“I’ve always been drawn to the weirder side of life, so I’ve decided to investigate dark tourism – a global phenomenon where people avoid the ordinary and instead head for holidays in war zones, disaster sites and other offbeat destinations,” New Zealand journalist David Farrier dryly explains at the start of the show.
And so, over eight 40-minute episodes, the kooky Kiwi visits some weird and not so wonderful places around the world – from the closed Kazakhstan city of Baikonur (the site of the Russian space program) to a voodoo festival in Benin.
Farrier admitted in a recent interview that the most common insult he hears about himself is “You’re the shit version of Louis Theroux” – and that is a depressingly accurate description (you could throw “Way more polite version of John Oliver” into the mix, too). He seems to embody every stereotype you’ve ever read about Kiwis: earnest, likeable and just a little bland, which means the show has a frustratingly inert presence at its core.
The host claims to be interested in the mad, macabre and morbid, but this is rarely borne out by his reaction to events. In fact, the more mad, macabre and morbid things get in “Dark Tourist,” the more Ferrier looks like the proverbial tourist who took a wrong turn and erroneously strayed into the bad part of town.
The format sees him visit three different places in a country or region in each episode: Much like any vacation itinerary, some prove more engaging than others. Of the four episodes I’ve seen to date, each contains one brilliant segment, one OK segment and one filler.
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Things start in Latin America and the cocaine capital of the world, Medellin (you can spot it easily on maps of Colombia – it’s the one marked with white lines). Here, Ferrier explores so-called “narco-tourism” and the hometown of drug lord Pablo Escobar, who created a coke empire through blood and bullets before eventually being gunned down in 1993.
Maybe it’s the popularity of another Netflix show, “Narcos,” that inspires people to take tours of the five-star hilltop prison Escobar built for himself or the neighborhood he helped build on an old garbage dump. But there’s nothing here that made me want to rethink my vacation plans.
Ferrier interviews Escobar’s top hitman, Popeye, who apparently whacked over 250 people (including his own girlfriend) and now leads “Escobar tours” where he eulogizes his former boss.
The hair may now be gray, but Popeye remains a scary man. “This is the only way to escape poverty,” he says, clutching his gun like a mother might hold a newborn. There’s a fascinating moment where Ferrier asks Popeye if he ever considered therapy, and the hitman chillingly points to his gun and calls it the only counsellor he ever needed. Here’s one tour guide who can expect big tips when the hat is passed around.
A frustrating element of the show is that it often abandons the dark tourism trail and heads off to interview people no tourist can. For me, the show is at its best when it engages with the dark tourists themselves, so we can get into the head of, say, an Ontarian who decided that his first trip outside-of-Canada must be to a suicide spot near Mount Fuji.
There are several standout segments worth seeking out, even if you don’t watch the entire series. One features perhaps the most perverse tourist attraction ever (well, after that Israeli terror tourism camp in the West Bank): People actually paying to go on a six-hour trek to experience the kind of border crossing an illegal migrant might be forced to endure from Mexico into the United States. I would happily “build the wall” to stop anyone on such a tour getting within a hundred miles of me. Ferrier’s limitations as a host are again highlighted when the only message he imparts at the end of all this is the less than earth-shattering observation, “For migrants, this is never fun.”
The other outstanding moment comes during a tour of Japan, when Ferrier does some nuclear tourism (by the end of the show you will have amassed a lot of new terminology to take into your local travel agent, if such a thing still exists). He embarks on a bus trip to the coastal region of Fukushima, where over 20,000 locals were killed when the area was hit by the unholy trinity of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011.
Ferrier and his busload of fellow travelers head into the wasteland, all armed with personal Geiger counters (one person is also optimistically armed with a bottle of Vitamin D, to “offset the effects of radiation”) They expect to find radiation readings of 0.2 as they tour the haunting, deserted ghost towns to which no locals have returned, even though the state has given them the all-clear.
Things take a turn for the more serious when the unnervingly jovial tour guide advises the group to avoid dust as it is still particularly radioactive and could lead to cancer. Again, all our laid-back host can conjure up at this juncture is, “Suddenly nuclear tourism doesn’t seem like such a great idea.”
The imagery throughout the series is strong – drones are used to great effect to produce stunning aerial shots – but it really shines here as we see scene after scene of desolation, or the collected piles of radioactive topsoil neatly hidden away under bright green covers as the authorities ponder what the hell to do with them.
Even in such a desolate spot, pockets of unintended humor arise. For example, the Japanese have rebranded the exclusion zone surrounding Fukushima as the “difficult to return to” zone. And I trust I am not the only viewer experiencing Schadenfreude as these supposedly fearless nuclear tourists start getting very itchy feet when the Geiger counter soars up to 50 times above the supposedly safe level.
There are two episodes dedicated to the United States, and while the Jeffrey Dahmer segment is mildly interesting (if you live with someone who would wear a “Cream City Cannibal” T-shirt sporting the serial killer’s face, I strongly suggest your life may be in grave danger and you get out of the house now), it’s hard to believe the JFK assassination tourism trail in Dallas will come as a surprise to many. A New Orleans section is also weak, as Ferrier tries to find vampires but only succeeds in finding some refugees from a Cure concert and a self-styled “fangsmith” who’ll give you Dracula dentures for the princely-of-darkness sum of $150.
I plan to watch the remaining episodes at some point (probably while on holiday), but “Dark Tourist” really is the televisual equivalent of friends’ vacation pics on Instagram: something best seen in short doses. At 40 minutes, even the best episodes drag without a vibrant commentator to truly engage the viewer, even if at their best they do succeed in blurring the line between real life and an episode of “Black Mirror.”