War, what is it good for? Tourism, actually

Bombs in Phonsovan

Take a trip to almost any country in the world and you’ll find war and conflict behind many of the major tourist attractions. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise: war has afflicted every corner of the world and has left a mark, usually both physical and emotional, that is in most cases more visible than the legacy created as a result of more peaceful endeavours.

On one level there are many excellent museums dedicated to the subject of war in general or focussed on a particular tragedy (such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum). Then there are sites of atrocities (think Auschwitz or the Cambodian Killing Fields) that have become must-see stops for anyone visiting the nearby cities.

Some places (the Marshall Islands are a prime example) happened to be in a strategically important place when two major powers came to blows and got caught up in someone else’s fight. In other places the war may be long gone but its legacy continues to take lives through the tragedy of unexploded bombs. Tourists in Laos are encouraged to visit the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) office in Phonsavan, learn about the lives destroyed by ordnance leftover from the American war (the locally used term for what we know as the Vietnam War) and make a donation to support their incredibly dangerous work.

Defensive structures can be found in every corner of Europe and the Mediterranean, for centuries the scene of one bloody battle after another. From the magnificent castles on the Welsh coast to the surreal concrete bunkers that litter the Albanian countryside, even in peaceful times the landscape of Europe has been shaped by the threat and the fear of war.

Harlech Castle

So why this fascination with the conflicts and tragedies of the past? Why do we make a point on our travels of visiting the sites of battles that had nothing to do with our own country and about which we could happily continue to live in splendid ignorance? Surely we would be better off spending our leisure time exploring the natural landscapes, admiring the local wildlife and celebrating the work of local artists, scientists and statesmen?

People often use the term ‘dark tourism’ to describe the fascination with visiting places where atrocities took place, and suggest that it is important for each of us to see at first hand the sites where gross inhumanity took place, as it is only by remembering what happened in the past that we might have a chance of stopping it happening again. That argument is particularly powerful in the Nazi concentration camps and other places where mass slaughter took place; but what about the sites of other conflicts, war memorials or unremarkable battlefields?

Like it or not, war has shaped more than just the national boundaries we observe on a map. It has created heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators. Each side writes its own history, and there are stories of bravery that are celebrated for generations and chapters of history that are censored from the national consciousness.

War, more than any other part of history, is critical in shaping our national identity. It is perhaps for that reason that we not only continue to teach our children about the battles fought on our own soil, but encourage visitors to our countries to learn about them too.

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Freelance travel writer

2 Responses to “War, what is it good for? Tourism, actually”

  1. Very interesting point you make here! I’ve lived (briefly) in two cities that seem to have quite a bit of history in regards to war: Berlin and Tel Aviv. The former attracts most tourists I think solely because of its tortured history with war and the latter seems to ignore any reference to its previous wars (or ones that it’s still embroiled in).

    I think a destination’s (dirty) history is as important as most other parts of its culture. And, unfortunately, it seems like wars will forever be a part of our collective, global history.

    April 3, 2013 at 1:17 pm
  2. ces #

    Amazing realization! After reading this, I examined my past travels and true enough; every place that I’ve been to has its own war story to share. But sadly, it will take a while and cost many lives before these war zones are turned into tourist attractions.

    April 6, 2013 at 1:57 am