Forty-eight hours in downtown Mogadishu with armed guards for company may not be everyone’s idea of a great holiday, but as shows, not everyone has the same idea of what a great holiday is.
Five western tourists – members of a group that included eight Britons, three US citizens and a German – were injured in the western Afghan province of Herat on Thursday when their minibus and army escort were hit by gunfire from Taliban militants, officials said.
No one was seriously hurt in the attack, but the incident has focused attention on extreme or adventure tourism, a growing travel market covering anything from relatively “soft” activity holidays such as whitewater rafting to hardcore trips in hostile environments.
“It’s not about being a war tourist, though war can be a part of it,” says Andrew Drury, a 50-year-old builder from Surrey who holidays two or three times a year in destinations as insecure as Iraq, Iran, Syria, , Pakistan, Chechnya, North Korea and Somalia.
“It’s not really the thrill or the danger. For me it’s the people; it’s about getting closer, beyond the stereotypes. You see more and you understand more. This year I was . He wasn’t a soldier, he was a schoolteacher, just trying to get his village back.”
Drury says he acquired a taste for travelling to places the Foreign Office advises against more than 20 years ago, when he was attacked by a machete-wielding militant after accidentally straying across the border from Uganda, where he was on a wildlife safari, into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He travels mainly alone or with a cousin, and says careful preparation and reliable local contacts are key. “I monitor everything closely for a few weeks in advance. I look at roads, I work out who supports who, I have maps of places in my head. I know where I’m going even if something unexpected happens.”
Nowadays, Drury says, he is experienced enough to be able to organise some of his trips by himself. For others he relies on specialist operators such as Untamed Borders, a Kent-based company include polo-playing in the Hindu Kush and ski touring in Afghanistan.
James Willcox, founder of Untamed Borders, says most of the company’s business consists of bespoke, on-demand trips organised for individuals, couples or very small groups of tourists or professionals such as researchers, journalists and photographers.
Some riskier requests – tours of the Khyber Pass, for example, or the Swat valley in Pakistan and Ghazni in Afghanistan – get rejected strictly on security grounds, Willcox says. But sometimes a “moral decision” has to be made.
The company has, for example, helped a documentary crew film the Yazidi people in north-west Iraq, “because it was important that their story was told. But would we take tourists there, for personal interest? Maybe not.”
The company’s most dangerous regular destination is Mogadishu, the lawless capital of war-hit , whose colourful markets, spectacular beaches and picturesque colonial Italian waterfront outweigh, for some, the more or less constant risk of terror attacks, opportunist shootings and kidnappings.
“People invariably find it completely fascinating,” Willcox says, although tours last no longer than 48 hours and are accompanied at all times by a local interpreter and a four-man, heavily armed security detail travelling in two vehicles. “The secret is in planning, and not following a routine. Leaving no footprint.”
Willcox says his tours have not used the road between Bamiyan and Herat, where Thursday’s attack took place, since 2009. Jonny Bealby, founder of the , which favours private planes over road transport within Afghanistan but has run no tours there at all this season, says security concerns are increasing in parts of the country.
“But for those who are willing to accept a higher risk – which we make sure they are fully aware of – the rewards of this kind of travel are amazing,” Bealby says. “Extraordinary history, a remarkable culture, incredible beauty – and because there are so few other tourists, a very pure travel experience.”
Neither company founder wants to comment on Hinterland Tours, the Yorkshire-based operator run by the veteran British tour guide Geoff Hann, whose group was the target of Thursday’s attack.
But Drury is less reluctant: “No one else uses that road these days, it was quite a large group, and the itinerary was on the internet. I’m not sure I’d be travelling there in those conditions.”