by Florian Flade
Planning a Christmas holiday trip? You have already been to Egypt? India is not exotic enough? Safari in Botswana is not a real adventure? How about Iraq for a change, or Afghanistan, or Somalia, Darfur or Communist North Korea? A Swiss travel agency is offering the probably most dangerous vacation experience to some wealthy clients. Babel Travel started its Swiss based business some weeks ago and is now looking for the first clients to book a trip to a war and conflict zone. In co-operation with US-Journalist Robert Young Pelton (author of “The World´s Most Dangerous Places”), Babel Travel organizes 11-45 day trips to several countries tourists usually avoid – for a good reason. The Foreign Ministries of almost every Western nation tells Western tourists not to travel to these regions as the danger of getting kidnapped, killed by bombs, mines or ambushes is high and unnecessary risks are taken.
Kevin Pollard, head of Babel Travel which opened its office in Zug, Switzerland, told me, that there was a high demand from clients to offer vacation trips to countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan or Yemen. “We’ve had a lot of interest so far”, Pollard says, “Many travel companies have been offering trips to Afghanistan and Iraq over the years so travel to these countries is improving.” From all the countries available at Babel Travel, “Iraq would be the most dangerous”, Kevin Pollard told me, “Afghanistan 2nd. Countries that have experience war and serious conflict (Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Algeria, Colombia, Bosnia, Iran) have all opened up for tourists over the last 5-10 years. We hope/expect the same to happen in the countries we’re running trips to.”
In Afghanistan, Babel Travel, has a “Afghanistan Uncovered” package available for booking. The 15-day trip will take you from capital Kabul to Mazar i-Sharif, Bagram, Herat and hiking in the Panjshir and Bamiyan Valley. A stay in a Pashtun village with locals is also included. “This trip will give you an insight into the new conflict that continues to tear the country apart”, the brochure reads. Price per person is US $9,500.
A XXL-package (45-days), including a trip from the Iraqi cities Baghdad to Najaf, Karbala, Babylon and Ur, through Iranian Persepolis, Esfahan and Shiraz, to Afghanistan, will cost you US $26,000. Babel Travel also offers an 15-day Iraq journey, taking a group of tourists from Baghdad to the Kurdish North and Shiite South for US $8,500.
In war-torn Somalia, tourists are able to experience living with tribesmen and nomads in the northern break-away region of Somaliland. The US $6,500 trip includes “speak with jailed pirates, go on an anti-piracy patrol, discuss politics with the Somaliland President and various tribal elders”.
Ever wanted to experience a slow genocide first-hand? No problem, the Swiss travel operator takes you to Darfur, South Sudan for US $12,000, which will take you on a 22-day travel from Khartoum to South Sudan.
If you are scared off by these destinations where a bomb blast or a bullet hitting is not that unlikely, Babel Travel has another country on its list which might interest you: the most isolated country on the planet, Communist Jurassic Park – North Korea. “Experience how Koreans spend their Day-to-Day life”, the Babel brochure for 15-day “Eternal North Korea” trip reads, “Learn about the North Korean Juche (“military first”) idea and how Koreans perceive the world.”
I asked Babel Director Pollard how his agency is able to organize these travels to the most remote and closed Communist dictatorship. ” The local travel company we´ve gone into partnership with has been running tours to North Korea for westerners since 1993″, Pollard explained, “Our trips are the only trips that stay in local Korean homestay (meeting and staying with real Korean families).”
Asked about how the risks taken by the tourists are dealt with and how Babel can assure maximum safety in these dangerous countries, Pollard answered: “We use Robert Young Pelton´s 30 years of local travel experience, careful planning, impressive local networks and excellent risk management.” One of the key factors why Babel has started business in this field is to “Provide open minded and adventurous travellers the opportunity to understand political and environmental factors behind conflicts” and to “Introduce to the world certain countries that have seen troubles but are now working through their issues and have become stable and safe.”
However in case of emergency, Pollard said, “We have an emergency telephone number in Switzerland, Australia as well the in the local country that the trips are in.” Most of the clients of Babel are from the US, UK, EU, Australia and Canada, he tells. In January, the company will organize their first trips to Iraq, Somaliland and Afghanistan for invited clients and journalists only.
Up to today, Babel Travel has not arranged a tourist trip to the war and conflict zones, but is already planning on expanding the range of destinations. Myanmar, Liberia, Yemen and Colombia are expected to be added to the brochures soon.