Wish you were here?

Forget Corfu, Florida and the Costa del Sol. If you're stuck for a last-minute getaway, think war zones. Simon Calder selects the top spots for the thrill-seeking global explorer

Looking for the very latest destination for the independent traveller during the summer vacation? Got a few minutes to spare? Visit a travel agency web site such as opodo.co.uk. Tap in any UK airport as your origin; for your destination, enter the airport code SDA. The computer will tell you that, in the alphabet of aviation, the acronym decodes as Saddam International Airport. Despite the change of regime, the name of the former Iraqi dictator lives on in the reservations systems of the world's airlines.

Airlines are already offering cheap flights to SDA: discount travel agents in London can quote you a fare of around £450 return via Amsterdam, even though the road to Baghdad's airport is still too dangerous for civilian flights to begin.

It won't be long before backpackers are seeking out the best bargains in the Iraqi capital. But should you go? That depends on what you are looking for from your travels. If your aim is to be the first tourist in post-war Iraq, forget it; an American traveller claimed that dubious distinction almost as soon as victory was declared.

Perhaps you're keen to test the official Foreign Office travel warnings, which reveal that "terrorists are actively targeting UK and US interests in Iraq" and that attacks "could involve the use of chemical and biological materials"; if so, you'll look in vain for a travel insurance company prepared to cover you.

Pick another former war zone instead; there are plenty more rewarding holiday hotspots open to the 21st-century traveller.

But as holiday-makers stray ever further, some have found themselves caught in the crossfire of violent clashes. Two years ago, a group of British tourists survived an attack by the Tamil Tigers on Colombo airport in Sri Lanka. Others have perished at the hands of terrorists who regard foreign visitors as legitimate targets: the massacre at Luxor in 1997 demolished much of Egypt's tourist industry, and the whole of Indonesia is still on the Foreign Office blacklist after last October's bomb attacks on Bali aimed at young Westerners.

Tourists have always tangled willingly with conflict. Bus tours in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, for example, continue to be popular: you can even practice your swing at "the world's most dangerous golf course". As far as I know, no wars have been fought over tourism, though a group of South African mercenaries once arrived in the Seychelles to stage a coup in the guise of holiday-makers. But in most parts of the world, the leading tourist attractions are connected with spirituality or war, and often both.

Travellers to the Crusader castles in Jordan or the Falls and Shankhill Roads in Belfast are seeking the same kind of enlightenment about the causes and effects of religious conflict.

Some people find themselves flying uneasyJet by accident. Many of the unfortunate package holiday-makers who, 10 years ago, booked all-inclusive trips to a "new" Caribbean island - San Andrés - were seeking the staple holiday commodities of sun, sand, sea and alcohol.

The only indication that they were heading for South America's most violent nation was in the small print at the back of the brochure, which informed customers that "The local currency is the Colombian peso". The programme did not survive to a season. But for the informed traveller, there's a lot to be said for visiting the world's hotspots as they start to cool down.

Colombia may not look too enticing in the Foreign Office holiday brochure. "Political and criminal violence and kidnapping are serious problems," warns Whitehall. "Backpackers are as likely to be kidnapped as expatriates working for multinationals." Yet all the independent travellers I've met while exploring the colonial glories of Cartagena and Popayan, or the mountains that totter into the Caribbean's finest beaches, have little but praise for the generous and friendly people. Demand is depressed by Colombia's image (as are many of the country's hoteliers), and so hotspotters avoid both crowds and high prices.

You can deftly skirt around the murderous badlands near the border with Panama, and capitalise on the opportunities that are offered by a string of countries for whom horrific headlines are taking a long time to fade.

Central America has enjoyed a decade of peace. Yet Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala are still associated in many travellers' minds with the right-wing death squads of the Eighties, when any stray backpacker might be regarded as a dangerous subversive. Even now, some of the finest beaches in the Pacific are populated only by weekending expatriates.

Across the ocean, Asia's tourism industry has been hit by the repercussions of the Bali bombings, shocking abductions of holiday-makers by terrorists in the southern Philippines, and the lingering effects of Sars. Two countries that have latched on to the benefits of war-as-tourism have been less badly affected. Vietnam makes great play of the vicious US campaign against the North and the Vietcong. The tunnels at Cu Chi in which guerrillas fought the Americans and South Vietnamese are part of the tourist circuit, though larger passages have had to be bored to cater for the larger frames of Westerners.

Across the border in Cambodia, thousands of travellers diligently visit the Museum of Genocide, tracing the deeds of Pol Pot. The citizens of the capital are shrewd enough to recognise the fascination that foreigners have for a dictator who obliterated half his population.

For any poor nation, tourism is the ideal industry for regeneration. It requires little capital, is highly labour-intensive and generates foreign exchange. And it might just make the world a better place, as holiday-makers are confronted by the horrors of conflict.

Nobody would visit Hiroshima on holiday were it not for the atomic bomb that devastated the city 58 years ago. The Peace Memorial Park in this Japanese city is misnamed; it is a testament to war. A large and pretty garden marks the hypocentre of the explosion that killed more than 100,000 people. Within it, the former Chamber of Commerce - the "A-Bomb Dome" - has been adopted by the city as its emblem. The scorched and twisted shell haunts the city skyline. I defy you not to be appalled and engrossed by it.

Moving west - perhaps by way of SDA - the people of the Crimea are looking forward to a bumper season next year. The 150th anniversary of the start of the Crimean War will see thousands of British visitors peering into the valley of death, and checking out the headgear of the people in the nearby port of Balaklava. The following year, interest will move across to southern Spain, to the bleak headland of Trafalgar where a famous victory was won in 1805.

Only Africa looks likely to miss out on the peace dividend, because conciliation is still in short supply. The Foreign Office points out that British airlines are forbidden from flying into the (once) popular city of Mombasa in Kenya, and tersely mentions that "The British Honorary Consul is currently away from Liberia".

You could always decide to stay at home, and battle the crowds at Battle or on Scotland's killing fields of Culloden. But be warned. You'll still be holidaying in a hotspot. "Australians in the UK are advised to be especially alert to their own security," warns the government in Canberra. "In view of the ongoing risk of terrorist attacks, key installations such as economic interests, ports of entry and airports remain on heightened alert."

Canada's advice is more down-to-earth. "Pedestrians should use caution when crossing streets," it states. "Roads are excellent but often narrow and congested. Delays may occur on train routes, including Eurostar trains, due to track repairs or flooding."

But it's still a better bet than Baghdad.

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