Conflict Tourism — The New Extreme Sport in Travel

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This piece looks at the crazy new trend in tourism that takes travellers to war zones and areas of conflict. I discuss the different types of conflict and why people are attracted to this way of travelling. But is it right to promote it?

Have you ever been witness to the aftermath of a destructive and deadly car accident? You know a disaster has occurred, you know that there are probably serious injuries, pools of blood, decapitations and possibly even deaths among the wreckage, but you can’t help it, you just have to look. It’s a potentially disturbing and horrific scene and there is very little to be gained by slowing your car down to have a look at the result of what must have been a harrowing experience for those involved. You know that if you were to actually see anything of great consequence, you would regret it and yet you can’t help but try and catch a glimpse of this human disaster, and if you are unlucky enough to witness something truly gruesome, all you can do is stare. Why?

It’s not just car crashes either. Our organic morbid curiosity draws us to tragedies of all kinds; natural disasters, terrorist attacks, bombings, war, accidents, fights, murders, sexual attacks and deaths of many natures. We choose to read news articles about tragedy and to watch films that make us feel scared or sad. The feelings that these events induce in us bring us back to these macabre events again and again, even though we know that they are truly horrible to witness. Why?

Human beings are curious creatures; if we see, we know. Knowing gives us a sense of reality and an understanding of our immortality, it makes us more fragile. But witnessing these things also makes us feel stronger because we have seen these tragedies and yet we come out the other side reasonably unscathed, their repulsiveness is a challenge. Viewing these disturbing occurrences makes them more interesting, they become valuable to us. They give us the opportunity to be empathetic; we have a desire to experience someone else’s suffering and these incidents fuel our imagination. Could it happen to me? What if it did?

With this in mind, is it any wonder that the tourism industry has bought into this concept? You may have heard of ‘Dark Tourism’. This involves travelling to places historically associated with death and tragedy. The term ‘Dark Tourism’ was first coined in 1996 by Lennon and Foley, two faculty members of the Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure Management at Glasgow Caledonian University, and there has since been many sub-categorisations such as Holocaust tourism or slavery-heritage tourism. The website www.dark-tourism.com will tell you everything you need to know about this genre, including its various categories. Some examples of ‘Dark Tourism’ destinations cited on this website include Ground Zero in New York City, Auschwitz near Krakow, Poland and Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam. They are all locations of past tragedies that we as tourists can visit and as a consequence, find empathy with the horrors that occurred there.

‘Dark Tourism’, while only given a name in the past twenty years, is an industry that has been around for centuries. You only have to look to Pompeii, which has been a tourist attraction for over 250 years, to understand this. The list of ‘Dark Tourism’ sites have historical significance, they provide an education and a memorial to the horrific events of the past. What is an unwelcome surprise in today’s culture, is the emergence of what society has begun to call ‘Conflict Tourism’. This has similar connotations, but attracts visitors who want to experience these harrowing affairs first hand. Thousands of travellers across the world are putting themselves in extreme danger to allow themselves to feel something and empathise with the state of the world today.

So what defines ‘Conflict Tourism’? There are now a few sub-categories of this genre too, the most obvious being ‘War Tourism’. It’s unthinkable isn’t it, that there are people in the world who willingly choose to visit a country just so that they can see and experience a war? In fact, there is so much interest that it has become a business to many people across the world. You only have to click on this link www.warzonetours.com to see what a lucrative business it has become. The home page alone seems to glamourise the packages that they are trying to sell and their example tours make the prospect of visiting a war torn country seem exciting and an experience of a lifetime.

When advertising their tours of Mexico, they write “Kidnappings and unrivalled brutality by criminal cartels with military weaponry have plagued Mexico over the past few years. Daily violence is often unreported and attacks involving car-bombs, anti-tank rocket launchers and hand grenades are occurring just a few miles from the US border. The city of Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, was labelled the world’s murder capital in 2010, with 3111 murders in a city of 1.3 million. Tijuana continues to experience a kidnapping epidemic, while rolling firefights occur in the former resort town of Rosarito, just 20 minutes from San Diego, California. Our Mexico tours are eye-opening to say the least.” Does it sound like the holiday of a lifetime to you?

Unbelievably, ‘War Zone Tours’ is not the only company cashing in on this seemingly popular tourism trend. An organisation called ‘Untamed Borders’ offers what they call ‘Adventure Travel’ to Afghanistan. You can ski in the Bamian region of Central Afghanistan, take a horse trek through the Pamir mountain ranges, or perhaps you would enjoy the ‘Grand Afghan Tour’, which begins in Kabul and ends in Herat? While I agree that government advice errs on the cautious side when it comes to war torn destinations, the UK government advises against all travel to at least 70% of the country and advises against all but essential travel to the other 30%. It states, “There is a high threat from terrorism and specific methods of attack are evolving and increasing in sophistication. There is a high threat of kidnapping throughout the country. The security situation throughout Afghanistan remains uncertain, and could change rapidly. You should monitor media reporting and make sure you have robust contingency plans in place.” In recent months there have been a number of attacks in Kabul alone, four attacks took place here in January 2016.

If Afghanistan doesn’t sound dangerous enough, perhaps a holiday in Syria would excite you? As part of a tour of Israel with Keren & Kobi Marom Tourism LTD, you could visit the crumbled Syrian city of Quneitra on the Syrian-Israeli border. Here, some of the fiercest fighting of the Syrian civil war has played out over the past couple of years and every time there has been a battle, there has been a crowd. “People come here every day to see the show,” says Kobi Marom, a retired Israel Defence Forces colonel who regularly brings groups to this point to watch the bloody fighting. “For people visiting the area, it’s interesting. They feel that they are a part of it. They can go home and tell their friends, ‘I was on the border and I saw a battle.’” Some prefer to visit Golan Heights, high above a valley where tourists have a panoramic view of this location, also known as the Gateway to Damascus. Dozens stop here each day eager for a glimpse of battles and bombings. “I’ll have tourists sitting at a wonderful lunch one mile from the border and I tell them that Al-Qaeda is looking at them and they go crazy with it… to them, it’s like something from the moon, and they want to see.”

In 2015, Russian travel Agency ‘Megapolis Jurort’ reportedly filed an application to begin taking daring holidaymakers on five day tours of war torn Syria. If the application is successful for them, they will be able to take tourists from around the world on the “Assad Tour” which will give travellers a glimpse into the epicentre of global jihadism for just over $2000 including airfare and accommodation. Anatoly Aronov, president of ‘Megapolis Jurort’ has been in talks with the Syrian Embassy in Russia about a “possible trip to the front line” and he believes that Russians would enjoy the tour. Despite the mass exodus of over 9 million Syrians in five years, Mr Aronov even went as far to say that Syrian residents could house the travellers for some extra money. I can’t help but think that the man is deluded if he thinks that this is a viable business plan. Fortunately, sending tourists to conflict zones is against Russian law as the company cannot guarantee safety and until the necessary paperwork is approved, they are not authorised to sell these trips.

If ‘War Tourism’ sounds a little too outrageous for the adrenaline seeking traveller inside you, how about ‘Political Tourism’? If you are imagining tours of countries experiencing vast political unrest, then your imagination can become a reality. Nicholas Wood, a former travel writer for the New York Times, left journalism behind in 2009 and launched ‘Political Tours’, which takes small groups of tourists to the world’s political hotspots, including a once planned tour of Israel and Palestine. Wood explains that his company “aims to give people access to as many different political perspectives as possible, giving them a complex understanding of the situation, rather than the black-and-white picture they might find in newspapers and on TV”. As I have mentioned before, as a traveller myself, I am all for this. I understand as well as anybody that the media has a tendency to exaggerate and glamourise situations of unrest across the world, it’s big business to them, and areas of tourism unfairly suffer as a consequence. But tourism has to be responsible. Is it fair to organise a tour that could compromise your clients’ safety? Is it fair to support countries that are at war with their people and have no concept of human rights? Nicholas Wood’s tour of Israel and Palestine was eventually cancelled after no-one booked to take the tour following the conflict in Gaza.

It is my personal opinion that many companies offering political tourism are cashing in on this trend in certain areas far too soon. Destinations like Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia or Nigeria where political unrest is verging on, or has become civil war, should not be promoted as tourist destinations, it is just irresponsible. However, where political tourism may be onto a winning ticket, is creating an industry for countries who have come out the other side and genuinely need tourist revenue in order to rebuild. Proof that sustainable tourism efforts are effective can be seen in popular destinations like Cambodia and Nicaragua; even Iran is now an up and coming traveller hotspot despite its association with the Gulf War in the 90s and unrest in Iraq. What travel companies need to do, is separate true danger from assumed risk.

This has been successful in Mexico for instance, where there have been 24,856 conflict related deaths in the past 3 years, and in 2015 was named the 5th deadliest country in the world, as a result of these statistics. Yet over 12 million people travelled to Mexico in 2014 because the tourism industry has been successful in separating the areas of political unrest from the pristine white sandy beach resorts. It is about garnering the trust of travellers and helping them to understand that while political instability can infer danger, many countries that are suffering this fate need tourism to survive and to strengthen their economies. In many cases, just a small proportion of a country is deemed dangerous to visitors. My article ‘Tourism and Terrorism’ discusses this in more depth, but ultimately, tourism agencies need to be responsible in their choices of destinations and activities. Even if there is a call for this kind of travel, it is wrong to put the lives of innocent people in danger and surely making this active unrest an attraction is only going to encourage it to continue?

‘Riot Tourism’ is another growing trend. Riots happen because it provides a valuable experience for dissidents and revolutionary groups who want to confront a State head on and feel solidarity with members of their community engaged in fighting for the same cause. But these are dangerous situations to be in, so why are tourists flocking to take part in these violent demonstrations? Huge numbers of people come together to picket an issue and are then faced with anxious police officers firing grenades, bottles are thrown, windows are smashed, garbage bins are set on fire, crowds are sprayed with chemical solvents designed to burn the eyes and skin, cars are smashed and overturned and men in gas masks throw tear gas canisters at authority figures. To some, it is an exciting and dangerous place to be.

Recently, people have begun to identify with the anti-globalisation movement and are ‘summit-hopping’ to various world economic meetings, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and more recently the G20 summit. Now these people are making headlines by clashing with riot police. ‘Riot Tourism’ is on the rise because activists are taking advantage of the internet to organise demonstrations and word of mouth now spreads globally. But the movement is attracting people who actively want to be violent, they are travelling to these places with the intention of causing chaos and believe that they won’t be outnumbered. The 2015 elections in Greece created riot and anarchy tourism in Athens, a city still suffering from this problem. Anti austerity clashes in Syntagma Square resulted in 14 arrests; none were of Greek nationality, all of the arrested were tourists.

Following the 2011 UK riots, it was reported that “in some instances, the events were described in terms of a wild party or, as one young person put it, “like a rave”. A sense of glee pervaded these accounts — people were often grinning while describing their experience — a delight that the normal order of things was briefly turned upside down.” This is why ‘Riot Tourism’ exists.

Shortly after the UK riots, the problems spread to the Swiss city of Zurich. Ninety-one arrests were made after a riot started at an unlicensed open air rave, the majority of participants were under the age of 25. Daniel Leupi, the Police Chief of Zurich, described the youths as “riot tourists”. The problem re-emerged in December 2014 when rioters, many armed with iron bars, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police and caused thousands of euros worth of damage. The riot was said to have been caused by left-wing radicals and they were described as “extremely violent anarchists”. Rioters said, “We don’t want to leave our city to freeholders, to money, to capitalists or public-private-partnership-nations or any other oppressing authorities. We want a city which is allowed to live, be loud, chaotic and exciting”. Four men were arrested; two were Swiss, one was from Liechtenstein and one was a Brit. Perhaps these ‘tourists’ don’t feel like their voice can be heard in their home country, or perhaps they are just looking for trouble.

“Conflict Tourism” is nothing new. Armies gathering on battlefields have historically long been trailed by hoards of eager spectators. Thomas Cook, the very founder of one of the UK’s most prominent travel agencies, took many of his first tour groups to hangings in Cornwall. We forget that seeing people suffer was a favourite pastime of communities at one time. The Romans used to spend their weekends watching gladiators fight condemned criminals and bull fighting, resulting in the deaths of animals and man, still exists in many parts of the world today. Riots have been happening across the world for centuries as revolt is often the only way people believe that they can get what they want and achieve understanding. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was just one riot of a movement against the tax laws of the British government, which eventually, spread throughout the US and resulted in the American Revolution.

While the American Revolution was a long winded and slow moving version of ‘Riot Tourism’, modern culture and technology have changed the game now that the world is a much smaller place. Today, it is easy to communicate with people, to rouse opinions and create followings. What is concerning is that today’s tourism industry is trying to capitalise on these horrific situations. Sadly, there are people out there who see this trend as an exciting proposition, and people are willing to pay for these experiences; they must be, or travel companies like www.warzonetours.com just wouldn’t exist. The broader adventure-tourism industry, which includes travel to war zones and political hotspots, has grown by an average of 65% annually over the past four years and is now estimated to be worth $263 billion.

It is sad that some people will take advantage of other people’s difficulties, pain and misery to make a quick buck. It is surprising that there are people in the world who go out of their way to experience harrowing and life changing conflict when they have no need to put themselves in such a life threatening position. Or is this just a new form of extreme tourism? Perhaps a bungee jump or a sky dive just isn’t enough any more? Do people feel the need to push their limits to the max or are they just crazy and reckless!?

 

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