Dark Tourism & Christmas

As promised, I’ll try to do my bit to brighten up the Christmas period that for so many of us will be very different this year, much reduced in terms of gatherings with family and friends, due to the pandemic.

In previous years, when we were not visiting our respective families, my wife and I often went travelling at this time of year. Hence we saw Christmas decorations in a wide range of places, including some where you wouldn’t normally expect them at all. It goes to show how globalization has taken formerly localized traditions into most corners of the world.

In the following post I’m giving you another photo essay on this theme. As the first photo I chose a rather normal-looking Christmas tree with all the trimmings and fake wrapped “presents” beneath:


Xmas tree in Bhopal


This photo was taken on Christmas Day in 2016 at a hotel in – wait for it! – Bhopal, India! So even this predominantly Hindu and Muslim country adopted the Christian Christmas cliches! The dark link here should be obvious – it was only at the beginning of this month that my blog featured a post about the anniversary of the Union Carbide chemical plant disaster of 1984 in Bhopal.

This next photo was also taken at the same Bhopal hotel, in one of the restaurants, where the somewhat more modest Christmas tree juxtaposes with those martial-looking swords on the wall.


Xmas tree and swords, Bhopal


Next comes another Christmas tree, this time complete with a saxophone-playing Santa!


Xmas deco in Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia


This was taken in a hotel in Mekele, Ethiopia, less than a year ago (so after Christmas), when it was still reasonably safe to go there. This has changed, of course, as a recent post pointed out. Civil war has returned to Tigray, the region that Mekele is the capital city of. Meanwhile government forces have taken this city and the Tigrayan rebels-turned-rulers-turned-rebels have dispersed into the mountains. How the situation is to progress is hard to predict.

The next photo was also taken on Christmas Day, this time in 2008, and again in a rather unlikely location, namely in Phnom Penh, Cambodia:


at an orphanage catering school in Phnom Penh


After we’d visited the Choeung Ek killing fields and Tuol Sleng our guide took us to an orphanage catering school where trainees had set up a big Christmas lunch!!

Next up comes a series of photos from Rwanda – so another very dark place (see Rwandan genocide), which I visited in 2010/11. This was a semi-robotic Santa in a supermarket in the capital city Kigali:


Rwandan Santa


Somewhere else in Rwanda I spotted this Africanized Christmas deco:


Xmas elephant, Rwanda


It’s a bit odd, though, given that Rwanda is not really known for elephants, but rather for a different species, which features (in the form of a wooden sculpture) in the following photo:


Xmas gorilla, Rwanda


Indeed seeing mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda was the absolute highlight of all the wildlife watching experiences I’ve had on my travels. And there is an additional dark element here: not only are these gentle giants endangered, the person who brought them to world attention the most, Dian Fossey, of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame, was murdered in these mountains on Boxing Day 1985. In addition to gorilla trekking you can also hike to her former research station high in the jungle-covered Virunga mountains and see the remains of the hut where she was killed as well as her grave, and those of some of “her” gorillas.

Moving on to another country, this is a rather odd Santa I spotted in 2006 in Sri Lanka … that raised right arm looks unnervingly a bit like a Nazi salute:


apparently a Nazi Santa


Not quite so grim, but with a similarly raised right arm is this Santa that formed part of the Christmas decorations in a hotel I stayed at in January 2016 in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic:


another Nazi Santa?


Back in Sri Lanka, there was also this Santa in a hotel bar:


looks like a Facebook ‘liking’ Santa


Speaking of Facebook, before I was purged from that platform together with my DT page (which now only exists in archived form on my website) in April/May this year, I used to post quiz questions connected to a photo most Fridays, and shortly before last Christmas I posted this photo and asked where this is:


Xmas on Easter


The answer was Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui), so I can say I had Christmas on Easter (namely in 2011), on the most isolated permanently inhabited island on Earth, in the middle of the wide Pacific.

And here’s another unusual Christmas tree in a faraway and unusual location:


penguin Xmas tree, Ushuaia


This tree was decorated with little fluffy penguins wearing Santa hats – which makes sense when you consider where this photo was taken: Ushuaia, Patagonia, Argentina. Ushuaia is not only the southernmost city on Earth, it is also the springboard for most cruises to Antarctica, where penguins are the stars amongst the wildlife. When I was in Ushuaia at Christmas 2013, however, it was not to embark on a expedition to Antarctica (that remains a distant dream of mine, way out of my price range), but because of the place’s link to the Falkland Islands (where I also went later on that same trip, from Chile) and for its ex-prison and museum, as well as a starting point for our onward journey to the Perito Moreno glacier.

Probably the most unusual Christmas tree that I’ve ever seen anywhere is this:


unusual Christmas “tree”, DomRep


I saw this in the Dominican Republic – it’s a “tree” made entirely out of empty plastic soft-drinks bottles (and a bit of wire) and could be a monument to worldwide plastic pollution!

And also in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, I spotted this highly unusual nativity scene, made out of rusty iron sculptures:


nativity scene in rusty metal


Staying in the Caribbean, but on a different island, namely Antigua, I had this bizarre encounter on Christmas Day 2009:


Caribbean Santa arriving by inflatable dingy


This Santa was being taken by inflatable boat to some other resort, presumably for some Christmas party, but I found this image a most peculiar juxtaposition: Santa in his red winter coat and hat in the middle of warm, blue lagoon water.

By the way, those of you who know me are probably aware that I am not a beach holiday kind of person, so what was I doing on Antigua? Well I used it as a (necessary) stopover en route to neighbouring Montserrat, the volcanic island that is half covered in volcanic ash, from series of eruptions that started in the mid-1990s, and features the sunken ghost town of Plymouth, the “Pompeii of the Caribbean”. So there you have your dark link.

The next photo brings us to another island, and for the first time to Europe – this was some Christmas deco at a hotel in VallettaMalta, in January 2019:


Xmas deco on Malta at dusk


On Malta there was plenty of over-the-top Christmas deco still about in January, including this pair of illuminated reindeer outside another hotel:


illuminated reindeer, Malta


By far the biggest single item of Christmas deco I’ve seen anywhere is this giant Christmas bauble, an installation on a square in Lisbon, Portugal:


oversize Xmas bauble, Lisbon


This photo was taken in January 2013, when I was in Lisbon briefly as a stopover before my flight to Senegal, from where I then flew on to the Cape Verde Islands.

Despite (or because of) its inflated size, I found that monster Xmas bauble quite classy. But the most extreme in Xmas kitsch overload I encountered back in India:


extreme Xmas kitsch, Etawah, India


I saw this as part of a colonial-heritage tour of the city of Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, which also included a short visit to one of the comparatively few Christian churches of the region, which played an important role in the 1857 uprising (or “mutiny” as the British colonial masters called it). The degree of over-the-top kitschiness of the decorations in the church’s garden was so incredible that I give you another photo from there:


OTT Christmas decorations and a nativity scene in a churchyard in Etawah, India


And a final one from India, this time from a hotel lobby in Agra, also in Uttar Pradesh (but more famous for the legendary Taj Mahal):


snowmen deco and a resident astrologer


Note that next to the Christmas deco involving several plastic snowmen, there is a resident astrologer offering his services! I wonder what you could ask him? Will there be snow for Christmas this year here in India?

But, for the final photo, let’s head home – so in my case, to Vienna, Austria, where I’ve lived for more than the last decade and a half. In the heart of the central First District, above the posh shopping street Graben, hang these fantastic chandelier-like decorative light fixtures.


Xmas lighting in Vienna


They appear every year, and even after all this time I still find them rather classy.

And with that I’ll come to a close.

Merry Christmas everybody! (… as much as that is possible under the circumstances this year.)


4 Responses

  1. Great photos! I don’t really travel over the Christmas break so have few experiences of Christmas in other countries – other than the countries I’ve lived in I think I’ve only experienced it in Bali and New Zealand. Your post about Rwanda is very timely, as I am now planning trips (in theory, without any specific dates) to visit my favourite great apes – the gorilla and the orangutan. Not sure which one I’ll be able to do first – I finally visited Africa for the first time earlier this year and am keen to go back, but my first attempt to see the orangutans in Borneo five years ago ended in failure and I’ve been wanting to return for some time (this time to the Indonesian side of things). Either trip would make for a good pairing of wildlife and dark tourism, so we’ll see how it goes!

    1. Hi there and thanks! And yes, seeing mountain gorillas in the wild in Rwanda is fantastic beyond belief. We also saw orangutans in Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), in 2014, but that was more like a feeding session, so not really quite “in the wild”. Note that gorilla permits in Rwanda have trebled in price since Sally and I went in 2010. It’s a serious investment these days. It’s somewhat cheaper in Uganda and especially in DR Congo (but dicier), but whether it’s as well managed as in Rwanda is the question …

  2. Your post is perhaps missing the most quintessential “Dark tourism & Christmas” connection: the assassination of Ceausescu on Christmas day in a fake trial organized by a group of Soviet backed old school communists who were going to lead Romania into the usual post-communist kleptocracy.

    To keep however in the spirit of the strange Christmas visuals, the most unusual I have seen was in Viqueuque, a small town on the Southern coast of East Timor, where the old “Indonesian army” memorial was tore down and replaced with a Santa with Timorese flag on which someone had added a “Pele” graphitti, as everyone loves Lusitan soccer there.

    1. True, the place where the Ceausescus were “court-martialled” and executed would be the ultimate Christmas & DT site – but I’ve not yet been there, so couldn’t post any photos of that. Your East Timorese memorial story is cool. I saw a still mostly intact Indonesian monument in Balibo, right across from the place where the Indonesian military murderd five journalists working for an Australian media company during the invasion. The monument had some graffiti but was otherwise untouched, to my surprise. I wonder if it is still there.

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