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Trend watch: Disaster tourism

  • Story Highlights
  • Sites of natural disasters, like Chernobyl becoming tourist destinations
  • Lines being blurred between what is an acceptable place to visit
  • Educational or holidaying in other people's misery?
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By Dean Irvine
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When planning a vacation, finding somewhere unspoiled by tourists is often high on the list, but some travelers with a spirit for adventure are taking that to extremes.


Your next tour guide? Visitors to danger zones like Darfur are still rare.

Visiting the scene of natural disasters or a war zone is the questionable final frontier for thrill seekers, but it may well be spawning a niche travel market.

Adventurer and journalist Robert Young Pelton is used to visiting places most of us would rather avoid, and is currently updating his book "The World Most Dangerous Places" for a sixth edition.

"I wrote it for myself five years ago before the Iraq war and it's now being sold as a travel guide. I'm baffled, really. Now all my friends have been to Iraq and Afghanistan."

It's not just independent travelers forging a different type of vacation experience. After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, some tour companies in New Orleans began offering tours of the most devastated areas, and visitors to Ukraine can arm themselves with a Geiger counter and enter the irradiated exclusion zone for a tour around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, site of the world's worst nuclear accident.

American tour company Gray Line is one just company that offers Hurricane Katrina tours in New Orleans, polarizing the views of residents and visitors.

Some defend them as educational and important in understanding the disaster, while others find the idea of rubber-necking at other's misfortune crass and insensitive to the people trying to rebuild their lives.

"Disaster tourism is mainly voyeuristic -- it's a bit like the traffic slowing down to view a motorway pile-up. I think it would have been insensitive to visit New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but we'd certainly encourage people to go there now," says Martin Dunford, co-founder of Rough Guides.

A trip to the site of the World Trade Center in New York is often on most tourists' to-see lists, and visitors to sites of former atrocities, such as Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, wouldn't think of themselves as getting a thrill through morbid curiosity.

"I guess it all depends," says Dunford "on when you feel current events become history."

The lines between what is and is not off limits to travelers may also be blurring, with current war zones even making it into some travelers' portfolios.

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Young Pelton's web site has a message board where travelers seeking extreme adventure can exchange information about traveling to war zones or getting into countries without visas.

"I think all of us are now more aware about what's going on in the world and more informed and really have a responsibility, in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, to find out what our involvement is in these places.

"There are plenty of places, like Kashmir, that have violent conflict and still advertise themselves as tourist destinations, so why should people be so shocked by visiting other areas?" says Young Pelton.

Generally the people who visit these places have military experience or want to help the situation by working with aid agencies. There were reports of Japanese tourists who backpacked through Afghanistan during the war and an English butterfly collector who ended up being held in a rebel camp, but according to Young Pelton these types of clueless travelers are rare.

For Dunford visiting war zones for an experiential thrill is just wrong.

"As for Darfur, or any other war zone, I don't think visiting particularly helps, unless you're an aid worker or reporter. It's dangerous for a start, plus it gives new meaning to holidaying in other people's misery." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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