The idea of ‘Warzone Tourism’ has a long past, going back some five hundred years earlier. Ladies from the royal/ruling/warring households and journalists have displayed a tendency to witness and watch live conflicts for fun and entertainment. It was evident during the Crimean War (1854), the American Civil War (1861) and also during the World Wars I & II. Such tourism has been called adventure tourism, dark and dangerous tourism, black tourism and even distasteful tourism. However, this human tendency that reflects the elements of both sadism and curiosity have remained persistent, and may have even become stronger as the growing industry of Warzone Tourism indicates. According to one estimate, this industry has grown 65% annually on an average over the past few years, accounting for nearly $263 billion in 2014. Packages for trips to areas of real and live/active conflicts for 5–14 days range from US$3500 to as much as US$20,000 per person. There is an example of a warzone tourist willing to pay upto US$40,000 for a bespoke trip to Baghdad in 2013. As recently as in 2016, a US based travel agent organized a trip to Afghanistan for US$ 21,800.
A sensitive commentator on Warzone Tourism said ‘…absurd yet still understandable uneven side of our world appear in a striking clarity when a small group of affluent white tourists enjoy the view of damaged homes, the smell of inhuman conditions and the silence of quiet desperation, with their cameras ready in hand and selfies only an Iphone click away’.
This comment offers interesting insights underlining the potential of Warzone Tourism being seen as an instrument of understanding the prevailing context of world politics and global dynamics. Warzone Tourism has also been used as an innovative tool of sociological and anthropological studies. Recall Lesle Debbie’s Consuming Danger: Re-imagining the War/Tourism Divide (2000), John Lenon and Foley Malcom’s Dark Tourism (2004), Chris Rayan (Ed) Battlefield Tourism (2007) and Derek Dalton’s Dark Tourism and Crime (2015). Sasanka Perera’s study under review falls in this category of making use of Warzone Tourism as a tool of sociological study. There have been articles written on South Asian conflicts and tourism, but Professor Perera’s attempt can easily qualify to be the pioneering full length study of this type in South Asia. His is a bold attempt to use ‘ethnographic material’ to make a sense of how ‘people seek to connect to the past’. It presents an involved, ‘embedded’ and intensive narrative where the author’s own experience as a tourist and intellectual prowess as a scholar mingle smoothly to unravel some critical aspects of his country’s history and ethnography.
The book under review is spread out into three main sections; (i) tourism during 2002–2005 when there existed a ceasefire between the warring forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lanka State security forces; (ii) tourism after the physical elimination of the LTTE that ended Sri Lanka’s quarter century old ethnic war in 2009; and (iii) a broad composite view by the author of both these travel periods that also includes a chapter on tourism related ‘Photography and Cartography’ in the Warzone. The study also includes peer endorsements from Sanjay Chaturvedi and Meeakshi Thapan.
Any Warzone Tourism may have two broad aspects; tourism under the conditions of active conflict and tourism after the conflict. Sasanka’s study covers both of them. One may argue that the period of 2002–2005 was also a peace time tourism as the official ceasefire was internationally monitored by Norway. But this is not a fair description since even under the ceasefire during this period, ethnic faultlines between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhala communities were on the boil. The author’s meticulous description of ethnic divisions and the feel of conflict under ‘crossing the borders’ (pp. 21–28) clearly underlines this. Through graphic discussion of various monuments and war sites that range from Sinhala Buddhist temples like those of
Naga Dipa and Dambakola Patuna, to the Tamil landmarks like the Jaffna Library
and the LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s Bunkers, the author extracts the roots and ramifications of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, going far deeper and beyond travel tales and tourist guidance.
In doing so, the author remains true to his profession and is not swayed by the ethnic prejudices and preferences of the tourists he is dealing with. In discussing the rebuilt Jaffna Library by carefully concealing any signs of its ‘brutal destruction’, opening and closing down of Prabhakaran’s Bunkers and his parental house for the tourists, erecting of War Heroes’ and Victory Monuments by the Sri Lankan state as icons of new ‘nationalism’, he brings out the state sponsorship and historical distortions of Sinhala triumphalism. In the process he also laments Sri Lankan army’s deviations into business and money making enterprises through the creation of guest houses and hotels that have also taken Sinhala food habits deep into the Tamil areas. The author is surely not comfortable with the creeping spread of Sinhala cultural hegemony sold under the garb of political and military triumphalism of the Sri Lanka state. In his understanding, Sri Lanka’s ‘Warzone Tourism’, is neither a pilgrimage tourism nor a pleasure and adventure tourism, but it is a carefully crafted narration of a ‘new hegemonic history’. ‘…the innocent, happy and triumphalist discourses of travellers from the south and the discourses of pain, anxiety, loss and defeat which bound the moral communities of the people of the localities they visited almost never flowed into a single arena which would have allowed their different manifestations to blossom’ (p. 215).
Sasanka makes it clear in the preface of this study itself that his interest was in the travels by ‘Sinhala tourists from southern part’. But why should it have been so? He refers to the travels by Tamils, during the first phase of travels (2002-05), and even hints at their sense of ‘triumphalism’ in view of LTTE’s successes, but without much discussion, as that would need a ‘different approach’. Not necessarily. A comparative focus on Tamil tourists from other parts of Sri Lanka to the Warzone could have enabled the author to draw valuable insights into how this tourism sociologically travels through the ethnic boundaries. It would also have been useful to bring out these lessons of ethnography by comparing the Sri Lankan situation with other similarly placed Warzones such as in Cambodia, Vietnam and India’s Kargil.
The author occasionally tries to touch upon the history of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka in his narrative without going further. He refers to the former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘conciliatory approach to ethnic politics’ that led to the rebuilding of the Jaffna Library. But then, why did her government refuse a small Tamil demand to keep a section of the library in its destroyed form? The fear of this section becoming a ‘shrine to nationalist elements’ (p. 48) cited by the author behind this refusal offers a poor and inadequate explanation. Going a little deeper into the history of ethnic conflict could have led the author to the fact that the seeds of the ethnic conflict were sown as early as 1948, and the question of Tamil rights and inclusion became a political football in the power struggle between the dominant Sinhala parties. That being so, ethnic faultlines are not to be bridged, and Warzone tourism could not have been an exception.
I wonder if the author, in the next edition of this book, would consider changing his subtitle ‘Dark Places in Paradise’ referring to the North-east warzone in the context of tourism in Sri Lanka. Unhealthy social consequences of child abuse, human trafficking and gambling thriving from the west coast beach sites thronged by wealthy white and Chinese tourists also do not add glory to the Paradise Island’s rich Buddhist culture and serenity.
Notwithstanding these minor points of difference, Sasanka’s is a welcome and innovative attempt for the South Asian scholars to emulate and be inspired from. South Asia is a zone of conflicts having witnessed a number of inter-state wars, ethnic conflicts and ideological insurgencies. Tourism takes place in all these warzones in different forms and in varying intensity. Careful and rigorous attempts to study these travels and sites from sociological perspectives will enrich our understanding of South Asian history and social dynamics.
S.D. Muni, Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Fellow (Hon.) at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, taught International Relations and South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (1974–2006), National University of Singapore (2008–2013), Banaras Hindu University (1985-86), and University of Rajasthan (1972–73).