War Tourism: From the Crass Selfie to the ‘Never Again’ Lesson

“War” and “tourism” are two opposing forces that are not meant to be in the same sentence. Tourism goes with leisure, safety, and relaxation. So who would want to travel to experience a war? Surprisingly, we have been seeing an increase in so-called war tourists, who seem to blur the lines between the two. 

What exactly is war tourism? Officially, it is defined as recreational travel to past or present war zones. This includes sites of active wars, famous battlefields, memorials, war cemeteries, museums, and those of a darker nature like prison camps, mass graves, and execution sites. There are many different facets to this type of travel. The motivations for it are another matter entirely. 


While it is hard to fathom why someone would travel to a country where the devastation and horror of war is an everyday reality, it is not a new phenomenon. War tourism dates back to the 19th century during the Napoleonic, American Civil, and Crimean Wars. You can find reports of tourists visiting destroyed cities, battlefields after the carnage, picnicking a safe distance away from an ongoing skirmish, and taking home souvenirs. It seems the motivations here are unsavory: Desensitized to death and suffering, they indulge a naive curiosity. 

war reenactment

Union soldiers fight during the reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. Photo: Mihai Andritoiu/Shutterstock


Other common motivations for war tourism include education and maintaining a collective memory. Students, academics, and hobbyists often tour former battlefields, museums, and prison camps to understand how wars shaped an area’s destiny. Some countries deem it mandatory for its young people to visit the locations of some of the darkest moments in human history. For example, German students are required to visit concentration camps, Holocaust museums, memorials, and battlefields to learn about their country’s role in genocide and war crimes. 

Every year, historical reenactments remind people of famous events such as the Battle of Waterloo and the Battle of Gettysburg. Historical pilgrimages to famous sites from the World Wars help us remember those who gave their lives to their country. For example, the infamous foxholes of Easy Company (101st Airborne) in Bois Jacques, Bastogne are a popular site for former veterans, their families, and military history buffs. 

A blurring of lines

Traveling to a conflict zone to report on a war is one thing. Traveling there because of a twisted fascination with death and suffering is another. With the rise of social media, there are numerous examples of narcissistic attention hogs who have disrespected sites of human atrocities. You will find beaming selfies at concentration camps, and “candid” photos of themselves crying at mass grave sites.

concentration camp

Railroad track and the Gate of Death — Entrance to Auschwitz. Photo: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock


On top of that, some are crazy enough to visit countries in the middle of civil wars, political coups, and genocide…for fun? Unfortunately, some see these trips as opportunities for social clout, going to places where their less adventurous peers would not.

A recent example is that of Miles Routledge, who professes on his Twitter bio that, “I go the most dangerous places on Earth for fun! Afghanistan Taliban takeover, South Sudan, Kazakhstan riots, Ukraine war…”

He visited Kabul right before the Taliban took over in 2021 and spent lots of time posting pictures and videos of his time in hiding, being evacuated, and seemingly indifferent to the plight of the Afghan people. 

Additionally, there are more than enough stories of naive foreigners venturing into dangerous war-torn countries and getting kidnapped or killed. The diplomatic representatives of the countries of these tourists have to go to extreme lengths to rescue them.

A balance?

Some countries use war tourism to show their nation’s resilience. Recent examples include cities like Sarajevo and Kyiv. Sarajevo went through a harrowing four-year siege by the Serbs after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence. The siege killed 10,000 civilians. Walking throughout the city, you will spot many remnants from the war; chunks of concrete missing from buildings, the Sarajevo roses (holes from shelling painted over red), and more.

Sarajevo building

Sarajevo building. Photo: PICTOR PICTURES/Shutterstock


As for Ukraine, major cities like Kyiv and Lviv started to offer tours of the city as they strive to return to some semblance of normalcy, despite intermittent shelling. Tourists can see the destruction and listen to stories from locals. They must download a special alert app in case they need to find the closest shelter. While this is hardly a good time to visit Ukraine, you can’t help but admire the efforts of this new initiative.


According to Andrew Elliot and Daniel Milne in the Japanese Review, war plays a role in tourism development. The end of World War II saw a considerable tourism boom, thanks to major developments in transportation and increasing globalization. Five years of war severely restricted travel, and the hunger to see the world afterward skyrocketed.

Thus, war tourism can be simply gawking at other people’s misery or it can spread awareness of humanitarian issues.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.