The Rise of Dark Tourism

When war zones become travel destinations

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.”

Growth has been slow but steady, Wood says, with Political Tours now offering excursions to 15 destinations including Israel and the Palestinian Territories and post-financial crisis London. Their “Libya: After the Revolution” tour, for instance, costs $7,000 and includes visits to Muammar Qaddafi’s former compound and the notorious Abu Salim prison, along with face-to-face meetings with some of the militia members currently controlling the city of Misrata. Wood chalks up his success to a wider shakeup in the tourism industry, which has largely removed the need for travel agents and big tour operators while granting vacationers more freedom to customize their holidays. That means fewer classic, hit-all-the-tourist-traps vacations and more nuanced, unconventional getaways.

“People can travel by themselves so much more easily now, so if you’re going to be in the travel market, you have to bring added value,” Wood says.

For some adventure-seeking travelers, however, a guided tour just isn’t going to cut it. In the case of Ben Hadar, a California native now living in Tel Aviv, an itch for a quick vacation, coupled with rock-bottom airfare to Kiev, was all it took to get him to the center of the fiery anti-government protests that rocked that region in February.

“Rather than go through news stories, we wanted to just be on the ground and figure out what was going on for ourselves,” says Hadar, a broad-shouldered sales associate who plays running back in an amateur football league in his spare time.

Hadar and a friend, his football team’s cornerback, spoke with locals in Kiev’s Independence Square, watched the Super Bowl at a nearby bar, and even gave a Denver Broncos flag to a group of protesters in a tent city. The experience was thrilling. “There were people ready to die for what they believed in. It was so moving,” Hadar says.

Kobi Marom at the Quneitra viewpoint in Israel, near the border with Syria (Shachaf Rodberg)

This wasn’t Hadar’s first time jetting to the nerve center of an international crisis. In 2012, he visited Cairo, and against the urging of friends, walked to Tahrir Square to witness the election of Mohammed Morsi. For his next trip, Hadar says there is nowhere he’d rather visit than North Korea, which he calls “the ultimate mystery.”

Hadar is exactly the kind of customer that Chad O’Carroll, the founder of NK News and an executive at Uniquely.Travel, a new company hoping to specialize in information about the world’s most reclusive locales, is banking on. In April, Uniquely.Travel unveiled its first product: North Korea Travel, an app designed to help people navigate the Hermit Kingdom and understand its ethics, culture, history, and lesser-known tourist spots. O’Carroll visited North Korea three times between 2009 and 2012, after his interest was piqued by “The Vice Guide to North Korea,” a three-part series from the irreverent media outlet. Eventually, however, the government realized he was a journalist and banned him from entering the country.

“What mainstream media does in North Korea is just reinforce the extreme views of the country: the cult of the Kims, the nuclear weapons, the human-rights violations. And there is this whole gray area between all of it that doesn’t get reported on,” O’Carroll says.

Travel to North Korea, which can only be done via an organized tour and with the permission of the government, is a small but fast-growing market. Last year somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 Westerners made the trip, nearly double the number that came in 2012, the London-based O’Carroll says. Tourism insiders are paying attention. “There’s been a huge growth in travel agencies specializing in North Korea. There were only a handful four or five years ago, and now there’s 30 or 40,” he says.

Yes, there are human-rights violations in North Korea, and yes, travel there does raise ethical questions, O’Carroll concedes. But he feels that staying away only exacerbates the problem. “It was isolation that created the very unique characteristics of North Korea,” he says. “And the advantages of tourism, as intangible as they may be, are worthwhile. If I hadn’t gone as a tourist to North Korea, I never would have set up my news website. So you have to think about not just the effect that travel has on North Koreans, but also on the tourists.”


Sometimes, that effect is therapeutic.

Macabit Abramson, a filmmaker from Jerusalem, had two children serving in the Israel Defense Forces in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, the country’s 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip. With both her kids called up to fight, Israeli warplanes buzzing over Gaza, and Hamas rockets hurtling into Israel’s border communities, Abramson realized there was no way she could just sit at home.

“Whenever there is a war in Israel, it’s like you feel you are sick,” Abramson says. “And when you go to the border, it’s like you are fighting pathology with pathology. You go to the most extreme place in order to not be alone with your feelings. You really can’t be anywhere else but there.”

She took her camera and, along with another filmmaker, Avner Faingulernt, drove to the Gaza border. There, she met a motley crew of war-watchers who had gathered to see the fighting. Interviews with the spectators—who ranged from Haredi Jews (“I came to see how we bomb the Arabs”), to American immigrants (“It’s surreal … that suffering and living are happening like this at the same time”), to a swaggering macho man out for blood (“We should terminate them with full power”)—were integrated into her documentary, War Matador. The film offers a grim reminder that in Israel, war has a unifying effect. Only under fire would this strange cross-section of Israelis find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder.

That’s because dark tourism is characterized by its lack of boundaries, explains Philip Stone of the Dark Tourism Institute.

“There’s no such thing as a dark tourist, only people interested in the world around them,” he says. “You and I are probably dark tourists when we visit Ground Zero. We’re not dark tourists—we’re just interested in what happens in our lives.”