The Tourism of War

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In the course of recent trips, I’ve been to Berlin and Sarajevo and it’s struck me that war can become a tourist attraction.

Bosnia & Herzegovina is outside the EU.  It has a stubbornly high unemployment rate and the country’s infrastructure still hasn’t been fully rebuilt since the war of the 1990s.  It might not seem an obvious victim of the financial crash, but I spoke to a man who’d lost his job at the Stock Exchange in 2010; his wife lost her job two days later.  Tourism is one of the few growth industries, with people working in hotels, as guides, drivers and so forth.

Mention Bosnia and people think ‘war’.  Tours in Sarajevo are to the Tunnel Museum – the remains of the tunnel that ran under the airport, providing a vital communication and supply link to the besieged city.  There are trips to the burnt remains of the 1984 Winter Olympic bobsleigh track and to see the bullet holes in the gravestones at the Jewish cemetery.  A little further afield, there’s the Winter Olympic ski jump site, the 70m and 90m hills clear on the hillside, with the letters ‘UN’ marked in white on the roof of the former judges’ hut; this was a demilitarised zone during the war.

And Sarajevo isn’t the only example.  Few people go to Berlin just to see the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, but most people would expect to see the Wall at some point and have a sense of which side of it they are on.  It’s a key part of a trip to Berlin.  There’s an interest in what survived World War II and the styles of buildings from the Cold War period.  It didn’t appeal to me, but there’s a spy museum about the Stasi.

Similarly, a visit to Auschwitz might not be the main reason to go to Krakow, but many return moved, saddened and appalled – and glad they made the visit.  First World War battlefields, trenches and cemeteries; Ground Zero in New York; Robben Island; any number of places in the Middle East … the list goes on.

People want to see where epic events occurred and translate the news-story to something more immediate and more personal.  We want to hear stories of hardship, but also of heroism.  Bravery is acknowledged and respects are paid.  And we want to see this as history.  Almost by definition, tourists won’t be where a war’s raging, but we want to see that the bad times are over, that there’s a happy ending.

War shouldn’t define a country and what it has to offer.  By the time I left Sarajevo, I wanted to see the rest of the country – one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe; the fascinating collisions of cultures; fortresses; monasteries; music; art.  Things that have nothing to do with the War.

So, Mum, why do we have borders?

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Borders have cropped up a lot recently – in the context of migration into, and within, Europe and when thinking about the UK referendum on remaining in the EU. And then a friend said at the end of last week that her kids – 18 and 16; born in the UK and still living here – had asked her why we have borders.

When I heard their question, I realised that the point wouldn’t have crossed my mind when I was their age. I was a child of the Cold War era, when borders separated goodies and baddies, East and West.  Borders demarcated Berlin and its two parts.  They were a legacy of empire and colonial pasts.  You got a stamp in your passport when crossing from one country to another, even within Europe.

And then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, accession of eastern European countries into the EU and NATO and the irrelevance of borders within the Schengen area. Travel became cheaper and easier.  Gap years were taken by more students.  Long-haul travel moved to something resembling mainstream.

Borders were fractured by the internet and made irrelevant by email and social media and those processes helped to foster globalisation. Most of us now have family or friends who are outside our home country.  Perhaps more importantly, we assume that we will do so.  Where someone lives isn’t so very relevant as long as we can communicate easily and on a regular basis.

I’d dearly love to spend an hour inside the mind of the average western European teenager, to see what they take for granted and what puzzles them. I suspect that the notion of borders to keep one group of people in and others out, to deny access and to preserve rights and to otherwise specify what’s mine and what’s yours is something many of them would struggle with.

But there are signs that protectionism, homelands and borders are swinging back into fashion. I can see the reasoning people are following, even though I don’t like that particular shift of the pendulum.

Borders are with us, but we need to be clear about why we have them, what’s important about them and the purpose we want them to serve. Above all, we need to avoid borders being barriers – to openness, as well as to travel; to movement of ideas, as well as to movement of people.