Syria, Iran, Afghanistan. Most people want to stay as far away from war and conflict zones as possible. Then there are those that want to see everything up close and personal — and we’re not talking about journalists.
We’re talking about Dark Tourism. Traveling to war zones and other areas associated with death have become so common that an entire institute was set up to research this trend, The Dark Tourism Institute. The team at the institute have launched a five-year project to look at the effects that war tourism has on cultural sites around the globe.
This kind of tourism doesn’t only apply to war zones, as “modern-day dark tourism is on sites where death or suffering has occurred or been memorialized, such as battlefields, concentration camps, dungeons, prisons, or graveyards,” writes the International Business Times.
Yet while an obsession with death is nothing new, and people have long been traveling to tombs, sites of execution and beyond, our modern day ease of travel and money to put into travel means getting to off the grid conflict zones that otherwise would have been difficult to reach. While tourism of this kind doesn’t necessarily imply that tourists are smack dab in the middle of fighting, there’s no denying that there’s a certain element of thrill seeking that is garnered from traveling to places where conflict is the norm.
“Sometimes we have battles in front of us and tourists will hear the noises and see the fighting, but that happens only once every few months,” Marom, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel who now brings tourists to the Israeli-Syrian border, told The Atlantic. ”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. They say, ‘Are you sure?’ To them, it’s like something from the moon, and they want to see.”
There’s an argument to be made for the power of bearing witness to tragedy, and the reason that tour operators do trips in conflict zones can be for a variety of reasons, from mere adventure to political education. In a world where many of us are entirely removed from conflict, there’s no denying that seeing it up close can be moving and potentially lead to individual and cultural change. Truly knowing a place requires going there. However, there’s something that feels very wrong about profiting financially off of other’s tragedies.
According to The Atlantic:
“[T]he broader adventure-tourism industry, which includes travel to war zones and political hotspots, has grown by an average of 65 percent annually over the past four years and is now estimated to be worth $263 billion. While some hyper-extreme tour operators, among them War Zone Tours and Wild Frontiers, have been around since the 1990s, the past decade has produced a bumper crop of plucky agencies catering to thrill-seeking wayfarers.”
Some travelers go to these places for the intellectual aspect. Political Tours, founded by Nicholas Wood, a former New York Times Balkans correspondent, has the tagline “current affairs at firsthand” and is geared towards the kind of travelers that want an educational trip; the company works with university students, NGOs and politicians.
This is of course quite different from the tour operators who cater more to the adventure travelers; those that get an adrenaline kick out of being in a conflict zone. According to Haaretz, War Zone Tours’ founder Rick Sweeney says “that most of the company’s customers are people with no military experience who feel they have missed out by focusing on their studies or careers; now that they can afford it, they turn to his company to seek out adventure.”
While war tourism isn’t new, it’s becoming more and more commercialized. “War tourism is becoming something that’s very much packaged and profitable,” journalist Debra Kamin, author of “The Rise of Dark Tourism,” told PRI. It’s a small percentage of the overall travel industry, and yet there’s lots of potential economically for tour operators. “You don’t have more tourists going to war zones as on cruise ships by any means,” Kamin told PRI, “but the faster it grows, the faster it can bring in dollars.”
We have to start asking ourselves if this kind of tourism is helping the wider community to better understand regions around the world, and in turn perhaps help make for less conflict in the long term, or if we are simply profiting from war, taking economic advantage of a dire situation and helping to fuel it more. That means seriously analyzing whether tour operators are there to provide educational opportunities or just provide a thrill.
When it comes to those ethics, the tour operators are divided. “The companies are also split on the ethics of this type of travel, with a portion of them denying that ethics are even a factor and other groups saying that in a world where news is so packaged into sound bites, venturing into a war zone to see what’s happening firsthand and meet local people isn’t unethical at all,” reports PRI.
It’s a question of what we do when we return from a place. Do we take action? Do we make an effort to make our own communities better? Or do we simply snap a selfie in the middle of conflict and brand ourselves as bad-ass? Travel can have a very positive impact, but only if we’re conscious of our role in it.
What do you think? Does dark tourism help or hinder?