In a climate where a news alert that falsely claims an incoming missile is imminent is believable, and where ‘rocket man’ is no longer just an Elton John tune but an insult used by world leaders; it makes sense that people once again fear the possibility of nuclear attacks. In this context, dark tourism is creeping out of the margins as a prime way of interacting with the history of nuclear warfare.
Dark tourism is a form of travel where the destination is a site related to death. This fascination isn’t new. In fact, the first guided tour organised in England was an 1838 trip to see an execution. Today, dark tourism isn’t about witnessing first-hand suffering, but rather observing the site after a tragedy has occurred and the place has become a historical artefact. Think of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, the site where the Twin Towers once stood, or even Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Within dark tourism, nuclear tourism has created its own niche, with tourists signing up for trips to John F. Kennedy’s own Florida bunker, to sunken ships downed by nuclear tests, or even to test sites themselves. Each site offers its own glimpse of the unfathomable, of scientific wonder and potential catastrophe. Beyond that, each site is a reminder of our lucky escape from the Cold War of the past, and a warning shot for hotter wars of the future.
Having access to these sites is arguably the modern-day equivalent of seeing black-and-white picture in colour for the very first time, as vivid historical narratives are suddenly surreal and too close for comfort. Confronting a nuclear site forces one to confront such discomfort; to play a game of what-about-ery, imagining the possibilities of the weapon, and perhaps to question the very foundations that nuclear programs depend on for their continued existence.
But how have these sites transformed themselves into destinations, and what do they stand for?
When an atomic bomb engulfed the city of Hiroshima on an August morning in 1945, the city became fairly synonymous with the events and aftermath of that day. While rebuilding itself, Hiroshima embraced pacifism, which is evident today in its Peace Memorial Park, Peace Boulevard, Gates of Peace, annual Peace Week, and even its rental bicycles, which are dubbed ‘peacecles’. So, when visitors flock to Hiroshima, they bear witness not only to the brutish aggression that caused its destruction, but also the process of reconciliation and restoration.
Reflecting on the past while standing on the doorstep of where tragedy once unfolded allows us to say “never again” in a visceral way. It ignites an adverse reaction to the atomic bomb — and nuclear weapons more broadly — that can be achieved through books and other educational tools but is uniquely realised through interaction with the space of suffering.
Examining guestbook comments of the Peace Museum revealed that this context pushed visitors to reflect on their own political environments, from the Vietnam War in 1971 to the Iraq War between 2001 and 2005. Tourists do not just leave Hiroshima with the word ‘peace’ meaninglessly imprinted in their mind, but rather, proactively and profoundly engage with the history of Hiroshima, imprinting the pacifist lessons of the site into their own worldviews.
While Hiroshima was engulfed with an atomic bomb, the Trinity Site was the arid home of the first testing of a nuclear weapon a month before the bombings in Japan. Trinity, which is located in a live and operational US Missile Range, is only open for public viewing twice a year. During the six-hour open house events, visitors can wander the site, tour the house of the Manhattan Project scientists, touch the monument erected on the spot of the detonation, take photographs and even purchase souvenirs.
On-site Commanders celebrate these open house events because they permit visitors to marvel at “the theories and engineering of some of the nation’s brightest minds”. Just as Hiroshima is geared towards the pursuit of world peace, Trinity is positioned as the poster child of deterrence theory. Without these weapons, visitors are told, World War II would have had a different ending, and so governments must continue to invest in nuclear programs, in case they are once again needed.
While this visit doesn’t scream ‘peace building’ travel, it does encourage tourists to think critically about the past, present and future.
While visiting these sites may come off as morbid, it does help people understand with the darker side of humanity while forcing them to re-evaluate their assumptions and views. While progress may be slow, this type of travel may fuel activism, not through protest, but rather through education and reflection.
This post was written by Chloe Wynne, Communications Executive, World Travel & Tourism Council.