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READ IT HERE Places and Features AREAS OF CONFLICT - THE NEW AGE TRAVELLER                       Molly Mileham-Chappell
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As tourism evolves, holidaymakers are stepping out of their comfort zones to experience new regions. But why do travellers feel the need to visit areas of conflict, despite warnings, and put themselves at risk?

Give me sun, sea and sand and I’ll be content. Maybe it’s because I like routine and enjoy attempting to speak Spanglish. Or maybe it’s because the negative media portrayal of countries in conflict makes me fearful of trying anywhere new.

Tourism in areas of conflict is a subject that can create rows at dinner parties; as you get excited for your latest adventure, your friends worry for your safety. So are tourists ever really safe? And what makes these countries so fascinating to visit?

In 2013, the number of international tourists worldwide reached a record 1087 million. (UNWTO, 2014) However, tourism trends in the Middle East were mixed due to on-going tensions. While Palestine reported an 11% growth, Lebanon and Jordan suffered with minus growth from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

“It seemed a bit dangerous… it felt quite exciting,” Aidan Willis recalls about Israel. The 22-year-old from Kent travelled with friends in both 2012 and 2014. “Immigration was strict. There were lots of questions even before I got into the country.”

Aidan believes that nothing was targeted towards them as tourists; “Although there’s a lot of military presence, there’s a lot of stalemate. The traffic lights will favour the Israelis whereas the Arabs will have red lights when trying to get home back into West Bank. They have subtle ways to aggravate each other. It wasn’t secret either – taxi drivers knew the best ways to go.”

Travel journalist Trevor Claringbold believes the risks depend on how conflict is defined; “A 'traditional' war between military forces tends to have a far less wider impact. However when you have indiscriminate conflicts, with non-aligned forces who do not comply with international conventions, such as ISIS or the Ukrainian rebels, then the area of concern becomes much wider.”

For some, the conflict in Israel can’t hinder the overpowering draw of its religious symbolism. “We live in such an unstable world now that anywhere you go, there is probably the chance of something happening.” says Bethan Vincent. “When you enter Jerusalem, it feels like you’re entering into another world. I’m not religious but you could tell this sunburnt yellow city was a holy place.” The 24-year-old blogger from Warwickshire has family living in the West Bank and visited them in 2009. “People still live their daily lives there. It’s still a functioning country in many ways.”

Bethan confesses she may have been naïve, but felt safe when she was there. When her mother returned in 2013 however, it was a different story. “During a marathon in the town where my aunt lives, a Palestinian man tried to stab himself right by where she was standing.”

In 2008, travel agent Jon San Jose visited Sri Lanka against Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice to avoid unnecessary travel. “We went on a two week package holiday which was dirt cheap because of the conflict. Our hotel in Marawila on the west coast was guarded with armed men at the gate.”

North of Kandy was considered too dangerous, and Jon encountered numerous roadblocks and vehicle checks; “All the tourist spots were heavily guarded.” “There was a constant feeling that there could be trouble at any time. It was quite unnerving.”

Yeganeh Morakabati, senior lecturer in Tourism Management at Bournemouth University believes from her research that the way in which we travel is subject to our risk adverseness; “If you are fearful, then you might take notice of negative media. But if you are quite relaxed, then you don’t care what the media says, you just go.”

Yeganeh whole-heartedly admits that her travel perspective is different; “I grew up in Iran… I have seen the missiles coming down, and you just watch which house is going to be unlucky.” “But people are three times more likely to travel to the Middle East if they have travelled there before.” “I myself am thinking of teaching in Kabul in a few months time.”

Trevor, like Yeganeh, has a rich history of travel; “I've stayed in night shelters in northern Uganda, after the civil war was supposed to have finished, with the sound of gunfire in the distance. Sometimes the unrest is unexpected... in Athens two years ago we were caught up in the street protests against the austerity measures. A peaceful protest spilled over into the tourist areas, with police using tear gas and protesters throwing petrol bombs.”

In 2014, Trevor travelled to Egypt amid the unrest. “I was aware that almost all the trouble in Cairo is in one specific area, and therefore I was happy to travel through it to the Red Sea, just avoiding those regions.”

Because tourists often revisit Sharm El Sheikh, Omayma El Husseini, Director of the Egyptian State Tourist Office believes tourists are less likely to visit conflict zones; “Cairo is full of history of course, but when you go to those places, you don’t want to go again; if you’ve seen the pyramids once, you don’t need to go and see it every time.” However, the Egyptian tourism industry is currently recovering. In February 2015, there was a 15% UK visitor increase on the last year.

Omayma also insists visitor safety is a priority; “These are local conflicts, and we are responsible in making sure that our tourists are well taken care of. We’re telling the truth – if something happens somewhere, we can’t deny it, but we have stepped up security over the last two years.”

Yegeneh believes there is potential for the future of tourism in areas of conflict. “I think as bad as the conflict is, it could also act as a pull. Once things settle down people want to go and see it. It’s excitement and adventure.”

Whilst some areas certainly carry greater risks than others, all travelling experiences are subjective. The boundaries of your travels can only be defined by how well you know yourself, so if you’re feeling brave enough, take the plunge. If not, two weeks in the South of France is always good for the soul.

Molly is currently a multimedia journalism student, and is a regular contributor to both Pro Traveller magazine, and our sister company Globetrotter TV.

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