Editor’s Note: This column ran in the print edition of The Times-Standard on Sept. 5th. For reasons unknown, it didn’t get in the Online edition. It still may, but for now this is it:
By Dave Stancliff
Reality tourism gets more real and dangerous every day.
Forget spending a week of luxury living at some small, hard to pronounce island. That’s so yesterday. Ice motels and bars - think the Hotel de Glace, in Canada - are still cool and there’s nothing wrong with the exotic ecosystem tours offered by legions of travel agencies.
I’m waiting to see how reclaimed oil rigs as Oceanic Eco-Resorts (inhabitat.com) turn out. Who knows? Perhaps they’ll revive tourism on the Gulf Coast?
There are other exciting, somewhat dangerous, travel alternatives available for the adventuresome tourist.
European tourists who want a thrilling vacation can go to Mexico and sign up for mock border crossings and tours of dangerous slums. I seriously doubt if many American tourists have taken advantage of these tours.
Intelligent Risk Systems (iJet.com), a company that helps multinational organizations monitor, protect against and respond to global threats, ranks Northern Mexico alongside Algeria for being a “dire danger” to travelers.
Despite that, people still brave the dangerous trip to remote mountain areas that are home to leftist Zapatista rebels, or to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods of Mexico City, rife with prostitutes, thieves, and murderers.
Mexican promoters like Cesar Estrada, head of Universal Travel, are doing well, despite the country’s sick economy. Domestic tourists also go to the central state of Hidalgo where locals simulate the dangers of crossing the U.S. border illegally.
The tourists pay about 200 pesos ($15) for the thrill of tromping through a national park at night while crazed ’polleros” (guides) push them to their physical limits.
To me, it sounds like a hands-on course on what to expect for those thinking of illegally entering America. Talk about fun. I wonder if children get a discount?
Oh those jokers! If a tourist collapses, they have mock border patrol trucks where the exhausted tourist is confined. Sound fun yet? Bet you wonder how long this odd tourism attraction has been going on?
Turn the clock back about six years, when a U.S.-based tour operator, Global Exchange Reality Tours sought to educate tourists about social conditions in developing countries. At first, the tours went to Northern Mexico, but security deteriorated in those border regions.
Now tourists go to Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas where they meet members of the Zapatistas, an indigenous rebel group. They enjoy the local food and culture and (I suspect) they get a thrill out of hanging with revolutionaries.
I say, why stop there? With a couple of keystrokes, I discovered a list of the five most dangerous countries in the world, according to a 2009 survey by Forbes. Thrill-seeking tourists could go to:
1. Somalia - no surprise. These rascals like to venture out into the coastal waters to hijack ships because there are slim pickings at home. Perhaps tourists could arrange to be on ships most likely to be attacked. For an extra charge, tourists could even man the water cannons while being attacked by Somali pirates!
2. Afghanistan - there are two ways of taking a tour there. Join the military and they’ll send you on a free tour (maybe two or three of them!) Or you could take your chances and hitchhike across the country with a local guide. Making out your will is a good idea if you choose this route.
3. Iraq - It’s getting so safe there we have pulled out our last combat battalion. I hear tourists are already paying $180 a night to sleep in Saddam Hussein’s bed.
4. Democratic Republic of Congo - Tourists could mix their love of sports (as in running) with their desire for realism while they try to avoid marauding gangs of rebels who hate outsiders.
5. The Sudan - If you can’t make it to the Congo, don’t worry. A visit to the Sudan is the same exciting experience, with different warring tribes.
As It Stands, I considered offering thrill-seekers a parachuting experience over the heart of the Florida Everglades, but changed my mind when I factored in the insurance - it would have eaten up my profits.