Photo: Maciej Matlak/Shutterstock

11 War-Torn Regions Priming Themselves for Tourism

Student Work Insider Guides
by Elyssa Goldberg Jan 12, 2015

WITHIN DAYS of each other, both the New York Times and BBC News wrote articles drawing attention to a burgeoning ski culture in the Bamiyan Province of central Afghanistan. Then Roads and Kingdoms said Bamiyan is ready for tourists, extolling its virtues as an overlooked peaceful province in the warring country. Citing increasingly reliable infrastructure and the availability of direct flights to Bamiyan, the articles suggest that Afghanistan is on a mission to draw tourists to the conflict-ridden country. But Afghanistan, a tourist destination? Armed violence still dominates much of the landscape because of the Taliban, and the country is just now beginning to find its footing politically after decades of sustained violence and instability.

Tourism can open up new revenue streams for previously isolated countries and increase cash flow to a developing nation’s citizens, but it can also prove dangerous — a tacit condoning of oppressive regimes. When does it become okay to make the mental switch from post-conflict zone to potential vacation spot?

1. Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Province

Photo: Basir Ahmad Salehi/Shutterstock

Bamiyan Province is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site Buddhas, which were carved into Bamiyan Cliffs 1,500 years ago and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. But the province is also home to an extensive range of snow-capped mountains primed for skiing. According to The New York Times, the area is relatively safe now that East Horizon Airlines offers direct flights, thus avoiding the more dangerous Kabul entirely.

As a country better known for war than for ski resorts, the operation is still small. Hotels contain only enough rooms for about 300 tourists and electricity failures are common. But as Afghanistan hopefully stabilizes in the next several years, tourists may be able to get a glimpse of a country whose relative isolation has preserved its natural beauty and rich culture.

2. The Caucasus

Photo: djgis/Shutterstock

The Caucasus region near Russia’s southernmost border is the site of Europe’s most active armed conflict. Yet Putin insisted on staging the Sochi Olympics just 100 km away.

International powers were nervous that their athletes would be dragged into the conflict. The US even put warships in the Black Sea for mass evacuation of athletes and citizens, if necessary. It was the first time in history that the Olympics was held in an active war zone.

While Sochi was no doubt a risky investment, the event surprisingly went off without a hitch. And now Sochi has created international appeal — the North Caucasus Resorts project aims to bring in 3.5 million tourists per year and create over 160,000 jobs.

3. Liberia

Photo: Fabian Plock/Shutterstock

Liberia celebrated 10 years of peace in 2003. But with 250,000 dead from two civil wars spanning over 10 years, the country has been struggling to get back on its feet. Nevertheless, according to CNN, the Liberian minister of commerce and industry calls Liberia a “tourist attraction waiting to happen,” citing its rain forests, sandy beaches, and well-developed surf culture as reasons to visit.

There’s still little to no infrastructure, however, and the government has yet to incentivize Liberian enterprises to invest in the tourism sector. Perhaps one day we will be able to visit, but don’t buy a ticket to Monrovia just yet. The VICE guide to Liberia still shows that westerners need military accompaniment throughout the country, which suffers from widespread poverty and residual violence at the hands of local warlords.

Not to mention that in recent months, the country has been ravaged by Ebola — the highly contagious hemorrhagic fever decimating people living in Western Africa.

4. Somalia

Photo: Mamaduomar/Shutterstock

Somalia is much better known for its pirates and warlords than its pristine beaches. But Mogadishu, formerly known as the “White Pearl” due to its expansive stretches of white sand, drew Europeans to its luxury hotels throughout the 20th century. It’s hoping to resurrect that image now that the African Union successfully kicked al-Shabab out of the capital in August 2011.

Construction is booming and international organizations in the capital report a general optimism in the city and beyond. The UN moved in new staff for the first time in several years, and Turkish Airlines is now flying direct to Mogadishu. Some expats are returning, including Ahmed Jama of London, who opened a luxe dining spot right on the beach.

The political situation is still somewhat dangerous and al-Shabab still has the means to attack, but Mogadishu is hoping to become a hot tourist spot and taking the necessary steps to do just that. Hopefully one day it will be a safe destination for all.

5. Sierra Leone

Photo: Skeiky/Shutterstock

The 11-year civil war that gave Sierra Leone its association with blood diamonds and child soldiers ended in 2002. Nearly 12 years later, international hotel chains are developing Freetown and hoping to align the image of Sierra Leone with those of Ghana and Gambia to attract high-end tourists interested in guided tours and eco-tourism.

According to Investment Climate Advisory Services, investor confidence is increasing in the region. Hilton Worldwide, in collaboration with the International Development Enterprise, plans to open the Hilton Freetown Cape Sierra in 2014. The $40 million project aims to lure in 40,000 tourists per year and employ 400 people. Radisson is setting up shop there too. Guidebooks like Lonely Planet celebrate the country’s “breathtaking coastal grandeur.”

Sierra Leone remains one of the countries hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic, so tourism at this time is not recommended.

6. Medellín, Colombia

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Medellín, Colombia used to be known as the murder capital of the world thanks to Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. Conflict in Colombia dates all the way back to 1948, but 10 years ago the city began cleaning up its act in earnest. New government leaders spearheaded initiatives like the “parques bibliotecas,” public library parks, and built new sports centers — creating beautiful new community spaces in the poorest neighborhoods.

Because of the friendly people, local work ethic, and loads of coffee, it looks like Medellín wants to become South America’s Silicon Valley. And that goal isn’t out of reach. The Star estimated that close to 2 million international tourists visited in 2013. If nothing else, the Colombian government sees this as an exercise in national rebranding, as its first tourism campaign played off of its bad reputation: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”

But the city still has its problems. There have been thousands of judicial killings and slayings of international human rights defenders over the last couple of years. Although most of the violence is isolated to those involved with the drug trade, travelers should take caution.

7. Rwanda

Photo: Onyx9/Shutterstock

Rwanda remains a shining example of the possibilities of tourism in a country known for its conflict. The 1994 genocide and perceived government insecurity isolated the country for years. But Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda since 2000, began promoting tourism in 2003 with the aid of foreign investment. He highlighted the country’s rare mountain gorillas, green hills, and sparkling lakes.

In 2007, international investors set down roots in Rwanda, beginning with the Kenyan hotel group Serena, which built a five-star hotel in Kigali and a four-star lakeside hotel at Gisenyi. In 2008, Governors Camp built its Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, and Dubai World Africa built the Nyungwe Forest Lodge soon after.

While tourism in Rwanda is essential in facilitating its economic growth and physical reconstruction going forward, traveling to see Volcanoes National Park or Nyungwe Forest does come with undue red tape; the Rwanda Development Board issues no more than 64 permits per day.

8. Tunisia

Photo: Maciej Matlak/Shutterstock

The Jasmine Revolution, which ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, closed off the country to international visitors, cutting the number of tourists in half from 2010 to 2011. While the situation is currently fragile, recent travelers report feeling “100% safe.”

The Sahara Desert covers much of Tunisia, allowing opportunities for dune roving, and the Mediterranean coastline is perfect for beach-goers. Then there’s the food, culture, and endless bazaars.

9. Myanmar (Burma)

Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Until 2010, Myanmar’s citizens were repressed and victimized by a totalitarian state. According to National Geographic, predictions expect the number of tourists in the country to reach 3 million by 2015 and 7 million by 2020, and new airports and hotels are springing up all over the country. In 2012 alone, the country pulled in $500 million from tourism, up from $315 million in 2011. And Coca-Cola opened a bottling plant outside of Yangon, planning to invest nearly $200 million in the country over the next five years.

Although it will take time to achieve full-fledged democracy, especially as there’s still conflict in the Rakhine State between Buddhists and Muslims, Myanmar is ready to support tourism. Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, and All Nippon Airlines fly to Yangon directly. Travelers should be advised to take every measure to ensure that their dollars go into the hands of local citizens. Responsible travel here is key.

10. Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka is a perfect destination for Scorpios

Photo: Madrugada Verde/Shutterstock called Sri Lanka the best destination to visit in 2013, which makes sense: The country is home to eight UNESCO world heritage sites, plus endless beaches and greenery.

Sri Lanka emerged from a 26-year-long civil war in 2009 and hopes to turn its image around to attract tourists. It has so far been successful, welcoming over 1 million tourists for the first time in 2012. In 2012, 114,000 Britons visited the island and British Airways opened up a new flight route to Sri Lanka in 2013. The Shangri-La has set up shop in the country, as has Australian business mogul James Packer, who plans to open a casino with an accompanying 400-room hotel in the capital.

There are still reported human rights abuses, so tourists need to travel responsibly and consider the implications of visiting a country with an authoritarian regime.

11. Tibet Autonomous Region

Photo: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

Tibet, which has been under Chinese control since the middle of the 20th century, is known worldwide for its monks’ self-immolations and its struggles for renewed autonomy. In March 2014, the chairman of the Tibet autonomous region’s government said that they’re trying to make Tibet a “world-class tourist destination,” which might explain the recent opening of the St. Regis Lhasa in 2013 and the current construction of the Shangri-La Lhasa, slated to open in 2014.

In 2013, there were 13 million visitors, which is a 22% increase from the previous year. Most of them hail from China, Europe and the US. The Chinese government keeps Tibet on a tight leash: Non-Chinese visitors need several permits to enter the region. In Tibet, the same rule applies as with many of these destinations: Travel responsibly to maximize the trip for both the visitor and host. Do your homework, book far in advance, make sure your visas are in order. Bring cash.

Full disclosure: I went in January 2014, and it was an incredible trip. I highly recommend it but there were several checkpoints that required multiple visas, and there was a notable limitation on freedom of speech.

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