The strange world of war tourism

Fancy a trip to Iraq? How about the Democratic Republic of Congo? Of course not, it’s too dangerous, right? Well that’s exactly what makes the world of war tourism go around. The thrill of going into active war zones and past areas of conflict where there is “a higher than average level of risk”.

Take Toshifumi Fujimoto, a Japanese truck driver who gets his kicks from going into war-torn Middle Eastern countries. He was most recently spotted in Syria, where he told the AFP that being on the frontline is “very exciting, and the adrenaline rush is like no other.” Syria, which became embroiled in a civil war over three years ago, is also the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. While he claims that it’s more dangerous in Syria to be a journalist than a tourist, Fujimoto himself has been taking photos of the conflict that he shares with friends on his Facebook page. He explained that he’s not afraid of getting killed since he’s “a combination of samurai and kamikaze.”  

 We’ve heard this thrill-seeking discourse before from war journalists, for example. American political satirist and journalist P.J. O’Rourke famously claimed he was a “Trouble Tourist” rather than a “foreign correspondent”, for the latter was “too dignified a title”. In the introduction of his collection of stories, Holidays of Hell, O’Rourke explains that this kind of tourism requires “going to see insurrections, stupidities, political crises, civil disturbances and other human folly because… because it’s fun.”

This obviously doesn’t mean that all journalists desire to see war, but if you find yourself in the media industry, it’s not that unusual to hear adrenaline junkies saying that “war is fun”. Yet this observer’s main point is not to get into the endless debate of real bias. And most war reporters boast they’re documenting armed conflict purely for the sake of alerting the world to human suffering anyway.

But what if you don’t want to venture into a conflict zone on your own? I don’t blame you for not wanting to dodge bullets solo, but in that case you have to be willing to splash up to $40,000 on travel agencies such as Hinterland Travel and Warzone Tours, which specialise in the ultimate extreme travel. Whether it’s Kabul, Baghdad or Mogadishu, these experienced providers – who usually have a military or security background – strive to deliver tour packages that fulfil your excitement requirements.

Just bear in mind that the more ambitious you are, the higher the price tag. Security, logistics and planning in the world’s worst places come at a price. I wonder what the tour guides’ criteria is for accepting war tourists. How do they know that the visitors will be able to keep it cool when their guide drives along dangerous roads, bomb sites or disputed territories? Or that they will not freak out if somehow they end up with an AK-47 pointed to their heads?

Ethical criticism of war tourism is mainly targeted at the exploitative aspect of this niche form of travel, with the number one argument being that this vacation concept is twisted and somewhat heartless. It’s arguably not acceptable to have a fun, adventurous holiday, at the expense of someone else’s worst nightmare. Someone’s bombed home or local business, which will most likely end up on your Instagram account, shouldn’t become your holiday playground.

And, as Laura Moth points out, war tourists may even end up funding an oppressive regime: “think of flying the national carrier, paying for a visa or spending money that inevitably gets funneled upwards to the same old structures of power.” 

The fact that travel agencies are profiting from this is also an ethical concern. But they insist their guides provide the necessary context and encourage visitors to engage with locals. One could also argue that war tourists offer a helping hand to local businesses (the obvious benefit of tourism). And, if visitors happen to sympathise with the victims’ situation, they might try to help in some way.

War tourism is not to be confused with dark tourism – the latter doesn’t deal with active conflict zones – though there are some similarities. As dark tourists, most of us are drawn to “sites of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre”, such as the Tower of London, Auschwitz, Alcatraz Island, Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Killing Fields or the World Trade Center. This idea that we’re naturally fascinated by death is certainly not new. 

But as far as the specific fascination with death-related sites goes, the Institute for Dark Tourism Research from the University of Central Lincolnshire, launched a couple of years ago, admits that “our understanding of both production and consumption of dark tourism remains limited”. However, they suggest that attendance at events such as Roman gladiatorial games or even medieval executions could be considered dark tourism. I guess that says something about our morbid nature.

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