Is Travel Safe?The question of whether travel is safe is one of the first (if not the first) question people ask when considering their travels. Look at the above photo and think of the following questions: Are these people dangerous? Is this a dangerous area? The answer to both these questions is ‘no’. After taking this photo, all of the Mursi warriors in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia looked at this image in the viewing screen of my camera, and we shared a laugh – no threat and no danger. They carry guns to protect against wild animals and from poaching. As a traveller visiting their world, there was nothing for me to fear from these warriors.
However, this same image portrayed on many media sources will try to convince you otherwise. They will show this photo to demonstrate the proliferation of guns and the serious looks of the Mursi tribe – ‘Stay Away!’ they will insist.
If I had listened to every person who has dissuaded me from travelling to less popular destinations, I would have missed many priceless experiences.
When you watch the media, you see a very narrow view of a destination. The media may portray countries as dangerous even though the incident being reported in the media (or in a government advisory) only affects a small portion of the country. Many people wrongly extrapolate an isolated and limited problem in a country and apply it to the entire nation and even the whole region.
For example, when the Ebola outbreak hit western parts of Africa a few years ago, tour operators in Kenya told me that many people cancelled their trip to Kenya, even though Kenya never had one case of Ebola. By comparison, people didn’t cancel their trips to Spain or the United Kingdom due to Ebola, even though it is far closer to Ebola-affected countries than Kenya.
I remember visiting Bangkok in Thailand a few years ago, and just before my flight there, the media was filled with reports of streets protests and demonstrations. Was Bangkok safe, I wondered? Upon arrival, I discovered that these protests only occupied a handful of streets in a city of 8 million people. All of the restaurants, shopping malls and tourist attractions were still open. Unless you were told that a protest was occurring, you would never know – life carried on as usual for almost the entire population.
Before you travel, research your destination thoroughly. Many factors, including culture, race and politics, influence the ways destinations are perceived especially by media and governments. Use independent, critical thinking to consider why a destination is perceived a certain way, and use this type of thinking to decide if you think a destination is safe or not.Read more: Changing Perceptions Through Travel
The only places I do not travel are those that have an active armed conflict. Every other destination is considered.
Where to Obtain Your Travel Advice
I have formed criteria to determine which sources of information are more important when making decisions. The seven categories below are ranked on a score out of ten – with 10 being the most reliable source and 0 being the most unreliable source.
Local People (10/10)
Easily the best source. In the 100+ countries I have travelled, I have never experienced a case where local people will provide you with incorrect information if a matter involves your safety. Within a country, always ask on safety conditions to any area you intend to visit, and if these replies include significant warnings about safety, consider changing your itinerary. My first source for such information is the hotel I’m staying at – they have a vested interest in your stay, so listen to what they tell you. If you are in a place long enough and build a rapport with a person serving you at a restaurant or a shopkeeper in a market, listen to them too.
I have noticed that expatriates living within a country can have a different perspective of where they are living when compared to locally born people. Expatriates living in a place can perceive a heightened risk of threats, whereas locally born people tend to have a more realistic view. This does not apply to every country, and the situation does vary, but if sourcing information from a destination – try not to limit yourself to just expatriates when seeking travel advice.
Fellow Travellers (8/10)
These provide another valuable source of information. Facebook groups can be particularly strong in this regard. Be aware that the situations can and do change, so take note of the date of any advice. People you have personally known who have travelled to such area are probably your best source of information amongst fellow travellers.
Information from local people, expatriates and fellow travellers can be obtained from forums, social media, blogs or travel websites – so search around.
Another possible source of information is airline companies. If they are not flying to a destination, then you can safely assume it is a place to avoid. However, airlines make such decisions based on whether it is safe for the plane to arrive and depart the airport, and that their staff can be safely housed in a hotel, and not on the actual travelling conditions within the country. Thus you need to put this information into perspective.
Now here are the three most unreliable sources of travel advice, yet these are sadly the sources that dominate people’s perception of a destination.
Government Advisories (3/10)
All governments are overly cautious in the advice they give, and there are legal reasons for this. I have travelled to a number of countries in the ‘Do Not Travel’ list from the Australian Government (Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia) and other countries on the second-highest warning level ‘Reconsider Your Need to Travel (Iran, Syria, Nigeria), and the reality on the ground is far, far different from what the advisories state. I considered the information on the advisories on these countries to be incorrect when compared to the information I was receiving from people living in these countries or people who have recently visited there.
Be aware that Western governments tend to raise travel warning levels quickly and keep them raised for longer when problems hit areas such as Africa and the Middle East, yet raise them slowly and reduce them quickly when similar problems occur in Western countries. There is a definite bias in their reporting on different geographic regions, so be aware of this when reading their websites.
The least alarmist and most balanced of these advisories are usually from the United Kingdom. However, it wouldn’t hurt to look at other advisories too, such as the US and Australia.
I do, however, find government advisories to be an excellent source of information related to local laws and customs, and this is my primary purpose in reading them. These advisories do provide a good overview of trends and incidents within a country. Still, the conclusions drawn from these incidents are generally different from the reality of travelling to these places – especially when an incident in one small part of a country is used to declare that the entire country is unsafe to travel.
If you do rely on government advisories for your travel information, I strongly recommend you also obtain information about a destination from local people and expatriates living there, in addition to sourcing reports from travellers who have recently visited the place. Don’t only rely on government advisories for your travel information.
The media love to portray dramatic events for it attracts viewers. Thus 99.99% of the time a destination has no problems, and you never hear anything about the place, but when that 0.01% of problems do occur, it is splashed across our newspapers, Internet, Social Media, and television sets. The most negativity is usually focused in such areas as the Middle East, Africa, Central America and Asia. It is possible to find more balanced reporting, but it can be difficult to source – so look around.
Furthermore, people see these news reports and extrapolate them as a guide to not only the safety level in a whole city but a country and even a region as well. The media sometimes can do this extrapolation themselves, but more often, this is a decision made by the viewer instead. For example, I remember visiting Bangkok, Thailand, during a period of protests in the streets. The TV news reports gave the impression that these protests were widespread, but in fact, the protests only occupied a handful of streets in a city of 8 million people. During my time in Bangkok, I would never have known that a protest was taking place if I had not seen media reports about the event.
I think that the safest region in the world to travel in the Middle East (of course, avoiding those areas with active armed conflict) but if you watch the media you would believe it is the most dangerous region in the world. Ask people who have travelled to the Middle East about safety, and I guarantee you that their impression of the region will be far different from that portrayed in the media.
I remember a few years ago when the Australian airline Qantas announced it would stop in Dubai instead of Singapore on its flights to Europe. An online news article at the time warned people about the (incorrect) dangers of Dubai, but even worse were the comments from readers fed off this incorrect information. The only sources of sanity were from those who had lived or were living in Dubai, and they provided a realistic picture of the safety of the city. Every one of them stated that the news report was inaccurate. However, they were quickly drowned out by the alarmist concerns on the safety of Dubai that dominated the comments thread – and these were always from people who had never visited the city (and the category for these people is immediately below).
Family and Friends (0/10)
Unless a family or a friend has personally travelled to the destination in question (thus falling into the Fellow Travellers, Expatriates or Local People category) or personally knows a person who has, ignore their advice. Unfortunately (and as shown above in the Qantas example of flying into Dubai) it is usually the people who have no direct experience of a destination who voice the biggest concerns – mainly because they base their opinion on the media (the second-worst source of advice). They then use that distorted information and combine it with the natural tendency of most people to assume a place that they don’t know must be dangerous.
For many people, being actively dissuaded by family and friends to travel to a destination is a major barrier to travel. Take my advice – ignore their warnings and travel. One way to do this is only to inform your family and friends of your travel destination after you have booked and paid for the flights, accommodation and/or tour. It is much more difficult to bend to pressure from family and friends when you have already committed financially to a trip.
Before concluding, there are two other points regarding the overall safety of travel. Sometimes health concerns can provide an unwanted obstacle to your travels. These can be a personal illness, accident or something more newsworthy such as a virus. These things can happen anywhere, and not just at home. Virus outbreaks pose more of a problem, as they can provide impediments to travel, especially if a quarantine situation exists and especially if it is introduced after you arrive. Even if you don’t fall ill, you may face a quarantine period lasting weeks either in your destination or in your home country after. Because of the unpredictable nature of viruses and government responses to them, it is advisable to avoid travelling to such areas.
Finally, it is best to avoid some countries in the period either side of elections (I would suggest three-four weeks both before and after). Some places (such as Africa and the Middle East) will see some of the most peaceful countries get caught up in tribal violence as election approaches. You as a foreigner will not be a target, but you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Keep informed as to when these elections are held and gauge the situation accordingly.
Remember, when doing your research, source the most recent information as the situation can change quickly.Read more: How to Travel Safely