A decade ago, one wondered how the sun itself still managed to rise over Rwanda, let alone planes bearing tourists. Over three infernal months in the spring of 1994, the country saw at least 800,000 of its citizens slaughtered. But that bloody recent history hasn't stopped tiny Rwanda, landlocked deep in the heart of Africa, from hoping for 70,000 tourists a year by 2010. (The year of the genocide, it had 61.) When the government launched its tourism drive back in 2001, it was understandably cautious. "We didn't know how the world would react to Rwanda talking about tourism rather than genocide," says Rosette Rugamba, director of the Rwandan Tourism and National Parks Office. "We thought it would take four years of PR rather than real marketing."
To lure tourists, Rwanda might have tried to hide its brutal legacy, steering them toward its mountain gorillas instead of its mountains of skeletons. Instead, it acknowledges both: the striking beauty and varied wildlife of the "land of a thousand hills," as well as the impact of the slaughter. "The way we promote Rwanda is that it has to be a total experience, and that includes the genocide," says Rugamba. The official Kigali City Tour, run by the Rwandan government, features a visit to the Radio Milles Collines, a Hutu-owned "hate radio" station that broadcast bile against Tutsis; the Kigali Memorial Centre serves both as an education center for local schoolchildren and a crypt. With the city undergoing massive renovation, bodies continue to be discovered, and are given proper burial at the center. Even more explicit is the memorial in the eastern town of Murambi, site of a massacre of 40,000, where some bodies lie preserved in candid memorial. "We say that going to Rwanda is a life-changing experience," says Rugamba. "Things can go wrong, but people can overcome."
The warts-and-all strategy appears to be working. Last year about 27,000 tourists visited Rwanda--up fivefold from 2001. The influx reflects a growing interest among travelers in catching places on the rebound: call it phoenix tourism. Across the world, cities or countries rising from the ashes of war, destruction or international pariah status are recasting themselves as vacation destinations. Over the past five years, Northern Ireland's Belfast has pumped 700 million pounds into its tourist industry. Club Med is eying Albania, a '90s synonym for post-cold-war lawlessness, as a new outpost for swinging singles. American hoteliers are investing millions in Nicaragua, site of a Reagan-era civil war. The Libyans, surprised by the rush on their sun-soaked Roman ruins after Washington lifted a 23-year travel ban last year, are struggling to build enough bathrooms to satisfy cruise ships full of Americans. Iran is frantically raising hotels to house Europeans flocking to Tehran and Isfahan; in the wake of rumors that Washington was considering bombing Iran, business has climbed steeply since a post-9/11 dip. "With Bush shaking his stick about a bit, everyone who's wanted to go is now thinking, 'We must go, because you don't know what's going to happen'," says Zohrah Majidian, founder of Britain-based Magic Carpet Travel, specialists in Iranian travel.
Phoenix Destinations tend to draw well-heeled, middle-aged travelers as opposed to young backpackers looking for cheap thrills--otherwise known as war tourists. As budget airlines and mass migration democratize travel more than ever, travelers must search harder for exoticism. Cities just back from the brink of disaster offer a vibrant edginess that is increasingly scarce. "Our clients are very much the 'been there, done that' crowd," says Brad Ball of Silversea Cruises, a Florida-based firm whose ships dock in Lebanon--and, as of this month, in Libya. Last summer, when the cruise ship pulled into Beirut, passengers whipped out their cell phones to call disbelieving friends back home.
Bragging rights are only part of the allure. "What inspires people once they have been is the resilience of the survivors," observes Hilary Bradt, founder of Bradt Travel Guides, a series for intrepid travelers that includes books on Kabul, Baghdad, Nigeria and Serbia. Travelers to phoenix destinations may experience discomfort--whether physical, mental or moral--but they can also see the inherent dynamism of transition. "There seems to be an appetite to get close to the recent tragic past," says John Lennon, professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University and coauthor of "Dark Tourism." "A medieval torture chamber in the bowels of a castle is so remote and distant that it becomes almost theatrical."
Like Rwanda, many of the most compelling phoenix destinations face rather than bury their pasts. In Belgrade, there's been little effort to restore the remains of the Defense and Interior ministries, bombed during the 1999 war; the city's residents seem to regard the gaping wounds in the bricks and mortar as part of the city's new landscape. Bosnia's capital is studded with "Sarajevo roses"--bullet marks covered over with red rubber to commemorate spots where people died. Local guides like Fikret Kahrovic take tourists to the infamous Snipers Alley and Kovaci, a gentle sloping hill near the old Olympic Stadium, where Kahrovic skied and played as a child. Today the only visitors to the hill, now covered with neat rows of stark white headstones, are mourners--and tourists.
Sarajevo's cobblestoned Turkish Quarter, with street cafes selling thick Turkish coffee and Red Bull gelato alongside jazz clubs, mosques and cathedrals, make it "very definitely Europe's best-kept secret," says Paddy Ashdown, the United Nations High Representative in charge of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Someone must have blabbed: the number of visitors to Sarajevo jumped by 40 percent last year.) But for Australian tour operator Ben Robinson, founder of Eastern Europe Holidays, the city's greatest draw is Sarajevan honesty about the war. "People who live here show it with pride," says Robinson, who originally came to the Balkans as a NATO peacekeeper in 2003. "[They talk about] how they survived through it, and now how they are trying their best to get on with their lives. This is a part of history, and something they cannot change, so it seems futile to hide it."
In some phoenix cities, the scars of past wars only underscore their present energy. Where earlier visitors to Northern Ireland would have found a city fragmented by sectarian hostility, they can now hang out in pubs and restaurants, where Roman Catholics and Protestants mix easily over Guinness. At Kigali's posh Hotel des Milles Collines, featured in the recent film "Hotel Rwanda," tourists lounge by the pool that once held drinking water for desperate Tutsi refugees. In Lebanon, whose tourist industry has grown tenfold since peace was restored in 1992, a popular club--cheekily --called 1975, the first year of the 15-year civil war--uses spent shells as decorations. Beirut tour guides have made bullet-pocked buildings stops on their circuits. Tourists marvel at Beirut's swift recovery, says Pierre Achkar, president of the Lebanese Hoteliers Union. "When you compare the pictures from 1992 [with] how it is now, you see we have made very, very, very good progress." The momentum has helped Lebanon cope with the mid-February bombing that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and damaged four hotels. Achkar, who manages the Monroe Hotel, which sustained $2 million worth of damage in the blast, is determined to reopen by mid-April. "There is a feeling among the Lebanese that the four hotels damaged must For countries rebuilding after war, a tourist presence can be therapeutic. "To see a family of German tourists walking down the street, with the [weather] getting warmer and the restaurants having their terraces open, people feel really good about that," says James Billings, the Beirut-based director of SRI International, a consultancy under contract to USAID to promote rural tourism in Lebanon. Phoenix cities need tourists not just to kick-start economies, but as witnesses to their history. When the international community turned its back on Rwanda at the time of the genocide, "people felt betrayed; they felt, 'The world doesn't care about us anymore'," explains Michael Grosspietsch, a German consultant for Amahoro Tours, a Kigali tour operator. "Having tourists come in asking questions brings back a sense that there is somebody who cares." As destinations like Rwanda rise, they won't forget the ashes whence they soared.