Bomb voyage: the travel groups offering adventures in warzones
Bored with beaches? Try holiday chaos of a different variety in Iraq or Afghanistan
Skiing in Bamyan, Afghanistan: While most would baulk at such an unusual break, travel companies organise regular trips to some of the most wartorn countries in the world. Photograph: Abdul Latif Azimi/AFP
Next week, a small group of Europeans will travel from the ancient city of Erbil, in northern Iraq, to the peaks around Choman, near the Iranian border.
While much of the country continues to be preoccupied by daily acts of violence and warfare, a dozen foreigners will put on ski boots, skis and sun cream, and spend a week enjoying the snow.
It will, apparently, be the first commercial ski trip to the country.
The following month, another party will travel to the Bamyan region of Central Afghanistan – also for a skiing holiday.
However, this journey is old hat. It will be the seventh Afghan ski season organised by Untamed Borders – the English company behind both trips. Bamyan even has a small ski rental shop set up by a local entrepreneur
While most would baulk at the mere suggestion of such an unusual break, there are regular, organised trips to some of the most wartorn countries in the world – places even war correspondents fear to tread.
And the demand, apparently, also exists.
“It remains a fairly niche market, but one that is growing,” says Jim Louth, director of Undiscovered Destinations, a company based at the other end of England from the Kent-based Untamed Borders – at North Tyneside.
Some travel for the adventure, to shock their family and impress their friends; some to witness new cultures; and some go on business – there’s not much demand from venture capitalists, but the specialist travel companies are also regularly employed by journalists, researchers and film-makers to help navigate some of the most dangerous regions in the world.
In general, these are not the chosen destinations of young adventure-seekers.
“Our market tends to be aged 55 and over,” says Louth. “You might think it would be backpacker types, but many are retired. And many are single travellers who like travelling with like-minded people. It’s 50 per cent repeat bookings. We’ve been going for 12 years, concentrating on journeys that are off the beaten track. People are getting more adventurous and the world is opening up.”
However, there is being adventurous, and then there is deciding to go to one of the most dangerous countries in the world. “When we think of Iraq, we think of Baghdad, ” says Louth. “But we go to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We are confined to a relatively small part of the country.”
Still, when the Department of Foreign Affairs thinks about Iraq, the advice it offers is “against all travel . . . because of the extremely dangerous security situation and very high threat of terrorist attacks”.
According to the department, “if you’re currently in Iraq, we advise you to leave immediately”.
It’s a similar story with Afghanistan, with the department’s security status being short, but perfectly clear: “We advise against all travel to Afghanistan.”
Still, that could hardly be expected to halt adventurous tourists or specialist travel companies. In fact, Untamed Borders was founded in 2007 when two men, James Willcox and Kausar Hussain, met in the mountains of Afghanistan.
“We do not guide people to areas because they are associated with conflict,” says Matthew Traver, a trip organiser with the company. “We arrange travel to places that are hard for people to get to independently. Sometimes, it is due to complex permits and visas. Sometimes, it is because the region is remote and hard to reach physically. Sometimes, this is because of security or perceived security risks.”
Precautions are taken – but there are no guarantees.
Last August, seven members of a travelling group were badly injured after coming under machine gun and grenade attack, when Taliban fighters ambushed a convoy in Herat, Afghanistan. The wounded included the 78-year-old boss of Hinterland Travel, Englishman Geoff Hann, who had organised the trip.
And yet, adventure seekers line up to part with at least €2,000 each to book one- and two-week journeys to places most people associate with murder and chaos.
As well as Iraq and Afghanistan, upcoming trips for 2017 by travel companies in Western Europe are planned to such places as Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and the Central African Republic – all of which evoke images of terrorism, violence and bombings, rather than tourist-friendly cafes and beaches.
No matter where a traveller chooses to spend their time, however, some dangers exist everywhere.
“There is, of course, an added risk to travel to some of the regions we arrange travel to,” says Traver. “We have had to cancel sections of trips and on a couple of occasions, full trips, due to deteriorating security conditions. This is very much the exception rather than the norm, though.
“As an adventure travel company, we have had a few broken bones, people fall off horses, sickness, etc . . . The biggest risk we face in most regions is certainly road traffic accidents. Some of the driving in areas we work is really awful.”