How tourism is deeply implicated in the antagonistic global structures that lead to war.

School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast

After the emergence of organized mass tourism in the mid-19th century, billions of people have indulged their desires to visit cultures, landscapes, and experiences different from their own. No place on the planet is immune to the tourist gaze: alongside familiar visits to museums, monuments, and famous attractions, we have also found ways to holiday in jungle canopies, urban slums, and desert oases.

This expansion of tourism developed at the same time as modern armies were mobilized in ever-greater numbers to fight wars in sovereign jurisdictions other than their own. As tourists made their way to exotic destinations, soldiers were being deployed in colonial occupations, world wars, ethnic conflicts, humanitarian interventions, civil wars, covert operations, and insurgencies.
What do these two mobilities have in common? How do they intersect, and why do these entanglements matter?

Tourism and war are often understood to be antagonistic practices (one aimed at engaging with different cultures, the other aimed at conquering them) but there are many juxtapositions. We know, for example, that war tourism – visits to famous battlefields, war museums, and war memorial parks – has become one of the largest sectors in the tourism industry. Think of the millions of American tourists who visit the Cu Chi tunnels used during the Vietnam War. As a visitor demonstrates in her video travel guide, not only do you get to crawl through the narrow tunnels yourself, you also get the chance to fire an AK-47. Here, tourists play at being soldiers.

Conversely, when soldiers are deployed overseas they engage in many practices of leisure, recreation, and tourism. These holiday experiences occur most often during official stretches of R&R, but they also emerge during non-combat time when soldiers respond to their exotic surroundings through a tourist, rather than a martial, sensibility (e.g., eating ‘foreign’ food, visiting cultural monuments, or taking souvenir photographs).

Some of the most revealing images of these off-duty moments were taken by the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit led by Edward Steichen, who documented the non-combat orientations of American marines in the Pacific between 1942 and 1945. As an image of Navy men relaxing on the beaches of Guam suggests, soldiers in the middle of war do much more than simply conquer enemies – they also go swimming and relax in the sun. In other words, soldiers often play at being tourists.

Navy men relax and swim at bathing beach on Guam.
National Archives photo 80-G-474328. 

While these are compelling stories of juxtaposition, they are too often presented as simple curiosities that are shorn of their political conditions. Indeed, mainstream media accounts of ‘dark tourists’ who deliberate seeking out war zones usually position these activities as both trivial and inconsequential. This framing ignores the many ways that tourism – thought to be an innocent experience of leisure – is deeply implicated in the antagonistic global structures that lead to war.

Tourism actively reproduces long-held global enmities that secure a privileged ‘us’ (those who visit, occupy, and conquer) against an uncivilized ‘them’ (those who are commodified, objectified, and defeated). It is important to ask how the practices of tourism and war align in different historical periods in ways that bolster the entrenched asymmetries of global politics.

A more politicized story about the modern entanglement between tourism and war begins with the experience of colonialism. Here we see a powerful collusion between occupying soldiers from colonial powers and wealthy European tourists keen to visit the monuments of exotic cultures.
Certainly these figures occupy foreign landscapes differently, but both work to bolster the logics of empire that keep them in privileged positions by silencing, effacing, and exploiting local subjects. For example, this is one of Gabriel Lekegian’s photographs of the famous Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo (c. 1890) where wealthy European tourists mingled with British officers as they both waited to travel up the Nile.

This image is interesting for the way it visualizes the structural inequalities of colonial tourism with the barefooted Egyptians in front and the fully clothed Europeans posing on the verandah. It gives us some sense of how the privilege of European soldiers and tourists is structured and spatialized through familiar hierarchies of race, gender, class, and sexuality. However, to really expose those logics you would have to go behind this image to see what extended from the rear of Shepheard’s Hotel: a vast red light district where male soldiers, officers, and tourists visited local prostitutes.

The beach at Vung Tau R&R center in Vietnam.
Cat. No. CT 205.

The privileged worldview shared by tourists and soldiers and bolstered by structured forms of asymmetry was not particular to the colonial era. Indeed, these relations of power were intensified between the two world wars, extended throughout the Cold War, amplified in the so-called ‘humanitarian’ interventions of the 1990s, and resuscitated during the recent War on Terror. For example, American soldiers in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s adopted tourist sensibilities when transitioning into their R&R holidays. The Vung Tau R&R center in Vietnam around 1970 is one such example of a place where American soldiers enjoyed a beach holiday respite from fighting: swimming, surfing, sunbathing, drinking and, of course, having sex with local prostitutes.

This last point is crucial: it is not enough to simply reveal the connections between tourism and war as if they are merely curiosities with no political significance. Seemingly innocuous images are never innocent: they hide a multitude of oppressions enacted by privileged tourist-soldiers upon objectified local subjects.

There is real violence lurking within such ‘trivial’ encounters, and it is incumbent on critical scholars to work out how tourism and war align in ways that increase forms of domination and oppression through logics such as race, gender, class, and sexuality.


Debbie Lisle is author of Holidays in the Danger Zone: Entanglements of War and Tourism (Minnesota, 2016) and The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, among others. She is a reader in international relations in the School of Politics, International Studies, and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast.

“In this fascinating global adventure through historical archives, evocative images, and contemporary accounts of places mundane and exotic, Debbie Lisle takes us across the frontlines from tourism studies to critical war studies (and back, a few times) in order to explore the shared spaces and unexpected engagements between war and leisure.”
—Waleed Hazbun, author of Beaches, Ruins, Resorts

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