Point and shoot: Gawking at security forces is the latest cheap tourism trend
Beyond belief, it's starting to become fashionable to visit places for the enjoyment of watching the local menfolk brandish deadly weapons. In Italy, soldiers in body armor were recently deployed to stand vigil around potential terrorist sites. The Financial Times reports that in Rome, where a thousand of them appeared this summer, patrolmen quickly became tourist fodder in their own right.
It's not just in Italy, either. There is almost no other reason to visit the border between North and South Korea than to gaze in admiration at the trigger-happy sentries who mill along the DMZ, and yet each day of the week, coach tourists make the day-trip from Seoul to do just such a thing. (Of course, it doesn't always work out -- in July, one clueless tourist was shot dead by North Korean soldiers after she wandered away from her border resort.)
Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, an emblem for oppression and woe when it was a militarized link between East and West Berlin, is now a tacky tourist ghetto where visitors pose for snapshots with actors dressed in fake army getups. Old-timers are outraged -- there's no museum there to supply context.
And why not? Cops are plentiful, intentionally conspicuous, and above all, free to admire. And often, their style varies as much as the cultures they protect. These days, a locale's demonstrations of defense says as much about its modern society as its cuisine.
Don't laugh. You've probably done it yourself already. A softer version of Security Tourism has wowed crowds for years. Think about it: Changing the Guard (as the royals call it) has been an attraction for years, and it's one of London's most famous things to see. It's totally useless, of course, especially now that the soldiers serve little practical purpose and they strut along to the hits of ABBA or the theme to Star Wars, but it is, in effect, Security Tourism. Across town at the Tower of London, the Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, are ostensibly guards but in recent times they've evolved into powerless clowns, performing for tourists who pay $30 apiece to have a look at the fortress.
Even supposedly toothless places are in on the act. The Vatican's ridiculously outfitted Swiss Guard (pictured) look like they couldn't keep a puppet show in order, but they've made visitors giggle for years.
But with heavily armed policemen increasingly crawling everywhere, including down public streets, tourists no longer have to pay admission or stand in line to get an eyeful. Military paranoia is a potential growth market for tourism.
Foreign visitors to the United States complain bitterly about overzealous security regulations and degrading treatment at the border. Perhaps Americans are overlooking a potential tourism gold mine here. Instead of resenting our security, let's promote it! Let's make a virtue of our hour-long immigration processing queues and newfangled fingerprinting machines by touting them as the latest "must-do." It won't cost anything more than we're already spending.
Am I kidding? Only slightly. Free or not, I sure as heck won't be the first one to snap a Kodak moment at the TSA checkpoint.