You can run a marathon in Antarctica or slide down the side of a volcano in Nicaragua, but what if that just doesn’t thrill you enough? How about a trip to snowboard in Afghanistan? Or to meet with militia in Libya?
In an article for the Atlantic, Debra Kamin explores the rise of "dark tourism"--of people deliberately venturing into places that are, or were, dangerous. Among the more notable examples, Kamin says that tourists are visiting the Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border to watch the smoke rise. From there people can sit back, relax, and watch the explosions from the Syrian civil war--all from a safe distance.
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.
There is historical precedent for this kind of grisly travel. During the American Civil War spectators gathered to watch the first battle of Bull Run, and ended up retreating with the Union army back to Washington.
So what motivates people to head into the world's dark places?
“There’s no such thing as a dark tourist, only people interested in the world around them,” Philip Stone of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research told the Atlantic. “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.”
Or, perhaps, interested in what happens in other people’s lives.
Returning to memorials, and to the sites where people died, is one thing. But going to a place of active conflict for no better reason than because you want to see conflict? That's something totally different.
From the tourists who watched the smoke rise over Bull Run, to the people who track missiles as they arch over the Golan Heights or the Gaza strip, there is something particularly macabre about traveling to a conflict zone to watch the bombs burst like fireworks. It might have the same loud noises as a Fourth of July display, but in those places tourists are seeing someone’s home, world and life come crashing down while they, literally, watch from the sidelines, titillated by their brush with danger.
For her story, Kamin interviewed Ben Hadar, a man who took a vacation to Ukraine during the protests last spring. He wanted a vacation, and airfare to Kiev was cheap:
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.
The people who were willing to die probably found it very moving too. But their experience didn’t end with a plane trip back home. They were already there.