Dark Tourism & Corona

About a year ago we went into the first lockdown here in Austria. Corona was still very new, and back then we had no way of knowing that it would continue to have such a grip on the whole world for so long.

It was also the last few weeks before I was purged from Facebook, thus losing lots of online social contacts to people I had no other way of getting in touch with … and even if there’s an email address, my experience since then has been that apparently 95% of people regard email as “old-fashioned” and would only communicate via social media. Oh well. At least I don’t have to see all the nonsense that gets posted on Facebook either.

Anyway, I thought this was a good point to look back and go on a little time-travel excursion here. So I’ve lifted the series of Corona-related posts I had on my DT page on FB at the time of the first lockdown from the Facebook-posts archive that I managed to put together from my off-line stored material. So it looks a bit similar to what my deleted DT page’s timeline would have looked like (except no comments and/or likes & shares, of course, but with added hyperlinks!), just in reverse.

So here we go, in chronological order from 15 March 2020 (but only Corona-related posts, others I did not reproduce here):


Sunday 15 March 2020

Devastated … though it’s not come as a big surprise of course: it’s now become clear that my thoroughly planned-through April trip to Taiwan will not happen. The authorities there have decreed that anybody travelling from the EU (I’m based in Austria) to Taiwan has to go into a mandatory, and enforced, 14-day isolation quarantine. Since the trip was supposed to be only 16 days long (including the two 15-hour overnight long-haul flights in and out) this means there is no point going at all. I can now cancel all accommodation and tour arrangements – and I hope the airline will refund me the not inconsiderable amount of money the ticket cost. [comments march 2021: Eva Air were in fact superb, they refunded the full costs on their own within a couple of days of the flights having been cancelled!]

I’ll have another attempt in a year’s time then [comment March 2021: and meanwhile I had to postpone the trip by another year]. But it’s a great shame, because it would actually have been a good time to go to Taiwan – with all mainland Chinese banned from entering the country, places like Kinmen, where some 90% of visitors used to come from the mainland, would have been peaceful and uncrowded, and that would have been so good for photography too. But it’s not to be. Don’t get me wrong, I understand and respect Taiwan’s decision, especially given that they had the situation admirably under control with just under 50 cases and that number stable for over a week, and now numbers are starting to rise again because of people coming from Europe. So shutting down that inroad was probably inevitable – now the island (what an advantage!) can carry on with life almost as normal without having to go into total lockdown (as we are approaching here: all schools shut, all concerts, conferences and such events cancelled, and only “essential” shops remaining open, which in Austria curiously includes tobacconists alongside food stores, banks and petrol stations). From the Taiwanese perspective severely restricting arrivals from abroad thus has to be a good thing in general … just not for the foreigner-oriented tourism industry and their clients …

Oh, and – almost needless to say – I also axed the short trip to Kosovo next weekend, and the airline has just cancelled the flights anyway.

I’m now looking ahead anxiously at my next two short trips lined up for May (Tirana and Tallinn). [comment March 2021: needless to say, these didn’t happen either, and so far I haven’t even looked into planning those trips again.]

I’m a little more confident about my summer trip to Namibia (so far only 2 cases – and the very dry climate there is very anti-virus generally) … that is: as long as the airline survives until then … [comment March 2021: well, the airline, Ethiopian Airlines, seems to have survived, but it was a 10-month struggle to get them to refund us our tickets for the cancelled flight; now I wouldn’t want to ever fly with them again, also after our experiences with them in Ethiopia in December/January 2019/20]

That threat to businesses in the tourism/travel industry, is actually worrying me even more that the virus. If even big airlines like BA are on the brink of collapse, what about all those small-scale specialist tour operators that cater for us dark tourists? How long can they keep afloat – with no clients? It’s dark days for real at the moment.


Wednesday 18 March 2020

Photo of the Day: isolation cell!

Since the whole world seems to be focused on only one topic at the moment, I felt compelled to follow suit and post something that can somehow be linked to the current coronavirus crisis.

It could be seen as cynical or bad taste or some such thing to post something about isolation, when millions upon millions do have to at least stay home – and those actually infected or suspected of having been exposed to the virus have to go into self-isolation or enforced quarantine.

But this is also intended to show that compared to this isolation cell (more like a cage really), merely having to stay home is not so bad, at least.

This particularly scary-looking cell is part of Fort Zeelandia in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo. After it had mostly lost its military significance (thanks to a newer fort having been constructed further downriver to protect the estuary of the Suriname River), the fort served mainly as a prison from 1782 up to as late as 1967. Today it’s Suriname’s principal historical museum, covering pre-Columbian indigenous cultures as well as the colonial era, slavery, its abolition, and the road to independence, but for some reason stops short of covering the military dictatorship of the 1980s …


Thursday 19 March 2020

Photo of today: empty supermarket, thoroughly picked clean!

This is of course the next one in the series of posts that can be linked to the coronavirus scare.

However, this particular supermarket was not raided by hoarders afraid of not being able to get any toilet paper or spaghetti any more tomorrow and hence buying up what they can grab. No, this shop’s actually been in this state for many years.

The photo shows one of the larger supermarkets in the ghost town of Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. So it’s been silent for almost 34 years and looters will have seen to it being picked clean, if anything was left after the clean-up operations by the ‘liquidators’ after the 1986 disaster, that is. Anyway, now what’s left is just slowly rusting and crumbling away … This is what a dystopian post-civilization world could look like …


Friday 20 March 2020

Friday, quiz time – and I’m keeping it up despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and keeping it topical, as far as possible for a little longer.

So, guys in protective suits and face masks surrounded by strange technology … what and where is this?


Saturday 21 March 2020

Solution to yesterday’s quiz – though the correct answer was revealed relatively quickly in the comments, not all of you may have seen those.

The protective suits and face masks were a bit of a red herring – this has nothing to do with biohazards like the coronavirus. If you look closely you can see that one of the two figures (both dummies, btw.) in this image is wielding a Geiger counter. And indeed this is a nuclear site, a floating one:

This photo was taken through a small observation window into the reactor room of the Lenin icebreaker, the world’s first nuclear-powered civilian surface vessel (the very first nuclear powered boat was the USS Nautilus submarine that preceded the Lenin by just a couple of years). The Lenin was put into operation in 1959 and for the next 30 years took part in keeping the shipping routes of the Soviet Arctic passable.

The retired veteran vessel is now a museum ship, permanently moored in its home harbour of Murmansk, and visitable by guided tour … in Russian only, but luckily I had my own interpreter with me – my Russianist wife.

We went there as an add-on to our 2012 trip to Norway, as a short overnight excursion from Kirkenes. OK, we had to pay the full fee for Russian visas, but it was worth it.

Murmansk – the name alone has such a mystical aura!


Monday 23 March 2020

Photo of the Day: to wear a mask or not to wear a mask, that is the question …

Of course, as has been made clear, those simple paper/fabric face masks you have always seen in abundance in Asia, offer very little protection for oneself, however, they could help prevent spreading the virus to others yourself if you’ve contracted it, whether you know it or not, and whether you have symptoms or not. But it’s only an additional measure. Distancing remains the main one.

Wearing a full-on military-grade gas mask would probably protect you from any outside hazards, but who’d want to wear such a thing for long? I’ve tried one on on a couple of occasions and can vouch for them being super-uncomfortable. Moreover, you can’t eat or drink with them on. And they stink (of rubber, mostly). No, I’d rather stick to social distancing and washing my hands.

This photo was taken, no, not in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but inside a former nuclear bunker in Prague, Czech Republic which is open to the public as part of a two-hour “communism tour”. Amongst the amassed artefacts inside this bunker is also a whole wall of gas masks (which they call “Lenin Wall”, in allusion to Prague’s “Lennon Wall”, on which countless graffiti honour John Lennon – the dead Beatle, not the dark-tourism author!). The dummy head in front is where the gas mask is usually perched when it’s not being tried on by tour participants …


Sunday 29 March 2020

A good example of how the brain can get conditioned through frequent exposure to a certain (frightening) image so that it starts seeing it in objects of a similar shape that are, however, in actual fact totally unrelated to it .

I’m sure you’re all also seeing the same thing in this now …

What this actually is: an orthopaedic foot massage ball. (I was prescribed that once, over a year ago when I had problems with some tendons in my right foot … but it kinda sorted itself and I’ve never used that ball anywhere near as much as I was supposed to …)

This is just a little Sunday treat – though I don’t normally post on a Sunday … but then again, these days every day feels a bit like a Sunday; everything’s shut, streets are quiet, you laze about, spend some time on the Internet, do some cleaning, read a book, catch up with emailing, sort out the wardrobe, etc. … I wonder how long it will be until we all will never want to see another Sunday ever again.


Monday 30 March 2020 – hail the nurses

Photo of the Day: a little tribute to nurses in particular, and medical personnel in general.

They currently have to bear the brunt of the global crisis we’re in. And while they currently get a virtual universal round of applause, including on this page now, what is really needed is a better appreciation of the profession in practical – especially financial – ways. But that’s politics. And it’s become clear that this hasn’t been good in recent years. The cuts made in the health systems in many parts of Europe, and especially the underpayment of nurses, making the job less attractive, leading to less recruitment than would be needed, now come back to haunt us. That and the lack of stockpiled supplies (masks, protective clothing, ventilators …).

And Europe is still in a privileged position! Despite the spiralling tragedy in Italy and now also Spain and elsewhere, it could be far, far worse. And elsewhere it already is, or soon will be. I don’t want to begin to imagine what this virus could still do in poor overpopulated places like Bangladesh or almost anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. It could get truly apocalyptic there … [comment March 2021: we now know that Africa has fared rather better than feared, and while India is pretty bad, Bangladesh’s figures are suprisingly less catastrophic; but who would have thought a year ago that the USA would be the worst country in this pandemic …]

This photo, by the way, was taken at the IJzer Tower memorial in Diksmuide, Flanders, Belgium. This is a World War One memorial and one section, where this photo was taken, celebrates the role of nurses in that conflict. Hence the rather old-fashioned outfits. But it was the closest I could find in my archives to what I wanted to post today.


Tuesday 31 March 2020

Photo of the Day: a follow-up to yesterday’s post, as it were, taken in the same place, the IJzer Tower World War One memorial in Diksmuide, Flanders, Belgium. It shows an illustration in some newspaper or maybe a war-related poster, I can’t quite remember the exact context … but I found it fitting anyway.


Wednesday 1 April 2020 – empty UN

Photo of the Day: the empty UN General Assembly hall in New York City, USA

I really do not feel like making any April Fool jokes this year. So I’m staying serious.

A couple of days ago I read the UN Secretary-General’s appeal to the world for a global ceasefire, as obviously continued warfare only complicates the global fight against this new coronavirus. If we can’t even stop fighting each other in such an unprecedented global crisis, then maybe Mother Nature has the right to wipe us all out by different means. Sorry, I’m getting cynical again. I shouldn’t. I know. But I find it hard to contain. [comment March 2021: the UN’s SG’s appeal evidently did not work, as the continuing conflicts in Syria and Yemen show, and especially the renewed wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ethiopia!]

This photo was taken on a guided tour of the UN headquarters that I went on almost exactly ten years ago. It was my second of in total three visits to New York City, a place I’ve always found especially fascinating. It saddens me having to see this great city suddenly being so hit by the current crisis. I also know a few people living there, and of course I fear for them right now …


Tuesday 7 April 2020

Photo of the Day: extreme lockdown.

A set of gas masks, a full-body hazmat suit and even a hazmat pram!

Seen a few years back in the museum part of Karosta Prison, Liepaja, Latvia.

Karosta is better known for the somewhat controversial theatrical “re-enactment” shows they put on for paying customers who then get shouted at, humiliated, and locked up by actors in KGB uniforms trying to recreate the Soviet penal system, as it were. You can even stay overnight in a cell to really feel like a prisoner! To be honest, though, I’ve never been a fan of any such re-enactments and/or theatrical show elements that get tourists involved in the proceedings. So I don’t feel the least bit tempted to ever partake in any of those offered at Karosta Prison.

Fortunately, when I visited Karosta, it was off season, but one of the guys working there, who was also from the same family that we rented our self-catering accommodation from, gave us a private tour of the prison and its museum part, all without any of those theatrics. That way it was much more up my street. The prison cells and dark dank corridors are indeed suitably grim, and the collection of Soviet-era memorabilia is interesting too.

This tour also took us to the Northern Forts and through parts of the quasi-ghost town that this former Soviet naval base is these days. It’s a cool place, but unfortunately the theatric elements at Karosta Prison are frequently used in negative media articles as an example to discredit dark tourism at large as unethical or morally deviant.


Wednesday 8 April 2020

Photo of the Day: oh those communists! No social distancing at all … and they even still shake hands!!!

But seriously, this is a socialist-realist mural found in Berlin Mitte, formerly part of the capital of the GDR, i.e. East Berlin, celebrating the workers-and-peasants’ paradise that this state was supposed to be.

You have to wonder, though, how a state like the GDR would have handled a scare like our current corona crisis … probably a bit like the Chinese, I should guess. But a proper contemporary comparison would be with North Korea, except that that country is currently closed off and not much info is getting out. However, there had never been that much internal travel there anyway, so they probably have it a bit easier as far as containing the spread is concerned. But how many ICUs with ventilators do they have?

Another North-Korea-like totalitarian state (though not communist, but full-on cult-of-personality autocratic) is Turkmenistan. And I just read that there the media aren’t even allowed to make any references to COVID-19. If that is true, it will be interesting to see how that experiment will pan out …


Thursday 9 April 2020

Photo of the Day: when self-isolation and just holing up for weeks on end will make us all lose it finally …

Actually this is a monument, or rather a monumental fountain with modern sculptures, that I spotted years ago in the city of Nuremberg, Germany.

In more detail: this is part of what’s called “Das Ehekarussell” (literally ‘marriage merry-go-round’), a group of sculptures illustrating, often quite drastically, different stages of a marriage/relationship, from first love to rows and fighting and death. It’s based on a poem by Hans Sachs, which also features in the artwork, and there’s a statue of the author in this ensemble too. The fountain/sculpture was unveiled in 1984 and has been quite controversial from the start, both for having gone way over budget (it was commissioned by the city administration, so it’s the same old story …) as well as for some of its “sensualism” (i.e. erotic figures with bare breasts etc.).

It’s not just a piece of art, though. The reason it was commissioned was to hide from view the top of a ventilation shaft for the city’s underground metro, which is in the middle of the circle of sculptures (you can see it on Google Maps – at 49°27’02.1″N 11°04’15.3″E). It’s located at Ludwigsplatz right opposite of the Weißer Turm (‘White Tower’) in the heart of the pedestrianized city centre.

While some parts of the sculpture are easy enough to interpret, some others remain rather more obscure – including that giant lizard. I have no idea how that’s supposed to relate to the fountain’s theme …


Friday 10 April 2020

Friday quiz time … and more on the extreme lockdown theme … But where is this particular heavy steel blast door?


Saturday 11 April 2020

solution to yesterday’s quiz question – this time it took an hour before a correct answer came in – this is at Marienthal near Ahrweiler in Germany, and shows one of the blast doors of the “Regierungsbunker” (‘government bunker’) that was intended to house the West German government in the event of a nuclear war.

However, it’s some 15 miles (25 km) from Bonn, the then capital city and seat of government of the FRG, and whether it would have been possible to move the entire government and other ca. 3000-strong personnel into the bunker in time during an emergency, was rather questionable. By the time the bunker was built, warning times for incoming ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) were less than half an hour!

Moreover, the bunker wouldn’t have withstood a direct hit by a thermonuclear warhead of the era, even though these were already well established by the time the construction of the bunker was even begun (in the 1960s).

After the end of the Cold War, most of the bunker was decommissioned and largely gutted, except for one stretch that was developed for tourism as a kind of museum. It’s possibly THE most significant Cold-War-era dark sight in Western Germany today (but the Eastern, ex-GDR part has more!)


Thursday 16 April 2020 [my last Corona post before my FB purge on 20 April 2020]

Photo of the day: extreme isolation!

This is one of the former solitary confinement cells of the “Reclusion” prison on Île St-Joseph that was part of the penal colony on the Îles du Salut (to which the infamous Devil’s Island also belongs) in French Guiana on the north-eastern coast of South America. As punishment for attempted escape or other transgressions, prisoners were routinely put in such small isolation cells in total silence, often for months on end or even more than a year. As an additional punishment they could even be kept in total darkness. All this is well depicted in the famous movie “Papillon”.

Going to the Îles du Salut as part of my explorations of the “Three Guianas” (the other two being Suriname, the former Dutch Guiana, and Guyana itself, formerly a British colony) and especially the wonderfully atmospheric “urbexing” in the jungle of St-Joseph, was a highlight of my travel year in 2019.

This year I had several trips planned. Right now I should have been in Taiwan. But all trips up to May have long been cancelled, and the long weekend in Tallinn at the end of May will hardly be possible either. And I am now getting more and more convinced that my fully planned trip to Namibia in August is also very, very unlikely to be possible.

There is now increasing talk about no international travel until a working and approved vaccine against this coronavirus has been found, and made available to everybody. That could take over a year to come about. So I’m beginning to think that I can’t even plan a deferred Taiwan trip for 2021 until I’ve been vaccinated. I expect most, if not all, countries will make carrying a coronavirus vaccination certificate mandatory before entry for foreign travellers is allowed. But will the tourism industry have any chance of surviving until then?


Back to 2021 … So much for this little time-travel excursion. Let’s hope this crisis can indeed be overcome within the rest of this year and that travel will be possible again before too long.


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