Why Vacation in War Zones?

The world’s hot spots are alluring to both adrenaline junkies and the socially conscious.

Two women walk past a mosque in Afghanistan
Two women walk past the Hazrat Ali, or Blue Mosque, in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters )

Shosei Koda and Otto Warmbier serve as cautionary tales.

Koda, a Japanese national, entered Iraq in 2004, at the height of the U.S.-led war. He was kidnapped by militants who beheaded him. Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, went to North Korea as a tourist in 2015, was sentenced to prison for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign, and then fell into a vegetative state, before being returned in June to the U.S., where he died a week later.

Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd were luckier—if one can describe it that way. The trio were, they say, hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan when they were detained by Iran, which said they illegally crossed into its territory. They spent two years in prison before being freed in 2011.

Colin Rutherford was traveling in Afghanistan in 2010 when he was abducted by the Taliban. He was freed six years later following mediation by Qatar. It was hoped that deal would also include Joshua Boyle, a Canadian man, Caitlan Coleman, his American wife, and their children. The couple was hiking in Afghanistan in 2012, while Coleman was several months pregnant. They were abducted by a Taliban affiliate, the Haqqani network, and freed this week, along with their three children, all of whom were born in captivity.

Despite daily headlines about violence, political strife, and assorted perils, travelers to the world’s hot spots are undeterred. The risks of such travel include: that it burdens travelers’ home governments in the event of an emergency; that it emboldens rogue regimes like North Korea by providing them valuable foreign exchange and more than a hint of international legitimacy; and that it can put local tourism workers at risk, making them targets due to their proximity to Westerners.

Carmen Gentile, a conflict reporter and author of the upcoming book Blindsided by the Taliban, told me many of the tourists in Afghanistan are “older, interested in history, have a yearning to do some adventure travel.”

“There are people who have already trekked in Mongolia or walked the length of the Great Wall of China and are looking for that next great adventure—an adventure that their friends have definitely not taken,” he said. “They want the ultimate bragging rights. Where else are you going to have that kind of adventure, but a place like Afghanistan or an active war zone?”

To determine what motivates such travelers, I reached out to Untamed Borders, a group that specializes in adventure travel to, according to its website, “some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places.” James Wilcox, a cofounder of the group, said in an email that he couldn’t talk because he was guiding a group of four Canadians and an American through Afghanistan. “We probably guide 60-80 people in total in Afghanistan each year,” he said. “No idea on total tourist numbers but they are, not surprisingly, small.”

Wilcox put me in touch with Martin Parnell, a Canadian runner who ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamyan, and traveled to the legendary Afghan city with Untamed Borders. Parnell has run hundreds of marathons around the world, and he raises money for various causes during his runs.

“This is not a tourism thing,” he told me. “For me, it was a social-activist thing," adding his trip “wasn’t to look at the forts.”

Parnell said he was recovering from a clot in his brain in 2015 when he read about the inaugural Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamyan, which included 10 international runners. Among the runners, he said, was the first-ever Afghan woman to run the 26.2-mile course. Parnell said the challenges she faced while running motivated him.

“For me, when I’m running it’s weather, and hydration, nutrition,” he said. “For [her] it was verbal and physical abuse.”

Parnell said that story made him promise himself that if he recovered, he would run the marathon in Afghanistan to support female runners in the country.

“Of course, the moment you have that kind of thought, it throws up a lot of questions,” he said. “We hear the news all the time about Afghanistan, and terrorists, and the bombing. ... I didn't even know if it was feasible.” But, he said, he did his “due diligence,” adding: “I wouldn’t have gone on my own. ... I’m not an independent traveler. I feel it’s important to, me anyway, go with a group.”

Numbers can provide a sense of security, but one aspect of organized group travel is that it takes into account the security situation on the ground. Take Afghanistan, where the Taliban is now in control of more parts of the country than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. There are bright spots in the country, including Bamyan, the Panjshir Valley, and even, occasionally, Kabul. Yet getting to these places isn’t easy. Traveling by road, especially for Westerners, is dangerous because the route traverses dangerous places. “Leaving the capital is asking for trouble,” Gentile said.

But, he added: “If it weren’t for the Taliban and the decades of war, Afghanistan would be an adventure-traveler's paradise.There’s whitewater-rafting potential. There’s mountaineering, hiking. It’s gorgeous.” He says that's also true of Haiti (good for surfing), and Iraq (hiking, mountaineering).

“To the West,” he said, many of these places are “active war zone, but nothing’s perfect.”

Parnell, however, was keen to emphasize that while such travelers exist, he wasn’t an “adrenaline junkie.”

“If I want a holiday,” he said, “I go to Wales in a cottage.”