What would that popular tourist destination look like without the crowds? From ghost towns to desolate amusement parks to deserted resorts to apocalyptic and radioactive cities, these 15 destinations around the world were once-thriving tourist hotspots that have been abandoned for decades. Intriguing or unsettling, the stories behind them are fascinating.
HERITAGE USA, SOUTH CAROLINA: BEFORE
A massive Christian-themed park in Fort Hills, South Carolina — built by famed televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker in 1978 — was once one of the state's most popular attractions. By 1986, Heritage USA, often described as a Christian version of Disneyland, was drawing nearly 6 million visitors a year.
HERITAGE USA, SOUTH CAROLINA: AFTER
Bad press surrounding a scandal and Hurricane Hugo damage forced the sprawling religious-themed water park, theme park, and residential complex to close. It's now a post-apocalyptic ghost town. Some of the 2,300-acre site has been used for other businesses, but many of its original buildings remain.
YASHIMA RESORT, JAPAN: BEFORE
During the economically successful years of the 1980s, investors created a mountain resort town on one of Japan's main islands. The tourist village featured a half-dozen hotels, gift shops, and a rail line to the city's top peak.
YASHIMA RESORT, JAPAN: AFTER
Economic hard times beginning in the early 1990s led to shutdown of the entire village, leaving behind gift shop collectibles and furniture-filled hotels stuck in time.
GLENRIO, TEXAS/NEW MEXICO: BEFORE
Founded in 1903, the town of Glenrio — which straddles the Texas-New Mexico border and is officially part of both states — once boomed with the road tripping tourism industry along Route 66. Motorists could stop for gas on the Texas side, where taxes were lower, and get drinks on the New Mexico side, since alcohol sales were illegal in the local Texas county.
GLENRIO, TEXAS/NEW MEXICO: AFTER
A faster, well-maintained Interstate 40 was built in 1975, bypassing the town, and Glenrio became just another roadside casualty along iconic Route 66. The abandoned town is mostly intact, and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
SPREEPARK, GERMANY: BEFORE
Created by East Germany's Communist government in 1969, Spreepark (then Kulturpark Plänterwald) thrived as an amusement park just outside Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it struggled and was eventually taken over in 1991 by Norbert Witte, who tried upgrades including life-sized dinosaurs, a water landscape, and English village.
SPREEPARK, GERMANY: AFTER
Due to dwindling crowds and Witte's prosecution for cocaine smuggling from Peru, the park was shut down in 2002. Now, the abandoned amusement park is eerily overgrown with a rusting, twisted Ferris wheel, decaying roller coaster, and fallen Tyrannosaurus Rex.
VILLA EPECUÉN, ARGENTINA: BEFORE
Once believed to have therapeutic healing powers, the waters of Lago Epecuén in Argentina drew tourists to its shores in the 1970s and '80s. The community of Villa Epecuén thrived on tourism until a terrible storm flooded the town in 1985.
VILLA EPECUÉN, ARGENTINA: AFTER
Salty floodwaters of more than 30 feet consumed the town until beginning to recede in 2009, slowly revealing the ruins left behind. People can now see some of the remains that have surfaced over the past decade.
CANFRANC STATION, SPAIN: BEFORE
Opened in 1928 with France in the Pyrenees Mountains, Spain's Canfranc Station was once one of Europe's largest and most opulent rail hubs. Before Nazis took it over during World War II, thousands of Jews — including painters Max Ernst and Marc Chagall — used it to flee by train to Lisbon and the United States.
CANFRANC STATION, SPAIN: AFTER
In 1970, a train derailed and demolished the L'Estanguet bridge, which was never rebuilt. Plans are in the works to bring life to the desolate station, though, with French and Spanish officials hoping to preserve its history and reignite tourism via a rail route through the Aragon River valley's scenic landscape.
SIX FLAGS NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA: BEFORE
There are plenty of reasons to visit New Orleans: beignets, jazz, Jackson Square, the Garden District, and Bourbon Street, to name a few. The city's vast theme park, Six Flags New Orleans (formerly Jazzland), was once another popular attraction for the Pelican State. The complex opened in 2000, and ran successfully for five years.
SIX FLAGS NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA: AFTER
As for many parts of the city, Hurricane Katrina cut the business's success short in August 2005. The storm left much of the 140-acre park flooded, and it was never reopened. You can still feel its devastating effects. Plans to redevelop the site, now city-owned, have all fallen through, leaving the remains of Southern and Cajun-themed rides such as the Muskrat Scrambler behind for now.
SALTON RIVIERA, CALIFORNIA: BEFORE
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Salton Riviera — a once-thriving resort destination near Los Angeles — was deemed the next Palm Springs. Colorado River overflow flooded the Salton Sink in the mid-20th century, creating the Salton Sea in the middle of the California desert. Hollywood celebrities and politicians flocked to the chic desert oasis, making it one of the most popular recreation retreats in the state.
SALTON RIVIERA, CALIFORNIA: AFTER
GROSSINGER'S CATSKILL RESORT HOTEL, NEW YORK: BEFORE
Believed to be the inspiration for the movie "Dirty Dancing," Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel in Liberty, New York, was the crown jewel of the "Borscht Belt," (a nickname for the now mostly defunct summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains). In its heyday during the 1950s and '60s, it was a haven for wealthy summer vacationers, attracting the best comedians — including Mel Brooks, Danny Kaye, and Jackie Mason — to its stages and hosting black-tie events in the ballroom. The resort had a swimming pool, theater, golf course, ski slope, and even a landing strip.
GROSSINGER'S CATSKILL RESORT HOTEL, NEW YORK: AFTER
Business declined in the 1970s when tropical locales such as Hawaii and the Bahamas lured young people to their shores. After turnover in management and financial difficulties, the property fell into disrepair and shuttered permanently in 1986, falling victim to graffiti-laden walls, mildewed carpets, broken glass, and plant growth in the Olympic-sized pool.
PRIPYAT, UKRAINE: BEFORE
One of the world's worst nuclear power disasters — with a radioactive release 10 times greater than the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima — forced inhabitants of Pripyat to evacuate their homes April 26, 1986. When Reactor No. 4's core at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant exploded, an amusement park had been set to open; it opened early for one day on April 27 to entertain those preparing to evacuate the northern Ukrainian city.
PRIPYAT, UKRAINE: AFTER
Pripyat is one of the world's most well-known (and contaminated) ghost towns. People fled in such haste that the city looks frozen in time — with nature taking over. Although the area remains abandoned, it's now safe to visit and there are even guided tours. Some of the city's most haunting images today come from the now-abandoned amusement park: a bumper-car ride still fully intact, and rusted and graffitied roller coasters and carousels.
VAROSHA, CYPRUS: BEFORE
In the 1960s and early 1970s, celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Brigitte Bardot frequented the luxurious seaside resorts of this once-popular tourist destination. Varosha in Cyprus was the booming modern tourist area in the southern quarter of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, drawing the rich and famous to some of the best beaches on the island.
VAROSHA, CYPRUS: AFTER
The sudden Turkish invasion of 1974 occupied the resort city, forcing residents and tourists to flee in such a rush that personal effects litter the abandoned streets and buildings, still forbidden to visitors. Plans emerged a few years ago to see the ghost city of the Mediterranean turned into an eco-city as a model for sustainability and peaceful coexistence.
RHYOLITE, NEVADA: BEFORE
One of Nevada's largest ghost towns, Rhyolite, was once the third-largest city in the state. Formed during the Gold Rush in 1904, it grew to be a bustling town of more than 10,000 people with an infamous red light district, 50 saloons, hotels, an opera house and symphony, a school for 250 children, a hospital, and even its own stock exchange with a three-story bank. The Death Valley area town was also known for its lively nightlife, and socializing at sporting events and dances were common.
RHYOLITE, NEVADA: AFTER
Like many Gold Rush towns, it lived fast and died young. By 1916, the town was deserted. It's been abandoned for more than a century, but you'll still find the remains of its bank, jail, train depot, and a restored Bottle House (made from 50,000 glass beer bottle bottoms, of which the desert town had a steady supply). Over the years, it's also been restored many times for Western films.
MICHIGAN CENTRAL STATION, MICHIGAN: BEFORE
Once considered Detroit's Ellis Island, the three-story Michigan Central Station was the tallest railroad station in the world when it opened in 1913. The train terminal had 54-foot ceilings, 68-foot Corinthian columns, and grand chandeliers. But by the 1950s, the number of passengers traveling by train diminished across the country.
MICHIGAN CENTRAL STATION, MICHIGAN: AFTER
Despite Amtrak's attempt to revitalize the station in 1971, the last train left the transportation hub in 1988, and the station was quickly abandoned. For decades the station deteriorated and plans for upgrades (or demolition) faltered. But Ford bought the property, and a makeover is underway to restore the dilapidated structure to its glory days as part of the automaker's planned $740 million mobility-focused campus.
PLYMOUTH, MONTSERRAT: BEFORE
Until 1997, the tiny island of Montserrat — an overseas territory of the U.K. in the Lesser Antilles, West Indies — had been enjoying a bit of a tourism boom. The British isle 27 miles southwest of Antigua was where Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder recorded at Sir George Martin's Air Studios. It's also the only country that celebrates St. Patrick's Day as a national holiday aside from Ireland — and they know how to mark the occasion.
PLYMOUTH, MONTSERRAT: AFTER
But Plymouth, the island's once thriving capital and only port of entry at the time, was leveled by a huge volcanic eruption that destroyed much of the city and its surrounding vegetation. The capital — now the Pompeii of the Caribbean — was abandoned permanently in 1997. The Caribbean island is making a comeback, but the volcano remains a wild card and access to Plymouth is still controlled strictly. The stark, buried city is striking compared with the rest of the lush green island.
WANLI UFO VILLAGE, TAIWAN: BEFORE
In the 1980s, when Taiwan's economy prospered, a businessman in the northern village of Wanli imitated the 1960s Futuro Houses (or "UFO Houses") of Finnish architect Matti Suuronen, imagining the portable, prefabricated structures as perfect vacation homes for U.S. soldiers stationed in Asia and wealthy Taiwanese residents. They were seen as only the first phase of development for a vacation resort.
WANLI UFO VILLAGE, TAIWAN: AFTER
Taiwan's economy slowed and the tourists that once packed the beach and hotels disappeared. Grand plans for large hotels and hot spring tourism fell through as investors dropped out, and the area became an unfinished abandoned ghost town. The future of the retro UFO village is undecided, but tourists and locals prowl for photos in the meantime — and some are said to be inhabited.