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Saturday August 13, 2011

Bizarre getaways

More and more tourists are heading for places that are sad, frightening, macabre, dangerous or downright ugly – but there is a hidden beauty in the eyes of the beholder.

IMAGINE travelling halfway around the world on a long and tiring series of flights, arriving in a foreign country – and then eagerly heading for a stinking garbage dump!

Or imagine carefully planning a holiday that incorporates graveyards in various countries. What about taking a tour of the filthiest slums or most dangerous ghettos? Fancy exploring the labyrinth of sewers underneath a city, or snapping photographs in a war-zone where bombs often explode and snipers kill with impunity?

Strange fascination: Migrant workers sorting rubbish at a dumpsite in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, China. Bird watchers think nothing of visiting such places to catch a glimpse of certain species of birds.

These are just some of the tourism experiences that are becoming big business in different parts of the world.

I was exposed to the first experience when a group of British birdwatchers arrived in scenic Fraser’s Hill and made a beeline for the garbage dump. With binoculars in hand and field guides in their pockets, they were there to spot a genus of small but beautiful birds called flycatchers. Not only did they get what they came for, but they also spotted about a dozen gorgeous bird species in the vicinity of the reeking rubbish tip.

I had a similar experience when I mentioned to some friends in Rotorua, New Zealand, that I wanted to see seagulls. They promptly took me to “Seagull Mountain”, where hundreds of beautiful seagulls wheeled and dived above a towering man-made hill of garbage.

Night visits to garbage dumps in some countries are also a favourite experience for visiting bird-watchers looking for owls and other carnivorous birds that feed on rats and mice.

If some Malaysians think that going on tour to look for Burung Hantu is eerie, they would positively shiver at the thought of taking a vacation for the sole purpose of visiting graveyards. Some people have turned gravestone-rubbing into an art form and for archaeological documentation, while others just love to soak up the history.

Author Leslie Nutbrown says: “Walking through old burial grounds is a trip back in time. Travelling around ... finding and documenting these scattered cemeteries has given us a lot of pleasure. We have learned a great deal from these treks and when the warm weather returns, you will likely find us out among the gravestones once again.”

He is in good company. A friend of mine was once asked to guide a group of visitors around Malaysia, all of whom belonged to BACSA – the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia.

Residents of a shanty town in New Delhi, India.

An excerpt from the club’s introduction explains: “We record the locations of cemeteries and monuments, and the inscriptions on headstones. We publish cemetery and church records containing names, inscriptions and biographical notes on individual tombs and gravestones. We support local people active in the restoration and conservation of European graveyards.”

Like their erstwhile birdwatching counterparts, the members of BACSA almost always complement their travels with contributions to documentation and conservation work.

Not always so altruistic, perhaps, are the visitors who sign up for slum tours. David Fennell, a professor of tourism and environment at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, says that it is just another example of exploitative tourism.

Another travel industry analyst in India says that ogling at the most wretched of humanity is a sick kind of voyeurism or a form of cultural superiority. “How would people who daily suffer degrading poverty and humiliation feel when they are stared at as if they were specimens in a freak show?” this Asian expert asks indignantly.

The companies that run such tours, however, disagree vehemently. They say that they channel money back into the poverty-stricken communities and provide work and entrepreneurial opportunities to many who otherwise would have absolutely nothing.

Some experts agree, including Harold Goodwin, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism in Leeds, England.

Like several other industry pundits, he feels that there is an upside to slum tours as they provide a genuine learning experience, and will improve empathy and understanding.

“To just turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn’t exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity,” he says.

Whatever the case, business is booming for slum tourism, reality tours or “poorism,” as some punsters call it.

More and more well-heeled travellers are leaving their luxury spas, comfy hotels and sun-kissed beaches to venture into the filthy urban hovels of India, the favelas of Brazil, the garbage dumps of the Philippines, the shanty towns of South Africa and even the ghettos of the United States to see how the other side of the human race lives.

If cruising the dirtiest parts of a city isn’t bad enough, how about exploring the vast network of excretement-filled and rat-infested sewers underground?

From the Bronx in New York to Brighton in Olde England, sewer tours are actively promoted. The proud blurb for the French capital is particularly graphic: “The Paris Sewer Museum is the most comprehensive sewer experience for tourists anywhere. Walking over channels of real French poop, the visitor is bombarded with detailed information about this 2,000km system while experiencing it firsthand.”

Apart from the fact that the tour gives new meaning to the term “French Channel”, one wonders if the intrepid tourist walks over it or wades through it while gaining presumably invaluable firsthand experience!

Considerably more hygienic yet much more hazardous to health would be the war-zone tours being operated in strife-torn locations like Iraq and Afghanistan.

One company, imaginatively named War Zone Tours, claims that their “High Risk Environment guides are all experienced security professionals (who have) spent years travelling dangerous areas of the world in various capacities”.

It states that many staff “are former military special operations personnel”, and describes some of the tour locations as regions plagued with “kidnappings and unrivalled brutality combined with military weaponry” and “intrigue, suspense and dangerous beauty”.

The founder of Babel Travel says his company has teamed up with the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places to become the first tour operator to offer organised entries into the world’s most dangerous and forbidden places. Some “guests” may draw comfort from the fact that the same man also runs the website comebackalive.com.

From tours catering exclusively for bungee-jumping and extreme rollercoasters, to prison visits, tornado-chasing expeditions and all-night “haunted” trips, the boom in such special-interest tours and unusual attractions that appear to contradict the “feel-good” foundation of holiday travel simply underlines the paradox in unorthodox tourism!


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