Travel trend: Political hotspots a new craze among tourists

  • Sneha Mahale, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Sep 21, 2014 16:30 IST

For most, the idea of a vacation means beaches, mountains or monuments. But an increasing number of people are looking at taking in more than just the sights and sounds of a destination.

Introducing political tourism. Here, travellers focus on issues- ideological, economical or political- of a country, and observe aspects connected to it.

"It's aimed at people who don't want an ordinary holiday. They want to understand the complexities of the issues behind the headlines," says former New York Times correspondent Nicholas Wood, and director of Political Tours.

The UK-based travel company is one of a handful around the world that brings travellers in contact with journalists and political experts from various regions, to delve into issues affecting diverse destinations.

Itineraries are developed keeping political developments in mind. Not surprisingly, then, recent tours have taken visitors to the UK, to watch Scotland's bid for independence.

Vinesh Shah, a Delhi-based lawyer, opted for one such tour. He says, "There was so much talk about Scotland's referendum that I thought it would be a good time to visit, and experience the buzz on the streets."

Over four days, his travel group met voters from both sides to understand why they would cast their ballot for or against Scotland's independence.

He adds, "It was enlightening to hear locals talk about core issues that affect them."

No War Zones
While tour operators are not afraid of taking a look at the thorniest of issues in North Korea, Israel and Palestine or Ukraine, they strictly avoid war zones, keeping tourists' safety in mind.

Here, Wood picks countries that interest the political tourist right now.

While tour operators avoid active conflict zones, it may seem surprising that they are heading here at all. But even though fighting continues in some parts, the rest of this large country is peaceful and welcoming to tourists. The tour here looks at the origins of the pro-European revolution, and the prospects for peace with Russia.

Women embroider a map of the Ukraine in Mariupol

A highlight is a visit to a decommissioned nuclear missile base, where former Soviet army soldiers show you how the weapons were launched.

The results are out. The Scots have chosen to remain in the UK, but for the longest time, experts believed that it would go its own way. And the ramifications for Britain and the world were huge. Obviously then, tours to the country were not about bag-pipes, kilts and flag waving. Starting in Glasgow, they looked at how the economic decline since the 1970s left people seeking a new identity. In Pollokshields, the group followed Scottish nationalists on the street as they recruited new supporters.

The country is becoming a key player in the Middle East, and undergoing its biggest change, since the revolution. It is now easier for tourists to experience this first-hand. It is a place of great contrasts - from the young people of Tehran, who are as switched on about fashion and technology, to the city of Qom, where conservative seminaries dominate the landscape.

An Iranian woman at a cosmetics shop in Tehran, Iran

You can still see the anti-American propaganda from the revolution, but it looks increasingly dated and out of place.

Israel and Palestine
A few miles outside Jerusalem, there is a long line of Palestinians waiting to get through an Israeli checkpoint. It's a daily occurrence for Palestinians, and one of the many obstacles they face as they travel to work. But, for Israel, herein lies their guarantee of security. The scene is a small part of a tour that takes in a wide-ranging number of communities and political factions that make up the Middle East's most intractable problem.

North Korea
The question that most people ask is - how is it possible for such a state to exist for 25 years after the collapse of the Berlin wall (and while it's main ally has proven such a good centre for capitalism)? Standing among the cheering crowds at a military parade, or visiting a state-run farm, you can understand how the system might exist.

Children wave at an amusement park in Pyongyang, North Korea

It is a chilling realisation that it works quite smoothly with every aspect of everyone's life regimented and accounted for.

South Africa
The tour here takes an in-depth look at how the country has changed since the end of apartheid. The journey takes one to Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria. One of the stops is President Jacob Zuma's sprawling private compound in the green hills of KwaZulu Natal. It is a good place to understand what is going awry in the new South Africa. The heavily guarded complex houses a cattle ranch and a private tuck-shop for one of his wives and costs tax-payers 13.7 million pounds. You can't see much beyond the security guards and fenced off enclosure, but in nearby villages, unemployment is over 50 per cent, two thirds lack electricity, and health services are rudimentary.

The country's global pre-eminence seems a certainty, but what effect has this rapid growth had on the lives of the ordinary locals? Head to Chongqing to see how this megacity expanded rapidly under Bo Xilai, the high-ranking member of a political party who was jailed on corruption charges. Here, get a taste of Chinese politics, and see how construction has continued unabated.

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