city where people died so recently, he says: “I think educating yourself and immersing in the context, as I plan on doing when I visit China, is a good thing. I’ve visited places like the Museum of Death [a museum with locations in New Orleans and LA] and it’s helped me to better connect with its history.”
Why do we love to visit the sites of tragedies? Annaclaudia Martini, from the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at University of Groningen, notes that greater understanding can be achieved by visiting locations linked to suffering. Many of us are also fascinated by “what we are exposed to in the media” and therefore drawn towards infamous locations like Wuhan.
“I did work a lot on why people might want to visit Fukushima in Japan after the nuclear disaster, and it always boils down a sense of feeling part of something bigger than our individual lives,” Martini says. “If Wuhan is a metaphor for the pandemic, Chinese tourists might want to visit out of curiosity, but mostly, to ‘see with their own eyes’, and reckon with what happened there.”
Martini theorises that there are several reasons why travellers may now be compelled to visit Wuhan. “There is an educational purpose to many of these trips, and in some cases, it can be therapeutic, a way to confront a trauma,” she says. “Many of the people I interviewed always point to a desire to be a witness – to really, fully, feel part of a history that makes us feel like spectators. It's powerful, even cathartic, to be able to say, ‘I was there’.”
In years to come, Wuhan may follow the trajectory of other sites of dark tourism – perhaps commercialised trips or museum exhibitions will emerge, in the same way that Hurricane Katrina tours operate 15 years on. For now, the city seems to be attracting a growing number of dark tourists from both educational and introspective standpoints.
“I don’t think dark tourism is necessarily as unethical as it’s portrayed,” says Dominic. “I do consider myself to be a dark tourist. It's natural for people to be curious about places with darker associations.”