Travel Threats

On the first night of a recent tour, a gentleman, while introducing himself, said he had never wanted to come to Europe. I assumed it was the typical case of someone who wasn’t interested in travel but dragged along by an enthusiastic spouse. But he continued to say that watching Rick Steves on television had finally convinced him that it would be safe to come to Europe. In my last blog I discussed the fact that Americans, relatively speaking, are a fearful people. We come from a culture of fear. Today I want to address the specific risks of terrorism and civil unrest while traveling abroad. In the wake of 9-11, for several years I had to address the issue of terrorism at every public talk. While the anxiety has subsided, potential travelers are still reacting negatively to various disruptions like civic unrest in Thailand and Greece. Furthermore, because Imprint Tours travels to non-western destinations, I get frequent questions about the safety of those countries. In my opinion, American reactions to potential travel threats are greatly overblown. I’ve done some research and by my count only 58 Americans have died in terrorist attacks since 9-11. Of those, 28 were American soldiers [non combat situations], 13 government officials or CIA employees, and one died in Arkansas, leaving only 16 Americans killed in terrorist attacks abroad. During the same period, more than 7000 American children have drowned in swimming pools and almost half a million Americans have died in car accidents. Yet does anyone prevent their children attending swim parties or hesitate to get in their car to drive on the highway? Certainly and demonstrably these are much riskier activities than traveling abroad, yet we continue them without a second thought. Approached dispassionately and statistically, international travel is an extremely safe venture.

So why do we overreact? One issue I see is State Department warnings. The advisory issued after the Osama Bin Laden news was of considerable concern for my tour members. But I wonder whether the advisories create more panic and anxiety than actually prevent any incidents. In our litigation happy society, everyone is forced to think about limiting liability exposure. The State Department is no different. Had there been an attack on Americans this past month and they hadn’t issued a warning, they would be hoisted on the nearest metaphorical petard in the media. Considering that, how objective were the deliberations leading up to the warning? I suggest that American safety abroad was not the only consideration.

Then there is the obvious exaggerations of the media. In a recent string on Lonely Planet’s online traveler’s forum, a traveler queried, “Does the media sometimes exaggerate what is going on, and steer people away from traveling to countries when they don’t really have to?” The posting goes on to say that all the false alarms of recent years (it in fact begins with a reference to the ‘Boy who cried wolf’) have caused veteran travelers to ignore them. The writer continued by relating his experience of a few months ago when the media was blasting out inflammatory rhetoric about violent protests in Thailand. Governments too were warning people off (I in fact dropped plans for a Thailand tour in the last couple years for this very reason). But many tourists (I bet they weren’t Americans) continued to travel in Thailand. Bloggers reported that the Bangkok protests didn’t affect travelers on the ground and reported that media reports were blown out of proportion. The LP string concluded with a personal anecdote about traveling in India when the Mumbai attacks took place a few years ago. The writer related, “Last time I went to India there was a “massive” terrorist threat over the places we were visiting. Since we booked our tickets independently, we had no idea about this until we were already there. We thought is was a bit strange that we were the only tourists around, but found out that all charter flights had been canceled (pretty sweet for us). Apart from that the streets were empty of tourists, and our favorite night market was closed, we saw no difference what so ever. Same thing happened when we went to Bali. The government warned people against going there due to kidnapping risks and such things. I felt more safe there than anywhere else in the world.”

With a healthy dose of common sense traveling in countries where there is some unrest is generally very safe. Americans are avoiding Greece like the plague these days, because of the civic unrest caused by economic difficulties. But the protests all take place in or near Syntagma Square in Athens. The rest of Athens and the country is untouched. Should travelers avoid going to Greece right now? Absolutely not - if there is a protest or march, simply stay away from Syntagma. My own experiences have bourn this out. I was in Athens a few years ago when teachers were demonstrating over reduced benefits. The situation got a bit dicey and teargas was used. I was about 10 blocks away in the Plaka and never knew there was a problem. In 1993 Julie and I were in Kathmandu when some civic disturbances broke out. We watched from our 4th floor hotel room as soldiers gathered in the street below. Did we stay in our rooms in fear? No, we decided to take a bicycle ride to the outlying countryside that day instead of explore Kathmandu. Did we feel threatened or in danger? No, we had a lovely day. Julie and I took then 3-year old Maia to Italy one week after 9-11 after determining that if there was a pending threat, we were more likely to be affected in a major US city (Seattle) than the villages of Italy and Sicily. We had a wonderful trip and never felt unsafe. In 2004 I had a full tour of alums scheduled to travel to Spain in the fall when the Atocha bombing occurred in Madrid. Sixteen people canceled - but I know 26 others who will attest that we never felt even remotely threatened.

I am not advocating reckless decision making. There are certainly hotspots in the world that are too dangerous to visit. And, by all means, if you are just too nervous about a destination you should not go. You are certainly not going to enjoy yourself if you are afraid. What I am suggesting is that inflated fears make the risks of international travel seem greater than they actually are. Assess them rationally rather than emotionally, check out what travelers on the ground are saying in the many travelers’ forums, pay attention to exactly where the unrest is occurring, and make savvy, informed travel decisions.