Tourism and the First World War

May 16, 2013

The grave of an unknown soldier in Ypres, Belgium with a gravestone that reads “A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.” Why tourists from around the world visit sites of the First World War, even though the War happened nearly a century ago, is the focus of a new research project between Clemson and the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium. Photo by Gregory Ramshaw.


by Gregory Ramshaw

Next year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, and a Clemson professor is working with the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium to understand what draws tourists to visit the sites of this conflict.

“Certainly, there is a great deal of battlefield tourism in the US, so we think this research may also be applicable to US sites” explains Gregory Ramshaw, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management. “Locations associated with the First World War have attracted tourists since the 1920s. However, Belgian cities like Ypres are now hosting almost unprecedented numbers of visitors. This is remarkable, given that we are nearly a century removed from the conflict and the last veterans of the War are deceased.”

Ramshaw is teaming up with Dr. Dominique Vanneste of Leuven’s Department of Geography to learn what drives visitors of different nationalities to tour the battlefields, cemeteries and monuments of the Western Front.

There are many reasons why tourists might go to First World War sites.  Perhaps it is because a family member died in the War. Other times, visitors might be interested in battlefield tactics or have an interest in learning more about the conflict. However, are the reasons for visiting different for, say, British or Australian tourists than they would be for Belgian or Dutch visitors? Similarly, why might an American tourist go to a place like Ypres, where there was little US involvement? Maybe some tourists are simply moved by the scale, inhumanity and futility of the conflict, while perhaps others are inspired to visit because the poetry and literature of the First World War? All of these are intriguing questions for us.

Ramshaw and Vanneste wonder whether these sites can help foster unity between former combatant countries, and whether the tourist visitation will continue or dissipate after the centenary events end in 2018.

“There are, of course, German cemeteries, and it appears that German visitation to both these and other sites – even British sites – are happening on a large scale as well.  And, many visitors from Commonwealth countries are going to German cemeteries too. Whether these visits will heal old wounds and foster some type of unity and whether tourists in general will still be interested in the First World War after 2018, remains to be seen.”

For both Ramshaw and Vanneste, this research project also has a personal angle. Vanneste, a Belgian citizen, lost family members and property during the War, while Ramshaw sees parallels to his own national identity.

“I’m Canadian, so the War had a tremendous impact on my country. I’ve toured many of the sites and battlefields of the First World War and have seen the countless graves of Canadian soldiers – many of them unknown. It is a deeply moving experience, and I think those visits certainly inspired an interest in this research project, says Ramshaw.”

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