Go When You Can . . .

Anyone who has been on a tour with me in the last decade and a half knows my mantra about using available toilets while traveling: ‘Go when you can, not when you have to.” Its an essential travel skill when traveling with a group and not a bad strategy under any travel circumstances. Not knowing what the next hour, afternoon, or day might bring in the way of usable, clean toilets forces one to take a proactive approach to facilities. But today I’m going to extend my catchphrase to embrace all potential travel: “Go when you can, not when its perfect.’ Not as catchy perhaps but imminently true and poignant in today’s world. Before leaving on my spring tours this year I read an interesting article in my local paper. It was written by Frederick Kunkle of the Washington Post and was titled, “Tourism Pays Cost of Freedom in Egypt.” Not surprisingly, Egypt is basically off the board as a travel destination in the wake of the Arab Spring that began with the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. The article describes how the revolution has “scared away millions of foreign tourists, the lifeblood of the nation’s economy” In February, tourism was off 80% from 2010. In March it fell even further. In he case of Egypt I am certain that stability will return and it will be safe and comfortable to travel there again one day soon. But the events in the Middle East these past few months demonstrate that one should not put off a trip, any trip, to a destination you truly want to see. The world is too unpredictable to be sure your chosen country will remain an option until everything is perfectly in place to go I felt the Egyptian impact personally as my most loyal traveling clients had chosen Egypt as an Imprint destination all the way back in 2008. I was planning to go to Egypt in April to do research and set up a tour for next winter. Clearly, it would have been irresponsible as a tour operator to take a group to Egypt before allowing the political situation to settle. But what about as an individual traveler? The fact is, this is a perfect time to visit Egypt. Tourism is a huge part of the Egyptian economy. One in seven jobs and 11% of the country’s economy comes from tourism. Whoever is, or will be running the country recognizes its importance and will expend every resource possible to protect its international reputation. Is it 100% safe? Probably not. Can anyone guarantee that western visitors will not encounter any trouble or violence? No. But evaluated dispassionately, the chances of having a violent encounter are very small, perhaps even smaller than before the revolution. [read my blog about our culture of fear]

Were I single and carefree, I think this would be a perfect time to visit Egypt. Competition for tourist spending will drive prices down to attract the few tourists that are around. Hotel, tour, and restaurant owners will be falling all over themselves to win your business. Kunkle’s article concludes with the travel account of an English couple who wondered openly why anyone would stay away. They report, “There’s nothing to be scared of“ and glow about the unexpected benefit of traveling without crowds. I have had this experience myself on several occassions. One of the best traveling experiences I’ve ever had in France was during the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq, when the French opposition to the US plan had made them unpopular media targets (remember the “Freedom Fries”?). I and my groups were treated like royalty. Julie and I were in Egypt in 1997 when terrorists killed 40+ western tourists in the Luxor area, among them several Americans. We were in Luxor 3 days before and actually passed by in a bus the day of the “massacre”. We heard nothing and saw no evidence of any threat, learning about the incident days later in Sharm el Sheik. The Red Sea resort was emptying of western tourists and Julie and I were treated like Pharoahs for the next week. On another trip, Julie was in Thailand during the first Gulf War in 1991 and was able to stay in a Ko Samui luxury resort on her back-packer budget.

There is a second compelling reason to avoid delaying travel. I think everyone knows someone who talked their whole working lives about wanting to travel and made all kinds of plans for trips after retirement only to not have sufficiently good health to go. The world is an uncertain place and our lives can be equally uncertain. In 1994 my father wanted to take an inside cruise to Alaska. As my mom was not interested he offered to take me along. For Julie to come, we needed to pay for her. I was in graduate school, we were planning (and paying for) our wedding, and had neither the time nor money for the trip. But we decided to stretch ourselves and go. We had a great experience and spent quality time with my dad. Six months later he died.

In the 1980s Robin Williams starred in a movie that popularized the Latin phrase, Carpe Diem - seize the day. I loved that sentiment and have often quoted it. Regarding travel, it seems to me to be an imperative. So if you are thinking of traveling, seize the day, make the plans, see the world:  "Go when you can, not when its perfect."