Holidays in hell

You can find them in Baghdad bars and Kabul coffee houses, plucky Brits determined to visit the most terrifying countries in the world. Tom O'Meara meets the travel organisers and charts the rise of danger tourism
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The Independent Travel

Most holidaymakers want beaches rather than bombs and bandits, will take the threat of sunburn over the threat of kidnap, and prefer a choice of restaurants to food shortages. And the last thing most of us want when we're on holiday is a curfew. But for some adrenalin junkies, holidaying in a war zone is too exhilarating and intriguing a prospect to pass up.

Take 66-year-old Geoffrey Hann. Hann's company, Hinterland Travel, has been taking tour groups around historical sites in Iraq since 1972. But, at the end of October, he took a group to the country on a trip that focused on the effects of war.

Although, for the most part the trip went safely, it had its moments, says Hann. "We were at a mosque in Baghdad when the bomb went off in the Turkish Embassy. We heard it and saw the smoke. That could have been really hairy if it had taken place closer to us."

More harrowing was the sight of a crowd beating a man to death in Mosul. "They hit him and knocked him to the ground with iron bars and continued hitting him. He could have been anybody. It was pretty horrific. But sudden mob violence is frightening anywhere in the world. It didn't have to be Iraq."

Although the Foreign Office advises against all but the most essential travel to Iraq, and insurance costs around £800 a day, seven people signed up for October's trip. Including flights, the two-week holiday cost a bargain £1,200. Those brave enough to travel were a cosmopolitan bunch. There was a Cali-fornian taxi driver, a 70-year-old British * woman who didn't tell her family where she was going, a Norwegian student interested in the politics and an Arab businessman who stayed in Iraq after the trip to cement a deal involving oil pipes.

The group travelled all over the country visiting Baghdad, Basra, Ur, Nasiriyah and Karbala. Although the reaction of Allied troops was mostly one of friendly bemusement, there were confrontations. "One or two young American soldiers said, 'What are you doing? There's a war going on.' I replied, 'Well, your President said there wasn't.' I enjoyed doing that, I have to tell you."

At one point, a member of the group got arrested. "We were in a restaurant in Baghdad, and I was talking to my guide when this young idiot of ours took a picture through the restaurant window of a tank delivering money to the bank next door," explains Hann. "The next minute there were five Americans taking our boy out at gunpoint. I had to rescue him. Of course, they took his film away, which I thought was heavy handed."

That other stalwart of holidays, souvenirs, were easy to find, but just as difficult to bring back as the holiday snaps. Outside a former Iraqi Air Force station, now occupied by US troops, the group came across a series of roadside stalls which, amid the rugs and other traditional wares, were stocked with war memorabilia including knives and uniforms.

"The problem is that you try and take souvenirs back through Oman airport and they take the things off you. Somebody had some spent cartridges, and they took them."

Apart from in Basra, where the British troops told Hann they were being fired upon daily and the group felt "very uncomfortable", Hann reports that the local reaction was positive and welcoming.

Even so, a single armed guard accompanied excursions outside Baghdad. "The more weapons you have, the worse it gets," says Hann. "If you have a bazooka somebody will come up with a tank. If you have a tank somebody will drop a bomb on you."

Not that he was overly pleased with the hired security. "Our Iraqi people assured me that there was a gun in the vehicle when we went down to the south, but I wasn't impressed. If that was our armed guard, I would rather have relied on myself," he says.

Hann is no stranger to extreme travel. He operated trips to Iraq throughout the Iraq-Iran war. "They obviously thought I was a nutcase, but I never had a problem. I had to be registered with the government and we couldn't get down to Basra that often, but as long as we kept away from the border zones, nobody said anything."

Earlier this year, Hann led a group on a three-week tour of Afghanistan. "It was very, very tough and we had our scary moments but, on the whole, the people were very nice to us once they realised we were tourists and not military, NGOs or SAS in disguise."

But, by all accounts, travelling to Iraq in its current situation is a far more dangerous proposition. Live Travel, Phil Haines's adventure company, has been sending tours to Iraq since 1997. Although Haines, who claims to be the youngest person to have visited all 192 sovereign countries, also recently took a tour party into Afghanistan, he refuses to travel to Iraq at present.

Demand, though, is high. During an interview with people at the Frommers travel website last April, the topic of when Haines would resume trips to Iraq cropped up. The next day, he says, he was inundated with hundreds of e-mail requests from people asking to be put on the waiting list.

In some way it is understandable: the world is shrinking. The enormous growth in global travel during the past 30 years means that the exoticism of many destinations is eroding. So travellers on a quest to visit somewhere different are looking at more extreme options for holidays.

It's not an entirely recent phenomenon. In 1979, the luxury Sumerland Hotel opened in Beirut, Lebanon. Described as: "The first resort hotel designed for people who want to vacation inside a civil-war zone in style," it * boasted an underground shelter, its own militia and even managed to fly in Gloria Gaynor to sing "I Will Survive" for guests in 1980.

According to Hann, an Italian company went one better and actually offered trips to the perpetual conflict zone of Beirut's Green Line during the 1980s. During the same period, some Western tourists went on so-called "Cannibal Tours" in New Guinea, where they could see supposedly flesh-eating natives from the safety of their riverboats.

The Alternative Tourism Group currently organises holidays incorporating tours of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip where you can visit refugee camps and meet Palestinian victims of the troubles. Other voyeurs trot around the sites in Israel where suicide bombers blew themselves up.

Widespread interest in adventure travel is evidenced by the fact that Robert Young Pelton's extreme guidebook, The World's Most Dangerous Places, is currently in its fifth edition. Although designed more as an aid for those who have to visit the perilous corners of the world due to their jobs, rather than as a tourist guide, there are some adventure addicts that use it as an A to Z of scary spots.

Alongside firsthand accounts of adventure, the book provides instructions for getting in and out of more than 30 hazardous countries, as well as a wealth of survival tips and contacts for everyone from rescue organisations to rebel groups. The tone is one of authority, because Pelton has been there and done it. Though he doesn't describe himself as a conventional journalist, back in 2001, when CNN viewers tuned in to the first footage of US Taliban member John Walker Lindh, the interviewer was Pelton. He certainly inspires people. The messageboard on his website, comebackalive.com, buzzes with daily postings. Amid some broad political discussion and the flagging up of interesting conflict-related articles, people ask for tips on travelling in potentially lethal destinations.

"Peaceful one" writes: "My hands are shaking as I type this, lump in my throat, and a sense of adventure is boiling," before asking for information about Kabul, where he is set to visit. He is answered by "a petite, blonde, female" called "Tingo", who describes herself as "just a traveller inspired by RYP". She reports that, "I did not have a single problem... The only time I felt unsafe was when I was escorted from Bagram Air Base in a convoy with Americans in combat gear. That drew far more attention than walking alone."

Though he doesn't deny the whiff of danger is an attraction, Haines rejects the notion of war tourism as a widespread phenomenon, arguing that there's "not that many crackpots. People want something different, or something off the wall, but they don't want to die."

Haines argues that the truth is that adventure travel to conflict zones can be relatively safe, if it is approached sensibly. For instance, he takes numerous tours to North Korea, which by virtue of its troubled relationship with South Korea, is technically a war zone. This is a view that, on the whole, Pelton agrees with. The overriding message in his book is that "travel can be dangerous if you want it to be and it can be very safe if you want it to be. Even in a war zone."

But though Haines doesn't buy the notion of people wanting to holiday on the frontline, he concedes that Hann's Iraq trip is, "as close as it gets. It's clearly dangerous."

Meanwhile, for Hann, it's business as usual. "I will do a post-war Iraq tour again before March providing I have the people," he says. "I'm not going to go and risk getting shot at and stressfully taking people around the country unless we have enough people.

"Then we start our normal tours again in March, which I already have bookings for. There's an enormous amount of interest and we just need the security situation to calm down a little bit." *

Geoffrey Hann can be contacted at hinterland@ tinyworld.co.uk, tel: 01883 743 584. 'The World's Most Dangerous Places', by Robert Young Pelton, is published by HarperCollins, priced £21.95. Phil Haines can be contacted at phil.haines@live-travel.com, tel: 020 8894 6104

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