By Hollie McKay
Published March 18, 2019
Some call it war tourism. Some say it's dark tourism. And others refer to it as disaster tourism or danger tourism.
Far-flung places like Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen may routinely hit headlines for their protracted wars and humanitarian disasters, though such locales are oft promoted as vacation destinations, catapulting the notion of “adventure tourism” into a whole new sphere.
Such a vacationing trend was on full display this month during the world’s largest travel trade show – ITB Berlin – at which hundreds of countries, tour operators, hotel chains and agencies from every region in the world endorsed destinations and experiences of every imaginable kind.
Take Sudan: Despite the ongoing violence wreacking havoc on the country, bright and vivacious booths offered alluring portrayals of the wildlife, history, Red Sea, heritage and handicraft.
“Tourism plays two keys roles. First, it boosts Sudan’s good image to the outside world, reflecting the good nature of its people, its civilization, its popular heritage, and its arts,” reads the embassy’s marketing on the nation’s tourism. “Secondly, it contributes to the boosting of popular diplomacy of the country.”
And in the weeks leading up to the convention, ITB’s press releases boasted that Venezuela had "doubled the size of its stand” — only the Latin American country, currently in the clutches of mammoth humanitarian, economic and political chaos, was a last-minute unexplained no-show.
Nonetheless, Venezuela remained as a must-visit destination on Latin America tour operators' promotional posters at the Berlin convention. Furthermore, it is still being publicized on sites such as Couchsurfing, with home-stays on offer.
“Packed with colorful architecture and skirted by the mountains of the Venezuelan coast, Caracas is an exciting city that offers travelers much more than its reputation would suggest,” the marketing materials read in regard to the now crumbling Venezuelan capital. “This charming town is famous for its exotic flower crops and its delicious restaurants with spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department warns of scarce food or medical care, frequent power outages, anti-government protests in the street and excessive crime rates. There was also an exodus of almost four million since the nation’s economic woes kicked off almost four years ago.
While much of the news coverage concerning Afghanistan is dominated by bloodshed and insurgency, its pockets of paradise are also plugged by some tour operators – such as Untamed Borders – who seek to give intrepid travelers a unique respite far outside the tried and true.
“To only describe what we do as guiding in unstable regions is a misrepresentation of what we do. In fact, one of the main reasons that people come on our trips and one of the things we work hard at, is to show the countries we guide in for the multi-faceted, complex places they are, rather than show them sweeping generalizations,” explained James Willcox, founder of Untamed Borders, which specializes in travel to countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Middle East, East Africa, former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus and “other off-the-beaten-track destinations.”
In 2018, Untamed Borders ran 35 trips to Afghanistan — including helping to organize the Marathon of Afghanistan, the nation’s only mixed-gender sporting event. They also completed their 9th Afghan ski season, guiding groups of skiers from the USA, Australia, the U.K., Canada, Russia and beyond, along with arranging the first ever commercial kayaking trip as well as “cultural trips” to places such as Kabul, Wakhan, Mazar and Herat.
Many also come from far and wide to visit the lush Panjshir Valley, known for its quaint villages and endless mountains on the foothills of Hindu Kush.
Meanwhile, Syria’s Tourist Board – helmed by the Bashar al-Assad government – continues to encourage visitors to indulge in the country’s “archeological and natural resources," its plethora of “fine arts” exhibits, and its beachside beauty, with hashtags such as “Syria Always Beautiful” and glossy videos of glamorous hotels and vibrant restaurants peppering through social media platforms.
Nonetheless, much of the country remains devastated amid almost eight years of war that prompted millions to flee their homes and claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people. There is no such mention of the battles on the Ministry of Tourism handouts.
And even Yemen – which has been declared the worst humanitarian disaster in the world by the U.N and continues to be ravished by mass conflict between the Saudi-backed coalition and Iran-supported Houthi rebel fighters, along with another shadowy terror war given the control Al Qaeda amasses – is seemingly open for visitors.
A tour operator from Easy Yemen Tours explained via email to Fox News that it remains possible to visit the Yemen mainland and its ancient Socotra Island. Tourist visas are approved by the immigration office within a five-to-seven-day period, and mainland tours last around five days with high-security permissions from the “tourist police,” tour organizers explained.
Libya too officially plugs its tourism as an industry, which is “spreading on a vast area of the country.” While it advertises its “landmarks, fascinating landscapes, Mediterranean coast, and landscapes in the Sahara Desert,” it does advise all visitors to “read the travel advice made by their respective home countries before entering” and “arrange secure transportation before arrival.”
Yet such skirting-on-danger-for-leisure purposes doesn’t come without controversy.
“We don’t encourage this type of tourism. Although we do get requests for travel to these destinations, we always return no availability responses,” said Tim Hentschel, CEO of the online group booking specialty site Hotel Planner. “We can’t book these tickets or hotels without risking violation of UN trade embargoes and travel insurance coverage. Also, travelers attempting this type of high-risk behavior not only put themselves at risk, but risk the lives of soldiers that have to help them if they are captured.”
In recent times, Iraq too has poured resources into promoting “religious tourism,” especially in the Shia-dominant south, which bears the historic mosques of Najaf and Karbala.
Saudi Arabia too, which has long relied only on religious tourism as home to the most important locations in the Islamic faiths, for the first time is preparing to open its doors to the curious outsider. In an unprecedented move, the kingdom is in the process of enabling tourist visas to be issued and loosening restrictions for foreign visitors including Americans – with such provisions as visa on arrival – expected to be implemented by the end of this year.
It’s all part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s quest to diversify the economy and bolster the notoriously closed country’s international image.
And according to one Mexican law enforcement official, the swell of attention on Mexican cartels in recent months as a consequence of both the migrant caravans and the El Chapo trial, has seen a mild uptick of outsiders rubbernecking into dangerous terrain.
"Cartels love the attention, and for the visitors, the danger levels aren't what you would imagine," the official noted.
And then there are the kinds of destinations that aren’t plagued by bombs and battlefields, but are heavily sanctioned by the U.S. government and pose grave security risks especially for U.S. citizens given the vulnerability to arbitrary arrests and hostile relations with host governments.
For one, Iran – feeling the heat following the return of hefty U.S. sanctions – has been busily encouraging foreigners to take advantage of its “epic treasures.” In last August, Tehran lawmakers voted to expand its Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization into a ministry of its own.
And until the tragedy of Ohio native Otto Warmbier’s structured tour of North Korea, which ended with his devastating arrest and death in 2017, the hermit country was a hotspot for the daring.
“I was given the opportunity to run a half-marathon through the streets of Pyongyang in the spring of 2016. The cherry blossoms were all over the route, the beautiful landscape and architecture was breathtaking,” recalled Los Angeles-based publicist Brian Gross. “It’s very possible I was one of the few hundred Americans to have been in the country and it is an experience I will cherish.”
Since September 2017, however, U.S citizens are prohibited from visiting North Korea for tourist purposes.
But in the immediate years after wars and conflicts have died down, governments often depend on tourist revenue not only to bring back economies from the brink, but to capitalize on fostering a deeper understanding of the horrors that took place there not so long ago. Millions of tourists each year see the Killing Fields or the S-21 prison in Cambodia, haunting reminders of the late 1970s genocide of the Pol Pot regime, and the remnants of the Balkans, which was engulfed in bitter conflict throughout the '90s.
But the latest trend for those with deep pockets? Rwanda — some 15 years after a horrific genocide left a million people dead.
“It costs a lot more than most other African countries to visit,” explained one representative from the Visit Rwanda booth in Berlin, pointing out the luxurious elements, accommodation and picturesque lodges, safaris, valleys and villa that come with top-dollar prices far exceeding neighboring Uganda. “But there is just something special about visiting Rwanda — with all its history.”