The Rise of Dark Tourism

When war zones become travel destinations
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Binoculars at Israel's Quneitra viewpoint overlooking Syria (Shachaf Rodberg)

EIN ZIVAN, Golan Heights—Kobi Marom squints into the morning sun and gestures at the rolling green hills beneath the Quneitra viewpoint, where the crumbled Syrian city of Quneitra juts up against the Syrian-Israeli border fence. Here, some of the fiercest fighting of the Syrian civil war has played out over the past year. And every time there has been a battle, there has also been a crowd.

“People come here every day to see the show,” says Marom, 54, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel who now works in the tourism industry and regularly brings groups to this point to gaze down on Syria’s bloodletting. “For people visiting the area, it’s interesting. They feel that they are a part of it. They can go home and tell their friends, ‘I was on the border and I saw a battle.’”

High above a valley in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israeli tourists have a panoramic view of this strategically important location, which is also known as the Gateway to Damascus. Tour groups, fresh from jaunts to the area’s wineries, cherry markets, and artisanal chocolate shops, stop here by the dozens each day armed with binoculars and cameras, eager for a glimpse of smoke and even carnage.

In early June, Marom tells me, the viewpoint was especially packed, as news spread through the Golan Heights’ quiet farming communities that Syrian rebels had overrun Assad loyalists to take control of the United Nations checkpoint on the Israeli side of the border. The rebels held the checkpoint, which was once a humanitarian crossing between Israel and Syria, for a handful of hours, during which tanks barreled through air choked with mortar rounds and smoke. Safe beyond the buffer zone, hundreds of spectators sweated in the heat and gaped at the action below.

Mortar rounds have occasionally drawn Israel into the fighting, and on June 22 a cross-border missile attack killed a 14-year-old Israeli boy. But for the most part, the Golan remains sleepy and lush. When I visited just a few days before that strike, the air was clear and the UN tents at Quneitra flapped lazily in the breeze. The Quneitra checkpoint, which until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war was little more than a transit point for trucks of Druze-grown Golan apples bound for the Syrian market, was almost completely still.

“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,” says Marom. “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.”

Last week, as another Israeli border burst into flames and Israel launched an offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, war spectatorship moved to a new front. In the Israeli border town of Sderot, a largely impoverished, immigrant-heavy enclave that has taken the brunt of Hamas rocket fire ever since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, residents have set up plastic lawn chairs to applaud missile interceptions by the Iron Dome, Israel’s missile-defense system. Gazans too have cheered as missiles hurtle out of the strip and toward Israeli cities.

***

War tourism is nothing new; from Waterloo to Gettysburg, armies gathering on battlefields have long been trailed by packs of eager spectators. What is new, says Philip Stone, director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the U.K.’s University of Central Lancashire, is the commercialization of it.

“This phenomenon has historical precedents. You can make an argument that with some of his very first tour groups, Thomas Cook took people to see hangings in Cornwall,” Stone says, referring to the founder of the eponymous travel agency and the public executions that were common in England in the 1700s and 1800s. “But what’s changing is how these trips are being formalized through the tourism industry, as well as the fact that technology and the Internet are also picking up on it.”

The Dark Tourism Institute was founded in 2012 to chronicle voyeurism at all sorts of macabre locations. Stone and his team have just launched a five-year project to examine the effects that war tourism has on cultural-heritage sites across the globe.

Fueled by travel documentaries such as Vice videos and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, the 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.

Take Untamed Borders, for example. James Wilcox and his business partner, Kausar Hussain, founded the outfit in 2006 and now offer treks to the mountains of Pakistan and the nomadic enclaves of Afghanistan, as well as excursions to the heart of tribal India and the most restive regions of the Caucasus. “We try to avoid the cliches,” the U.K.-based Wilcox says. “We try to show the people the culture of the countries they visit, to show them as multifaceted places.” Itineraries range between five days and two weeks, and cost between $2,500 and $6,000. They include sites like Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains, which to most Westerners only ring a bell because Abbottabad, the city where Osama bin Laden holed up for years, sits at their feet. The organization casts Afghanistan as a “new frontier for skiing and boarding”:

Nicholas Wood, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, had a similar desire after years of filing stories from the Balkans. So in 2009 he left journalism and launched the more cerebral Political Tours, which takes small groups of tourists to the world’s political hotspots. His trips take about a year to plan. “We work like a newspaper editor,” Wood, who is based in the U.K., explains. “We know how to put a tour together—we have all of these elements and it’s like building a story.”

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Debra Kamin is a writer and editor living in Israel.

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