Traveling through central Afghanistan three years ago, Geoff Hann found himself caught between warlords.
He led his group past one battling militia only to face another on the opposite side of the river. Luckily, these warlords were friendly, he says. But they don’t all turn out to be.
Such encounters, says Hann, are just part of the experience – and part of the “fun” – of touring with Hann’s UK-based Hinterland Travel agency.
As they enter war zones, cross checkpoints, and stumble upon sites of political instability, these travelers come heavily armed – with cameras, guide books, maps and tour guides.
It is tourism of a seemingly “dark” variety – one that stands distinctly apart from its sun-and-sand counterpart – that has travelers heading to the Middle East not only despite war and conflict but also at times because of it.
Witnessing the damage caused by rockets in Israel’s north and south, visiting the site of poison gas attacks in northern Iraq, and touring the bullet-ridden buildings of Beirut are just a sampling of the Middle East’s arguably “dark” tourist attractions – places associated in some way with death, destruction, conflict or war.
“There is undoubtedly an attraction to these places but what is less known is why people may be attracted to them – whether it is to witness war through some sort of ghoulish fascination or whether it is to try to get some deeper understanding or meaning from it. That’s the big issue really,” says Prof. Richard Sharpley, head of tourism at the University of Lincoln.
Hinterland participants first and foremost, says Hann, are looking for something “different and interesting.” They travel to Iraq, Afghanistan, southeastern Turkey and Iran for the history, architecture, and culture of these Middle Eastern destinations. They don’t mind the occasional element of danger involved. But they are not necessarily thrill-seekers. They come to “see for themselves” that which the media so heavily covers and, according to many skeptical Westerners, sometimes misrepresents.
“There are tour groups and there are tourists who go to places like Afghanistan and Iraq to try and get close to what is going on there – now that’s a morbid fascination with war,” says Prof. John Lennon, author of Dark Tourism and director of the Moffat Center for Travel and Tourism Business Development.
While tour operators cite solidarity and intellectual curiosity as the primary pull, academics note that it may be a “ghoulish” interest in death, the need to quench a “thirst to taste war,” says Lennon, that drives tourists to sites associated with destruction or conflict.
“It’s the kind of human taste for touching death – getting close to death. And it’s the immediacy. It’s almost as if it’s not enough that it happened 10 or 20 years ago.”
Days after the cease-fire was declared in the last Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah, Kibbutz Gonen Holiday Village in northern Israel started offering tours of sites hit by Katushya rockets. Foreign tourists and Israelis from the country’s center, who did not experience the impact of the war to the same extent as their northern counterparts, came to “see with their own eyes” the damage caused by the war.
“They saw it all on television, on the news. But people were curious to see it with their own eyes – to help them understand,” explains Gonen marketing director Ori Alon, noting that many came away from the visit feeling relieved.
Compared to the dramatic images on the news, the visits “minimized the damage.” The situation was terrible, but not as terrible as television made it seem, she says.
In that first month after the war, Israeli tour guide Amnon Loya led tourists past damaged houses in Qiryat Shmonah. There, tourists had the opportunity to speak with area residents and soldiers. Psychologically, they needed to see it for themselves, he explains, for the sake of solidarity, closure and curiosity, and in order to understand the reality of the situation.
“If you are sitting comfortably in your home and watching television, you wonder if the war is actually in your country or not,” says Loya.
While Katushya tours have fizzled out, today tourists can head to the southern Israeli town of Sderot to witness the damage caused by Qassam rockets fired from nearby Gaza.
Bina Abramson of the Sderot Media Center says these rockets have area residents living in constant fear, and that it is primarily fact-finding and solidarity, rather than the thrill-factor, that draws tour groups and visitors.
Tours in general may be associated with conflict, but are focused more heavily on solidarity, politics or fact finding.
In his study of politically oriented tourism in Jerusalem, tour guide Eldad Brin writes of a 2003 birthright Israel trip themed “Peace and Politics,” which took participants to a Jerusalem coffee shop that was victim to a terrorist attack a few months earlier, highlighting the volatile political atmosphere of the city.
Participants with the Bethlehem-based Alternative Tourism Group can visit demolished Palestinian houses, refugee camps, the separation barrier, and meet with Palestinian and Israeli peace activists and organizations.
Executive director Rami Kassis says the purpose of the tours is to expose tourists to the region’s unique political, social, and historical realities – “to open their eyes to the suffering of the Palestinian people” and help visitors develop their own ideas of the situation, instead of relying on biased information and the media.
Yet, as symbols of conflict, and even in representing the restriction of people’s lives, such sites can certainly be considered part of the dark tourism trend, says Sharpley.
“The attraction, I guess, would be that people go to almost get reassurance about the security and freedom of their own lives,” he says.
Many Westerners live in relatively safe, risk-averse societies, shielded from death and the direct impact of war, he says.
“Dicing with death” is one way to describe this form of tourism, says Sharpley, in which putting oneself in a position of danger or risk – potentially facing death – is part of the appeal. From that perspective, war zone tours could be considered the latest in extreme sports.
Even though Hinterland takes tourists to areas that carry travel warnings – making the participants sometimes entirely uninsurable on account of war and terrorism – Hann says the group doesn’t go out of its way to find attractions that are “dark.” Nor are its participants – who are generally 40 to 70 years old – looking for danger or thrills.
In fact, 69-year-old world traveler and UK native Margaret Whelpton says she never would have been able to enjoy Hinterland’s tours if she were aware of any danger.
Whelpton, who has traveled to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Iran and Afghanistan, says the conflict or violence associated with certain areas – such as a plaque she saw at a hotel in Islamabad commemorating the murder of several journalists two years earlier – are simply part of the past.
“History,” she says. Nothing to be afraid of.
That doesn’t, however, mean Hinterland doesn’t come across “dodgy” areas or seemingly dark attractions.
In a tour of Northern Iraq, Hinterland took participants to Halabja, the site of poison gas attack during the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. On another occasion, they visited a prison in Sulaymaniyah were Kurds had been tortured.
No different, says Hann, than visiting Auschwitz concentration camp.
While the see-it-for-yourself factor is certainly a draw, academics such as Lennon and Sharpley say the trend relates to an age-old, inherent interest in death and war.
“Possibly a little bit of bloodlust,” explains Sharpley.
Fascination with “the dark side of human nature,” says Lennon.
Ultimately, people want to touch the bullet holes, perhaps feel the danger, and meet those battling warlords, all for themselves.
For more coverage on Middle East tourism from The Media Line visit their Website, www.themedialine.org.