Scotland and Catalonia among destinations on offer to travellers more interested in sovereignty than in sun and sea
(By Ashifa Kassam/Guardian) The Partizan travel agency doesn’t try to hide its affiliations. “We are not neutral,” it boasts. Its itinerary bears this out. Instead of formulaic package holidays, Partizan promises a behind-the-scenes look at independence movements across Europe, from Spain’s Basque country to Corsica – and now Scotland.
This brand of tourism is as much a rejection of conventional holiday-making as it is a desire to build bridges, says Partizan’s founder, Arturo Villanueva. “We don’t like tourism that gives an artificial or plastic version of what’s happening on the ground.”
He came up with the idea after eight years working in Belfast as a tour guide for Coiste na nlarchimi, a support group for former republican prisoners. Funded by the EU, the project employs ex-prisoners as tour guides, who share their stories to help contextualise the conflict.
The experience, says Villanueva, proves there is a market for tourism that delves into sensitive topics. “So, I thought, why not do something bigger?”
He set up tours in four European countries, including his home region, the Basque country in Spain. “When people come to the Basque country, they come with their own opinions, probably what they have heard through mass media,” he says, alluding to the coverage of ETA, the armed separatist group that killed more than 800 people during its four-decade terror campaign for independence. “But we give [tourists] the opportunity to contrast that information with locals. We give them the opportunity to learn about what the majority of what the Basque people feel and want.”
Partizan offers a narrative from the separatist viewpoint. “Unfortunately for Basque people, due to a very old and violent conflict, their story has been told by others in Spain,” says Villenueva. “We want to provide the opportunity to learn about the Basque country from Basque people. Brittany from Bretons; Ireland from the Irish.”
Business has been steady since the agency launched last year. The majority of those interested in Partizan tours are at least 55 and retired, he says. Many are independence-minded travellers who want to see how the sovereignty struggle is playing out in other regions, he adds, pointing to the popularity of tours of Scotland among Basque and Catalan tourists.
The Basque country had always held a fascination for Emma McArdle, 33, who grew up in Northern Ireland. Her five-day trip to the region with Partizan was an eye-opener, she says.
The conversation, she says, captured the difference between her five-day trip and other types of tourism she had experienced. “It’s not like going on holidays: you’re really meeting people.”
Partizan is not alone in marrying tourism to independence movements. In Catalonia, pro-independence campaigners recently sought to capitalise on the record number of visitors to the region. This summer, the Catalan national assembly, in a campaign called World Meets Catalunya, invited tourists to stay with host families for a weekend to learn more about the movement.
Fifty-five people took the group up on its invitation, pouring in from across Spain, Hong Kong and Poland, says organiser Carme Renedo. In total, participants came from 13 countries.
“We wanted people to get to know our reality, so that when they returned to their homes, they could help others understand our message,” she says.
Many of those who came were fairly young, says another organiser, Dolors Lloveras. What surprised her, she says, was how quickly the event became reciprocal, with host families benefiting as much from the experience as their guests. “The questions people asked gave them a chance to see other points of view,” she recalls. “When you’re so deep into something, you don’t realise how it’s perceived by the rest.”
Both organisers were quick to call the event a success, lamenting that they had stumbled upon the idea just months before the planned referendum on independence in November. Otherwise, says Lloveras, they would have held more such events. “It gave people a chance to see that this isn’t just a process that’s playing out between politicians, but rather a process being lived out every day in civil society,” she says.