'Dark tourism' in strife-torn areas on the rise

The rise of dark tourism was explored on Q on Thursday, from the perspectives of a former security professional-turned-tour operator and a journalist from Tel Aviv who's written on the subject.

Nothing tops a battle scene from the Syrian civil war to post on Facebook

Israelis and tourists watch the fighting between forces loyal to the Syrian regime and rebels, as seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the Quneitra border crossing, in 2013. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

The desire for self-expression and experience and the documentation of it through social media could be helping to spark a rise in so-called dark tourism, according to a Tel Aviv-based journalist.

"So much of what we do now, we immediately document it," said Debra Kamin. "We put it on social media, we put it on Facebook and we wait for feedback from our friends and family. So in many ways what we want to do when we travel is try to have the best anecdotes and the best photos, and there's really nothing that can top a picture of a battle of the Syrian civil war."

Kamin, who wrote about the subject this month for The Atlantic, made the comment to Q guest host Piya Chattopadhyay on Thursday's edition of the CBC Radio show.

The term dark tourism has been used to describe travel to areas marked by strife, war or death. The destinations range from sites of past genocide and widespread death to active conflict zones.

New tourism industry

Adventurous types have always sought the extremes of human experience, but it's only in about the past decade, Kamin argues, that a commercialized industry involving security, set itineraries and insurance provisions has taken off.

Former security professional Rick Sweeney formed War Zone Tours in 2008, while another of the companies operating in the niche market was started by a former New York Times reporter.

"It's a very, very small sector of the tourism industry, but what's interesting about it is how fast that it's growing," said Kamin. "It's growing about 100 per cent each year."

Sweeney told Q his clients wanted a visceral local perspective not edited by media companies, something that echoed his own previous employment experience.

"Quite often after I would get off [a security] job I would return myself and maybe go to a small village in Iraq or somewhere and actually be able to talk to the folks … and see what their take was on the actual events happening in their own country."

The tour operator has taken groups of less than four (so as not to be overly conspicuous) to Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut, drug cartel-controlled regions of Mexico and conflict-prone countries in Africa. 

Troublemakers not welcome

Sweeney said his company takes pains to vet clients to make sure their desire for unconventional and potentially dangerous travel is based on curiosity, and not a desire to interfere with conditions or existing problems in the areas.

Sweeney conceded the marketing of his site — which features ominous music and the sound of gunfire — could be viewed as exploitative, but he insisted that once in a location, "We're not sitting on a hillside watching missiles rain down on the villages."

Tourists who want a different perspective may have qualms with mainstream-media coverage of war-torn areas, but it's also probably true, Kamin offers, that shows like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Vice are making more places seem edgy and within reach. The shows are on CNN and HBO, respectively, both part of the Time Warner media empire.

For the full interviews with Sweeney and Kamin on Q, listen here.


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