Prison hotels set the bar high for ‘dark tourism’

Amid persistent crashes, we are still searching for the perfect escape.

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After nearly a year and a half of lockdowns, you’ll be forgiven for assuming that most law-abiding vacation residents have had their fill of involuntary incarceration.


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However, as the growing appeal of prison hotels shows, many of us can’t get enough of life behind bars.

In Italy, $ 100 million is being spent to transform an island jail into a tourist attraction worthy of San Francisco’s Alcatraz, arguably the most famous hoosegow in the world. The 18th-century fortress of Santo Stefano, located off the coast of Naples, is surrounded by rocks and shipwrecks from WWII, but there are ambitious plans to turn it into a 30-bed hostel with a cocktail bar overlooking Mount Vesuvius. .

During the war, political prisoners were sent here to be tortured by the fascist government, and the few who tried to escape drowned in the treacherous waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was later converted into a regular prison, with amenities including a bakery, theater, and sports arena where inmates were encouraged to learn a trade.

Since it closed in 1965, the abandoned penitentiary has attracted limited visits, but only for those willing to undertake a steep 40-minute walk, and only when the sea is calm enough to land on the island, which has no dock. no running water or electricity.

Silvia Costa, the government official overseeing the project, admits that “access is difficult,” but hopes that the accommodation, as well as an open-air multimedia museum and prison walking tours, will make Santo Stefano a destination for all year.

Another former dungeon that capitalized on its Alcatraz-like charm is Sweden’s Langholmen Hotel, which housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals during its time as a prison from 1724 to 1975. Located on a private island in the capital, Stockholm It was also the site of Sweden’s last execution.


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“It was not a nice place at the time,” marketing director Ola Nymen told The National newspaper of the hotel, which has preserved the prison’s barred windows and metal doors. “These days, it’s quite a captivating place for people to escape their troubles.”

Guests can choose from single, double and family rooms, while the “romantic” cell tempts jailbirds-turned-lovebirds with a three-course dinner accompanied by chocolates and fruit.

In the Netherlands, tourists have been clamoring to stay at the Hotel Het Arresthuis since its $ 12 million transformation in 2011 from a 105-cell prison into a five-star boutique hotel with 40 luxury rooms and four appropriately dubbed elegant suites. The Judge. The lawyer, the director and the jailer.

A former prison yard is now a tree-lined terrace perfect for stretching out, while each room has its original door to preserve the flavor of the 19th century convicts. Now, however, people are trying to get into the hotel in Roermond, instead of leaving.

“Nobody wants to leave,” says hotel manager Rianne Balkestein. “People love being locked in here and they pay a lot of money for it. It is such a special building. “

In the English city of Oxford, famous for its leading university, where no fewer than 28 British prime ministers have been educated, the school of hard knocks lives on at the Malmaison Hotel, formerly the Oxford Castle prison, where the unfortunate Arrivals to countries less enlightened times would be taken “to be hung by the neck until I die.”


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Fortunately, the death penalty was abolished in the UK in the 1960s and today’s guests are more likely to be taken to the bar until they cool off. But there are abundant reminders of its bloodiest origins, dating back to the time of William the Conqueror in 1086. The interior of the castle has been remodeled into an elegant commercial and heritage center.

In Canada, HI Ottawa Jail Hostel has been serving budget travelers since 1974, selling overnight stays for just $ 60 just blocks from the luxurious Chateau Laurier hotel, Rideau Canal and Parliament Hill. Site of Canada’s last public hanging, in 1869, its single-cell rooms feature biographical snapshots of previous inmates (I stayed in room 409, where a Reginald Plucknett was caged for setting the family’s home on fire while I was sitting in a chair laughing ‘). If you haven’t been spooked by ghouls at night, there are death row tours available in the mornings.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of our infatuation with life on the inside is Karosta Prison, in the port city of Liepaja on the west coast of Latvia, where tourists prepare for a “full prisoner experience” that includes being ” punished “with verbal insults and forced returns to the exercise yard.

“You can put yourself in the shoes of a prisoner on a dark and gloomy night,” promises the attraction.

Built in the early 20th century, the old infirmary became a feared military prison where Latvian deserters were executed by firing squad during World War II or died trying to flee. Today, the sound of distant gunfire echoes off the walls as “guards” watch over guests as they settle on lumpy mattresses in damp cells. His brutal past has given rise to many ghost stories, and a chilling inscription translated as “out of hell” remains above the door of the solitary confinement cell.


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Even though the freedoms we once took for granted are slowly being restored, the pull of the penitentiary remains strong.

John Lennon, a Glasgow Caledonian University professor credited with coining the term “dark tourism,” argues that there has always been an attraction to the darker side of human nature. “Evil seems to unify all these sites,” he told NBC.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Philip Stone, director of the Dark Tourism Research Institute at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, suggests that we are crazy in part because we look at ourselves in a mirror.

“When we go to these places, we don’t see strangers, but we often see ourselves and maybe what we could do in those circumstances.”

– Andre Ramshaw



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