In the danger zone

Andrew Mourant

Global Insight: Tourism

There is a sub-section of the tourist market called ‘dark tourism’, which sees travellers choosing former conflict zones over more conventional destinations. But not all are motivated by morbid curiosity – some countries have areas of great beauty that had been inaccessible to the outside world for years




Adventurous, voyeuristic or just plain curious? A small academic industry has grown up around trying to analyse why people choose holidays in former conflict zones, some of whom wade in only just after the last shots have been fired.

Others may wait for pioneers to blaze a trail before deeming it safe to visit countries that once were synonymous with conflict. They may require the reassurance of at least some international standards of comfort – a decent hotel and being able to move among scenic delights without the risk of being blown up or hijacked. It would be easy to assume tourism of this nature is a phenomenon of the mass media age. But, in fact, it’s traceable to the mid-19th century: during the Crimean War, tourists led by Mark Twain visited the wreckage of Sebastopol, where Twain was said to have rebuked fellow travellers for collecting souvenir shrapnel.

In his book Pilgrimage and the Commemoration of the Great War in Britain, Australia and Canada, 1919-1939, author David William Lloyd records accounts of trippers visiting Palestinian First World War battlefields and seeing unburied bodies years after hostilities had ended. Early post-war visitors to northern France encountered not only live shells but also ‘roving gangs of deserters’.

The archives at travel company Thomas Cook reveal that popular holiday destinations included former battlegrounds of the American and Spanish civil wars. In a letter to the staff magazine, Cook, visiting the ruins of Paris in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, suggested that anyone “anxious to gratify a morbid curiosity should go at once”.

So-called ‘dark tourism’ – the concept of people being attracted to sites with a bloody past – is a thriving industry sub-sector. Alongside that sits the desire of people keen to gratify a sense of their own intrepidness by visiting places that may, in their own right, have been compelling attractions, yet remained long out of bounds when being fought over. Think of Colombia, barely holding itself together as murderous drugs barons ran amok, yet blessed with awe-inspiring jungles and mountains. Colombia is in remission, its warlords thrust back to the country’s remote edges. Getting out of Bogotá alive is no longer a game of Russian roulette – in fact, Colombia has become a retirement destination of choice for some ex-pat Americans seeking a good life on the cheap. In 2003 the country attracted just half a million tourists – by 2011, three million.

Burma, for two decades a closed state under the heel of a vicious military junta, is now open for business – by no means wholly safe, but many of its natural delights and Buddhist temples can finally be enjoyed by visitors. There’s a strong sense there of pent-up demand waiting to be exploited.

Africa, above all, springs to mind when thinking of conflict zones – north, south, east and west. Few countries endured greater upheaval than its former Portuguese colonies, Angola and Mozambique, long riven by protracted civil wars and, by the end, on their knees. Now Angola, fuelled by discoveries of oil and minerals, has boomed, with property in the capital Luanda among the world’s most expensive. But although people are waking up to its attractions, tourism isn’t an industry that can be built up overnight. Nor is Angola entirely safe. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all but essential travel to Cabinda and Lunda Norte provinces; and also against walking around Luanda after dark.

Yet, says FCO, most visits are trouble-free. The travel guide Lonely Planet describes Angola as “halfway along the road to political and economic atonement”, saying it would be “a shame to miss out on its dramatic rebirth”. But the country persists in making things hard for itself through onerous visa requirements – an official letter of invitation, documents concerning purpose of travel, itinerary, proof of funds: all are required weeks beforehand. Tourism is based on natural beauty – rivers; waterfalls and scenic coastline; wildlife parks; ruined vestiges of Portuguese colonialism. Despite improved infrastructure and security, travel in Angola remains “the preserve of adventurers, diehards or those on flexible budgets”. But with the transport network gradually recovering and wildlife imported to re-populate national parks, signs of recovery are “more than just a mirage”.

Mozambique, long wracked by guerilla wars, is also piecing itself together. “An up-and-coming hot-spot, with stunning beaches (it has more than 1,500 miles of coastline), excellent diving and magical offshore islands,” enthuses Lonely Planet. You can sail on a dhow through mangrove channels; go on safari; wander among colonial era buildings on Ilha de Moçambique – pleasures that were unthinkable 20 years ago.

In southern Mozambique, roads and transport links, especially with South Africa, are said to be good and accommodation plentiful. “Getting around takes time but the sense of space, sheer adventure of travel and – for those with a healthy budget – some of the continent’s most idyllic island lodges make the journey well worthwhile” – is Lonely Planet’s compelling sales pitch.

The Mozambique government considers tourism a “cornerstone of social and economic development, and the fight against poverty” and is angling for foreign investment. Priority areas have been identified, with the aim of developing ‘community-based’ resorts, better infrastructure, a skilled workforce and a competitive aviation sector.

But Mozambique’s rehabilitation has not been without hiccups. In its interior, there have been clashes between fighters from the revived rebel group Renamo and the army – the worst since the 15-year-long civil war ended in 1992. This has prompted the Foreign Office to advise against all but essential travel to Sofala Province, apart from Beira, the provincial capital. Most resorts, however, lie south of the conflict zone.

The FCO reports isolated incidents in Manica, Nampula, Inhambane and, more recently, in Zambezia and Tete. There is, it says, a “low threat from terrorism”. But it is FCO’s job to err on the side of caution. The adventurous will take heart that “most visits to Mozambique are trouble-free”, though “violent crime does occur” and criminal kidnappings have increased. Analysts downplay the likelihood of a return to full-scale conflict, but locals in the tourism business fear recent events may scare visitors away. After so long and brutal a conflict, it’s unsurprising that confidence remains fragile. Many of the world’s most beautiful countries may be begging to be explored, yet some seem fated to remain cursed by their grim recent history.

About the author:

Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist whose specialisms include tourism and the environment


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