Most Controversial Tourist Attractions

Some say it’s about facing the truth, others call it tasteless tourism. A moral judgment of people’s travel choices is never easy and perhaps shouldn’t be attempted. However, there are some places on the world’s tourist map that really give us mixed feelings and can hardly be called “attractions”.

Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, India

Dharavi Slum in Mumbai
Dharavi Slum in Mumbai. By marcusfornell

The idea to take the tour of Asia’s largest slum may be quite hard to justify, but one thing is certain – it is a sobering visit. Oppressive odor, heart-breaking conditions and poverty that goes beyond imagination are a depressing reality for about 1 million people. Now that it’s been popularized by the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Dharavi draws countless visitors willing to “get the real taste of distress”. On the one hand, the revenues from the tours are said to go directly to the community, which is very honorable. On the other, there is something inherently strange about wanting to watch other people’s suffering, isn’t there?


North Korea

Mansudae Grand Monumen, Pyongyang
Mansudae Grand Monumen, Pyongyang. By John Pavelka

Landscape wise, North Korea could be the world’s prominent tourist magnet. Dramatic mountain scenery, pristine lagoons, waterfalls and amazing Buddhist temples are enough to tempt a visitor. But there seems to be a moral dilemma whether to sponsor a state that’s infamous for its nuclear weapons program and inhumane practices. Even if you decide to go to look for the truth, at all times you will be accompanied by a government-appointed guide. In the end, all you get is false historical accounts and laudatory speeches instead of a real experience. Then why go at all?


Plastinarium in Guben, Germany

Die Pokerrunde exhibit
Die Pokerrunde exhibit. By Pseudologia Phantastica

Plastination is a technique used in anatomy to preserve a body for study purposes, but it turns out that it can also be a good source of revenue. Dr Gunther von Hagen‘s museum has stirred as much controversy as it has received applause. What you can see here among other things are techniques of dissection presented interactively and real human bodies “involved” in all sorts of activities.

While nobody is denying the huge contribution Plastinarium makes to the training of medical students, was it really necessary to seat the exhibits at the poker table or on a bike? And why would anyone other than a doctor or a young adept of medicine want to see all this from up close? The truth is however that since the opening in 2006, Plastinarium has received over a 100 thousand visits.


Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

The shooting range
The shooting range. By archer10(Dennis)

A 75-mile-long tunnel system, bomb traps, scorpions, lethal spiders, unbearable humidity and lack of space – that’s how Vietcong fighters hoped to ward off American soldiers. This underground fortress hidden beneath the jungles of South Vietnam was the site of several bloody campaigns during the Vietnam War.

Today, it is a prime example of how warfare can be turned into an attraction. The corridors have been widened for the comfort of tourists and a firing range set up for their entertainment. Visitors can pay $1 a bullet to shoot an AK-47 rifle used in the war as well as have a simple meal of food the guerrilla soldiers would have had. You don’t have to look long for souvenir stalls either.


S-21, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Prisoner mugshots
Prisoner mugshots. By blake_lennon

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a dramatic reminder of a security prison set up in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge communist regime. The tortures inflicted on prisoners were so atrocious that, frankly, one may really wonder whether it’s better to remember or forget. Skulls, rusting torture beds, shackles and countless mugshots of victims make the visit to the “Strychnine Hill” (Tuol Sleng) a shattering experience. The museum receives about 500 visitors every day.


Devil’s Island, French Guiana

Prison cells
Prison cells. By J K Johnson

Known as “the Green Hell” and described as one of the world’s most notorious penal colonies, Devil’s Island ranks high among French Guiana’s tourist attractions. Run-down cells, the prison headquarters and an infant cemetery are all part of the agenda. But is the once disease-plagued island, where thousands of convicts died in horrid conditions, really an attractive place to visit?


London Dungeon, UK

Macabre exhibit
Macabre exhibit. By Lord Adrian’s Photostream

Laughing at death is one thing, but making fun of somebody’s suffering is quite another. The Dungeons are undoubtedly one of London’s premier attractions, basically created to give an account of macabre medieval history. However, it has evolved into a graphic spectacle of torture and a bloody bunch of rather tasteless exhibits. There is a sense that all those special effects, fun rides, and grim humor do not serve educational purposes but only provide entertainment. And that’s scary.


Chernobyl, Ukraine

Radiated apartment building
Radiated apartment building. By Stuck in Customs

The whole world has heard of the Chernobyl disaster. Today, 24 years after the accident at the nuclear power station, more and more people decide to witness its shattering consequences. Tours include sightseeing of Reactor 4, a visit to Pripyat (a ghost t
own full of deserted apartment buildings)… and measuring of radiation. And although the Zone of Alienation (the 30 km/19 mi area around the power plant) is considered relatively safe, the tours stir a lot of controversy for obvious reasons.


People have always been interested in the horrid, bloody and violent aspects of life. There’s even a term thanatourism (gr. thánatos=death ) to describe a trend in traveling to sites associated with death and suffering. And while there’s basically nothing wrong about wanting to see New York’s Ground Zero for instance, posing for pictures in front of the construction fence does seem a little out of place. Don’t you think?


  1. HolaSomos una pareja Belga que quiree visitar la provincia de Pete9n al final de octubre 2011. Nuestro ministerio nos aconseja contactaros por aviso de viaje restinguido / negativo. Por eso, le preguntamos si es seguro viajar llegando desde Belice por Flores, Tikal, Uaxactfan y Rio Azul en estos momentos?Gracias por su respuestaNele y Jo

  2. I think many people are attracted by unusualness or uniqueness of those destinations you listed above. (To be honest, they make me curious and sound like appealing at first even though there are some controversies as tourism attractions.) However, I think this kind of tourism is inappropriate. It seems “a little out of place” as you said. The reason is it can be analyzed as a twisted form of entertainment. Basically, tourists love to visit the places where they can experience something unique or fun in particular. In other words, in case of that controversial tourism, most of tourists visit there for just experiencing or watching the sufferings of others. Slum tourism is a good example. Tourists are just watching people in their poor living conditions and “enjoying” the experience to being in poverty while the poor are dying in real poverty. I think it is awful and cruel enough in terms of inequalities and injustices.

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