War-zone tourism: Adventure or reckless hedonism?

KABUL • Thousands of people are fleeing the conflict roiling Afghanistan, but American backpacker John Milton recently made the reverse journey to the war-ravaged country - for a holiday.
 

Armed with little more than travel guidebooks and an unflagging spirit of adventure, hardy bands of "war tourists" such as Mr Milton visit Afghanistan's pristine mountains and mediaeval ruins every year, ignoring warnings of kidnappings and bombings.

A Taleban attack last Thursday on a group of American and European tourists in Herat province, which left some of them wounded, has brought into sharp focus such global thrill-seekers who imperil their lives to vacation in war zones.

"Visiting conflict zones and off-the-beaten-path destinations is so much more rewarding than the usual global tourist destinations," said Mr Milton, a 46-year-old former investment banker, who visited Afghanistan in June and has also vacationed in Somalia and North Korea.

"(My) family and friends think I am a fool to take such risks but... if you are not willing to risk the unusual, then you will have to settle for the ordinary. I just don't want to die without having any scars."

RISK-TAKER

(My) family and friends think I am a fool to take such risks but... if you are not willing to risk the unusual, then you will have to settle for the ordinary. I just don't want to die without having any scars.

MR JOHN MILTON, who has visited Afghanistan, Somalia and North Korea.

In Thursday's attack, a tourist bus carrying eight Britons, three Americans and one German came under Taleban fire as it was being escorted through a volatile district in Herat by the Afghan army.

The attack, which left seven people wounded including the Afghan minibus driver, prompted scorn on social media, with many questioning why the tourists were travelling overland at a time when most Western embassies warn their citizens against all travel in the country.

The owner of Hinterland Travel, a British-based adventure agency which organised the tour, was said to be among the injured and was pilloried for what was widely perceived as recklessness. He was not reachable for comment.

But war-zone tourism is hardly limited to Afghanistan.

In 2013, Japanese trucker Toshifumi Fujimoto jaunted through the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, telling the media that his previous adventures had taken him through Yemen, among other Middle Eastern hot spots.

Such tourists are the exception rather than the norm, said Mr James Willcox, founder of British adventure travel operator Untamed Borders, which organises trips to Afghanistan, Somalia and Somaliland.

"One of the main reasons people come on our trips... is to (see) countries for the multi-faceted, complex places they are. We do not choose destinations because they are dangerous," Mr Willcox said.

As Thursday's attack overshadowed the tourism sector, the Culture Ministry said the industry was vital for Afghanistan's future. "The economy is in shambles and this is an important source of revenue."

Mr Jonny Blair, a 36-year-old Irish backpacker, said he was undaunted by the violence and mesmerised by his experience in northern Afghanistan. "It's totally worth the risk."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'War-zone tourism: Adventure or reckless hedonism?'. Print Edition | Subscribe