Is Travel Safe?

Is Travel Safe?

Mursi Warriors Outside Their Village - Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Mursi Warriors Outside Their Village – Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia

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 looked at this image in the viewing screen of my camera and we shared a laugh together – 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.

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 are seeing 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 due to Ebola, even though it is far closer to Ebola effected countries than Kenya. Research further and use independent, critical thinking.

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 personal 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 person serving you at a restaurant or a shopkeeper in a market, listen to them too.

Expatriates (9/10)

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 the 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.

Airlines (6/10)

Another possible source of information are 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 two sources that dominate people’s perception of a destination.

Government Advisories (4/10)

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, and the reality on the ground is far, far different from what the advisories state. However, these advisories do provide a good overview of trends and incidents within a country.

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 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 is 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.

Media (2/10)

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 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.

For example, I personally think that the safest region in the world to travel is 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 the realistic picture of the safety of the city – every one of them stated that the news report was inaccurate.  However, they were easily 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.

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, then ignore their advice.  Unfortunately (and as shown above in the Qantas example of flying into Dubai) it is usually the people who have no immediate experience of a destination who voice the biggest concerns – mainly because they base their opinion on the media (the second worst source of advice) and 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 to only 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 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 disease. These things can happen anywhere, and not just at home. Disease outbreaks pose more of a problem, as they can provide some impediments to travel, especially if a quarantine situation exists – and in these cases it would be 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 Middle East) will see some of the most peaceful countries get caught up in tribal violence as an 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.

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