War Zones and Voyeurism: Is Dark Tourism Okay?

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 companyís 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 thatís very much packaged and profitable,Ē 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 donít have more tourists going to war zones as on cruise ships by any means,Ē 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 whatís happening firsthand and meet local people isnít 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?


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Chad Anderson
Chad A3 years ago

This just sounds like an iffy idea. If you want the "adventure" or "experience" of being in a dangerous conflict zone, there are lot of opportunities to go there to help. If you have to go there to watch, there is always journalism and academia...

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa3 years ago

Thank you

Karen Perkins
Karen Perkins3 years ago

I was reading a couple of years ago about a 'tour' one could pay to go on that traced the route of illegals coming through Mexico into the U.S. - complete with all the discomforts and much of the potential danger. My thought at the time was that there is no cure for stupid. And I pretty much feel the same about this. It's stupid to pay money to risk your life to see a 'conflict' just for the sake of seeing a conflict. If you want excitement, pick a side and get involved. As for the tour guides... whenever you combine stupid with money, there will be people there willing to take it. My two biggest concerns are 1) If the tourist or the guide gets in pickle, no one should come help them out. They should be on their own. Our people shouldn't risk their lives for stupidity or greed. 2) That those profitting from the industry could sabotage events or inflame passions in order to prolong the conflict, thus prolonging the profit.

Thomas M.
Thomas M3 years ago

All one has to do anymore in many places in the US is just sit on your front porch or go for a walk or drive to see the nasty things in life. Hell, just listen to one of the right wing, christian conservatives who are running for office for an ear full. The cost is limited and we truly do have it all in America - why go overseas. We lead the world in incarcerations, death by guns, death by automobile (probably), mistreatment of children refugees, lack of knowledge and compassion for fellow man, misogyny, murder of endangered wildlife, racism, need I go on. Too bad we can't do a giant selfie and analyze it. Why go anywhere else, we put on the best show on earth.

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thank you.

Stephen B.
Stephen B3 years ago

This really shouldn't be surprising. People are willing to pay big bucks for MMA fights or watching extreme sports. Just about everybody will slow down to see the mangled cars that have been backing up traffic (because of the 'rubber-neckers' in front of us).

The difference here is that the people are 'lining up' to see the suffering of innocent civilians who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong country.

I can't decide who is more sick: The people who take these 'tours' or the companies that happily profit from providing them.

Anne M.
anne M3 years ago

Maybe that's one way to reduce the world's overpopulation: Make sure those ghouls get involved in the attacks and become victims. After all, these weirdoes are no loss to anybody. Those poor refugee families from the affected areas should then be able to move into the homes of those ghouls once they bite the dust.

Anteater Ants
Anteater Ants3 years ago

No, it's not OK.

Rosa Caldwell
Rosa Caldwell3 years ago

Very sad and deadly situation.