The rise in immersive and experiential travel means that every aspect of life is a potential tourism product, including contemporary human culture. You can watch whales or you can observe residents of South Africa's Soweto township. Visit a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda or a family of Bedouins in Oman. Swim with dolphins or join the masses wading into India's Ganges River.
When humans, especially if they're simply going about their lives, are part of the attraction, it always feels a bit odd and voyeuristic. And when the conditions of human misery -- poverty, natural disaster, war, religious strife -- figure into a tourist product, the discomfort level grows considerably. It's one thing to see the homes of the stars in Beverly Hills, quite another to see the homes of the unfortunate in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.
But earlier this month, I was on a tour that showcased the byproducts of a tense and divided city, and afterward, my attitude toward this type of tourism changed.
I had brought my 16-year-old daughter to Belfast for her spring break this year. A colleague had strongly recommended a "taxi tour" of the city, conducted by a cabbie.
Our first stop on the tour was a subdivision of small, neat "council houses" arranged around a large, empty field in a solidly Protestant neighborhood. "A lot of Catholics were brought here and killed," said our driver-guide, Robert.
Even before the tour started, the Protestant-Catholic divide was very much on our minds. A few weeks before our arrival, an IRA splinter-group had killed two British soldiers, the first fatal terror attack in Northern Ireland in the 11 years since a peace accord had been brokered.
And on the day of our arrival in Belfast, there was a spate of bomb threats, carjackings and torching of stolen vans. Early on the morning of our taxi tour, a man was shot and a suspicious package was found in a primary school.
Robert pointed to large murals covering the end walls of the row houses facing the killing field. Each was partisan, most were militant. They all appeared well-maintained.
Driving down the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, Robert gestured toward a bank that he said had been a fish-and-chips parlor where an IRA bomb had taken the lives of many innocent customers.
We spotted a store on that street with a sign touting souvenirs. It displayed Loyalist refrigerator door magnets, statuettes of men marching in orange sashes and buttons proclaiming "The Parade Commission Criminalizes Protestants."
My daughter purchased a necklace with a pendant in the shape of Northern Ireland, covered completely by a Union Jack. As we left the store, I mentioned that she might not want to wear it, but rather keep it as a remembrance of Belfast's divisions. She had been unaware of its symbolism, and, 3 pounds poorer, said she wished I had said something before she bought it.
We were taken to the "peace wall" that divides Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods (gates in the wall are closed and locked at dusk) and, on the Catholic side, we saw more partisan murals and commemorative gardens. We stopped at Sinn Fein headquarters, which had a small shop in front. (I bought a coffee mug proclaiming "Another unrepentant Feinian bastard" as a counterbalance to the necklace.)
Despite its voyeuristic quality, I'm glad we went on the tour. News accounts about the attempts to rekindle "The Troubles" focused on a unified response of condemnation by both Catholic and Protestant leaders, and those sentiments were echoed by every local with whom I spoke during our visit. Had I not taken the tour, these comments alone would have shaped my sense of what was happening.
My grasp of the situation is still superficial, but the tour added to my understanding of its complexities. The murals, in neighborhoods that wouldn't typically draw tourists, reflected the interior landscapes of people most travelers never meet.
The gap between the clear desire among many to keep the peace and the graphic messages of militancy is disconcerting. But one final aspect of the tour was oddly inspiring. Our guide, Robert, had been unfailingly even-handed in his commentary, and eventually I asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?"
His answer made me feel embarrassed for having asked: "I'm your tour guide," he replied, with a touch of reproach.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/awtravelweekly.