Safe or not? Take a second look at Central Europe

There’s no doubt that many European countries such as France, Greece and Italy are on many people’s “must-see” lists, while much of Eastern/Central Europe gets a bad reputation for political unrest, violence and crime. However, many of these countries are just as safe as their neighbours and boast many desirable features such as spectacular coastlines, historical buildings and rich culture heritage. Here are a few destinations worth a second glance:

Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and four years of war ensued. According to Lonely Planet, the tourist industry is now back in full force. In fact, Croatia was named Lonely Planet Staffers’ number one destination for 2005.

Reasons to go: The Adriatic Sea coastline and island resorts, multi-cultural heritage, historic Roman architecture and beautiful national parks, such as the Plitvice Lakes.

What the advice says: The news is good. According to the Crime & Safety Report from the Overseas Advisory Security Council (OSAC), Croatia has a low crime rate and political violence is rare. Unlike countries such as Spain or France, there are no known domestic terrorist groups. Civil unrest is not an issue. Transportation is safe, and road conditions are good.

Governmental travel advice tells the same story. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice notes that most visits are trouble-free, and the main incidents reported are lost or stolen passports. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gives Croatia its lowest level of warning: “Be alert to your own security” – a level lower than the United Kingdom or Spain. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada offers the same suggestions: guard against petty crime and safeguard your documentation. In short, you should take the same safety measures as in your home country.

One safety concern for Croatia is landmines left from the war which still exist in isolated parts of the country. This hazard can be easily avoided by staying on main roads and trails when traveling in certain regions. <a href=" Croatian Mine Action Centre website has more information.

After years of political uncertainty Latvia re-established its independence in 1991 after the break up of the USSR, and is now a member of both of NATO and the European Union as of 2004.

Reasons to go: Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea, historical city of Old Riga, traditional cultural celebrations and architectural heritage which includes medieval castles and ancient churches.

What the advice says: Latvia also receives the lowest levels of warnings and the advice is general in most cases (i.e. it applies to most countries in the region). There are no domestic terrorist threats, threats of political violence or reports of organized crime or gangs. The U.S. Consular Information Sheet notes that crime in Riga is generally non-violent. Pick pocketing, identity theft and other scams are commonly warned against, but the same applies for most developed countries. Most issues can be dealt with through caution and awareness.

A couple of things to watch: 1) Your drinks: there have been reports from Riga of drinks being spiked or bars charging tourists inflated prices. Buy your own drinks and ask about price before you order. Keep an eye on your drink just as you would at any bar. 2) Your car: Driving conditions can be hazardous. Learn about local regulations and potential hazards before you go. Take precautions against car theft.

Czech Republic
In 1993, Czechoslovakia divorced into two nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Despite its turbulent past, it is a stable parliamentary democracy.

Reasons to go: stunning architecture including castles, abbeys and chateaus, the Koneprusy Caves, mineral springs and spa towns, sporting activities and the city of Prague itself.

What the advice says: Overall, the advice is similar to Croatia and Latvia with warnings against non-violent crime (especially in Prague) and road conditions. The only terrorist threat is that of international terrorism – a note included for countries across the globe, even ones as safe as Samoa or Andorra.

Some specific concerns include cases of thieves dressed as policemen trying to trick tourists, but most advice instructs tourists on how to handle the situation. Also, travelers should only hire officially marked taxis to avoid unregulated fare rates.

In short, every country carries some risk. For example, did you know travelers coming to Canada are warned about violent crime in large cities, avalanches, tornadoes, tsunamis, motorists running red lights and rabies? Advice for Canada has many of the same precautions for avoiding crime as Latvia, Croatia and the Czech Republic and a lot it is precautions we take everyday.

A good rule of thumb is to compare. See what different governments have to say about a potential destination, and see how it measures up against countries you feel are safe. Preparation, not necessarily the location, can be the key to travel safety.

CIA World Fact Book:
The Croatia National Tourist Board:
The Official Latvia Tourism Portal:
The Official Travel Site of the Czech Republic: