It is a far cry from the catwalks of Paris or Rome—although one could argue that snagging front row seats at coveted designer shows packs in the essential elements of war, too. It goes against the stereotypical notion of vacations as sunsets and spas. Still, ‘war tourism’ harks back to the original purpose of travel: to go where few have gone before; to find places that awaken tired spirits. In this hyper connected world where a student in Mumbai can participate in classes at MIT virtually, or watch falcons flyover the deserts of Arabia, it takes a lot to jolt the jaded mind. For many, war tourism seems to be a way out.
The phrase was reportedly first used by the American television show, “Frontline,” to describe American troops in Iraq, who used to go out into the city during the day and return to heavily armed bases at night. Since then, war tourists– mostly journalists, artists and from the armed forces– have visited areas of active combat to report, film and be inspired.
Although I wouldn’t classify myself as a war tourist, I do seek out troubling destinations. I classify vacations in four buckets: pleasurable, fun, meaningful, and adventurous. Staying at the Amandari resort in Bali or the Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto was pleasurable. Shopping in London and hobnobbing with celebrities in Cannes and Cap d’Antibe was fun. Going on a wildlife safari in Krugar National Park or swimming with the dolphins in New Zealand was adventurous. But none of these were meaningful. Meaningful vacations require that you open your mind and heart, embrace discomfort and be on edge. For that, I had to visit war-torn lands: Egypt, Israel, Poland, Russia and Cambodia.
On a cold, gray day in Auschwitz, I stood outside the gas chambers where thousands of Jews were murdered by the Nazis and confronted the extent of human depravity. In Cambodia’s Killing Fields where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge murdered millions of innocent civilians, I confronted the limits of civilization. I felt ashamed as I walked through Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide with its chilling photographs of the dead. That same shame would reoccur when I watched television news footage of the Bosnian War or the Rwandan genocide, although I have not visited these places. This is what travel does, doesn’t it? It makes you empathize with people who are different from you, with issues outside your bandwidth. Memories of one land and one experience allow you to relate to another.
War tourism also makes catch phrases come to life. Although I had heard about the ‘Middle Eastern conflict’, visiting the Israel-Palestine border made it real. In 2001, I had coffee with Israeli friends at a cafe in downtown Jerusalem. The following day, the Hamas carried out a suicide bombing at the Sbarro’s pizza, just yards from where we sat. It gave me my first brush with mortality. To this day, I cannot eat za’atar, Israel’s ubiquitous spice, without feeling a chill run down my spine. I stood at the Palestine border and watched a young hijab-wearing Muslim girl play in the sand. She was a few yards away but she might as well have been a continent away, thanks to the omnipresent Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
These trips—including one to Russia where I sat all night at Moscow’s airport to make sure that an American colleague who used to be with the CIA wasn’t jailed but instead deported—were not pleasant trips. But they were memorable. They were definitely meaningful.
In their book, Dark Tourism, authors John Lennon (no relation to the iconic singer) and Malcolm Foley posit that tourists are attracted to places where inhuman acts occurred (and are occurring) for a variety of reasons: to make sense of their world; to witness the extent of human failing; and to come back with a greater sense of gratitude about their normal lives. Mass graves offer a huge perspective on the mundane, something that Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ashvin Kumar knows well. Kumar is attracted to borders, ergo his fascination with Kashmir, a state he has repeatedly filmed in. He talks with insight and compassion about the ravages of the border conflict and how it has taken its toll on Kashmiris. “It is in the interest of the tourism industry to project normalcy in Kashmir,” he says. “But terrible dichotomies still exist: mass graves, false encounters, torture.” To pull the skin off the scenic beauty of this land and go into its conflict-laden depths, Kumar suggests talking to Kashmiris: taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and NGO workers. “Talk to Parveena Ahangar, who founded the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). There is an entire populace of women in Kashmir who are called half-widows because their husbands have just disappeared. They cannot remarry, their children are destitute, and they have no closure.”
Such access doesn’t come easy to the average tourist. You may not have the time to set up meetings with NGOs and journalists; and indeed, you may not want to. After all, you are on vacation. Still, you can encounter war-zones even in the most staid or sophisticated cities. Every city has gray areas such as New York’s strife-torn Harlem or the suburbs of Paris. Those who seek to combine comfort with discomfort can finish dinner at Manhattan’s upscale Per Se and take a subway into Spanish Harlem at midnight. They can experience the adrenaline rush of danger, and return to their cozy rooms and Frette linen at the Mandarin Oriental.
Specialist tour operators such as Hinterland Travel (Hinterlandtravel.com) and Wild Frontiers (Wildfrontiers.co.uk) offer guided tours to remote, wild and dangerous places, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Regional tour operators such as Sitara offers tours of the five Central Asian ‘stans’ (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China. The most interesting tour operator is Secret Compass (Secretcompass.com), which runs expeditions to places that have rarely if ever been traversed: climbing the Zagros Mountains of Iraq or river rafting through the Murchison Falls in Uganda. Tourists have to “apply to join” the expeditions and pay about 3500 GBP per person for such once-in-a-lifetime trips. These are expensive but not much more so than the standard luxury vacation. Human rights organizations such as Global Exchange (http://www.globalexchange.org) also run what they call ‘reality tours’ in which they attempt to connect visitors to locals for ‘meaningful’ conversations and understanding.
Countries such as Poland, Sudan, and South Africa have tried to capitalize on this interest and encourage war tourism. When I stayed in Johannesburg, a popular tour involved a visit to the apartheid museum, Nelson Mandela’s house and the suburbs of Soweto, where the now-iconic image of a young man holding a dying schoolboy in his arm sparked the Soweto Uprising. Tour operators were willing to take interested tourists to the dangerous suburbs of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, often after signing stringent disclaimer forms. Sri Lanka has recently been criticized “over war tourism” for building tourist lodges in the site where “tens of thousands of civilians were killed,” according to an article in the Telegraph.
The question then becomes: why would you go? Few tourists go on a lark; most go because it is a calling. Pavithra Selvam, a 27 year-old London-based communications professional, went to Afghanistan and the West Bank of Palestine as a humanitarian aid worker. In Afghanistan, although she had a bodyguard, she lived in the constant fear of being abducted. “Being a woman and a foreigner is a double negative. Plus I am South Indian ofDravidian origin, which is completely different than being a White aid worker. People expect you to conduct yourself just like the Afghan women.” After being threatened in the West Bank, Selvam had to beg an Israeli taxi driver to smuggle her out of the country. He saved her life by telling the border police that she was his Indian girlfriend. The average tourist can view these types of experiences as life threatening or life-enhancing.
For some outsiders, India can become a war-torn destination. Ulrika Nandra, a Swedish-Indian journalist came to India to write about the country. She wrote several Mumbai stories including one about Kamathipura, the red light district, after interviewing pimps, police officers, brothel owners, and sex workers. It became the cover story of Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish daily and ran with the headline, “In Bombay, you can buy a 12-year-old for less than 100 Kronor.” That was in 2007. Since then, Nandra has been black-listed by the Indian government which has rejected all her visa applications.
Artists are often attracted to war-torn lands, mostly for the intense visual– and other– experiences they offer. Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba, which wasn’t specifically war torn but certainly more dangerous than Oak Park, Illinois where he was born. Isak Dinesen moved from Sweden to Kenya and found a “freedom which until then, one had only found in dreams.” Currently, visual artist Emmanuel Licha has a project, titled War Tourist (www.wartourist.net), in which he films war torn areas in Sarajevo, Chernobyl, New Orleans, the suburbs of Paris and Auschwitz. News reports describe a bored Japanese trucker, Toshifumi Fujimoto, who has specifically sought out Middle Eastern hotspots such as Syria, Yemen, and Cairo, where he shoots, among other things, decomposed bodies of war victims including a seven-year-old girl. All this without flak jacket or helmet. Fujimoto is divorced and has three daughters. He has taken insurance as a precaution but that’s pretty much it.
If artists– and the trucker– go to war torn spots for inspiration, journalists, most famously, Barkha Dutt and Christiane Amanpour, go to report. These aren’t for the faint of spirit. War photographer Kevin Carter, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his breathtaking image of a vulture waiting behind an emaciated girl in Sudan, committed suicide at age 33. His story was immortalized in the movie, “The Bang-Bang Club.”
Most war tourists follow a code of conduct. They walk fast, as if they are going to meet someone. They don’t make eye contact, keep their head down, dress in local garb, try to blend in, carry nothing of value except an ID and a contact number in case they get blown up. They monitor warnings from their local embassy and talk to locals about particular locations. She tries to be sensible; takes precautions to stay safe. She walks fast, as if she is going to meet someone; doesn’t make eye contact; keeps her head down; dresses in local garb to blend in; keeps her wits about her; carries nothing of value; stays on top of embassy warnings about certain locations; talks to locals to find out the truth on the ground. Some of it also has to do with atttitude. Leonardo di Caprio’s superb portrayal in Blood Diamond comes to mind. In the film, he tries to work. He doesn’t try to judge or reform the people who surround him.
War tourism may not be for you, particularly if you are going with family. Certainly, only a minscule percentage of the world’s 10 billion tourists (as of 2012) are going to visit war torn lands. Reliable statistics for the number of war tourists aren’t available, but those who go can take comfort from the knowledge that their visit will not only help the tourist economy; it will help a country heal. As filmmaker Ashvin Kumar (who happens to be the son of fashion designer, Ritu Kumar) said, “Tourists normalize a battled land.”