After Recent Terror Attacks, How Safe Are Travellers?

With recent terror attacks in Instanbul, Brussels, and Paris, as well as natural disasters and viruses, you can’t blame a traveller for being anxious. Here, we revisit Bert Archer’s earlier report on the stats, the facts and the tips you’ll need before your next trip.

**UPDATE: In the aftermath of this week’s attack in Instanbul, the Canadian government has advised that travellers should “Exercise a high degree of caution (with regional advisories)” in Turkey.   Go here for more updates.

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How Safe Are Travellers?

If you consume enough news, the bad stuff will start to accumulate, like mercury in a fish’s belly. It can make you sick with sympathy, with existential angst, with apocalyptic foreboding. But for the most part, this news doesn’t actually touch us. It’s bad things happening to other people in other places.

World mapBut last year seemed different. As I write this, news is coming through that six Canadian humanitarian workers have been killed in an attack in Ouagadougou that targeted a hotel and a café popular with tourists.

A week earlier, three tourists were stabbed at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, one day after a man opened fire in front of a hotel in Cairo. A bomb was detonated in the touristic centre of Istanbul, killing 10, just three weeks after another bomb went off on the runway of an Istanbul airport.

In November, a plane of Russian tourists was bombed out of the sky, and in October, almost 130 people were killed in a bombing at a train station in the Turkish capital of Ankara. In June, tourists were specifically targeted at a resort on the Tunisian coast, three months after tourists had been targeted at a popular museum in nearby Tunis.

The conclusion is unavoidable: 2015 was the year tourists became targets. We tend to come from prosperous countries, where we like to think we’re safe, and getting us when we’re on vacation ropes us into the war these people believe they’re fighting, turning something regional into a global concern.

And that’s not even getting into other sudden and mysterious outbreaks such as the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Its connection to birth defects and the discovery that it may be sexually transmitted led the World Health Organization to designate it a worldwide health emergency. It seems like only yesterday that the Ebola epidemic was the one on everyone’s radar. Viruses aside, you can also add to the tourist threat the earthquake in Nepal that killed 89 tourists and the avalanche it triggered on Mount Everest that killed 19, including eight tourists.

Of the roughly 2,000 people polled in North America and Western Europe by insurance giant AIG Travel and the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council’s GeoBranding Center at the end of the year, a quarter had changed their plans out of travel anxiety, and almost 80 per cent cited terrorism as the primary reason they were avoiding certain popular travel spots.

We’re certainly worried. But does that mean it’s dangerous to travel?

travellersThe short answer is no. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were almost 1.2 billion tourists in 2015. University of Toronto actuarial science professor Samuel Broverman confirms what we probably know on one level. “The frightening thing I guess is the seeming randomness but, in terms of just numbers, the chances are pretty small.” And by pretty small, he means infinitesimal. In 2015, one of the worst years for this sort of thing, there was roughly a one-in-three million chance of being killed as a tourist. But we tend to think in terms of stakes rather than odds, making statistics cold comfort.

Danger and travel is a complicated thing. We travel specifically to move out of our comfort zones, but it’s this, more than anything else, that puts us in the whatever danger we get into when we go abroad. We crave the unknown but we’re also wary of it. And no matter how worldly, most of us harbour at least some morsels of xenophobia in our guts, thinking consciously or otherwise that someone who speaks another language from another place has a greater than average chance of robbing us or doing us harm or somehow ripping us off.

I presumed, for instance, when I went to Sri Lanka this past summer, that the tuk-tuks – those little three-wheeled vehicles that are the developing world’s answer to Uber – would try to rip me off. I didn’t know my way around Colombo, and they could charge me whatever they wanted, and I’d have neither recourse nor, probably, even any suspicion. But I decided to test it. So after every ride, I’d ask the Sri Lankan I was meeting how much it should have cost, and what I’d been charged was always within a few cents of that. I had similar experiences in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Haiti.

Terrorism is, of course, quite different.

The nature of terrorism is, as Broverman says, its randomness. You can’t predict it and you can’t protect yourself from it. Museums in Paris, London and elsewhere are upping security, changing entrances and increasing bag checks. Stadiums everywhere are doing likewise. But those are just reactions to what happened last time, not to what’s going to happen next time. There’s nothing those people in San Bernardino or Charleston should have done differently. Like being hit on the sidewalk by a rogue driver, it’s just not something that’s useful worrying about. Which is not to say there’s nothing you can do.

vaccinationStaying safe while travelling – whether it’s about terrorism, disease, crime, accidents or even food – is a lot like staying safe when you’re at home. It’s mostly common sense. The only things that require extra thought are the things you don’t do when you’re at home, like staying in hotels, driving on unfamiliar roads or eating food you don’t normally eat in ways you don’t normally eat it.

You should also check out the official government of Canada travel advisory site, travel.gc.ca. It has got recent developments, illnesses to watch out for and inoculations to get as well as perennial concerns like presence of land mines and laws – about things as diverse as sex, dress, drugs, alcohol, blasphemy and, in Thailand, a very serious prohibition against saying anything even vaguely critical of the royal family – that might not seem obvious to Canadian travellers.

And if you’re going to be in a place for more than a couple of days, it’s always a good idea to register with the closest embassy or consulate. In case of violence, natural disasters or any generalized danger, diplomatic staff will know how to get in touch with you (and you’ll have already figured out where they are in case you need them).

I’ve travelled to a lot of places that are generally considered unsafe – places like Haiti, Ethiopia, Israel, Kazakhstan, East Timor, Indonesia, the United States – and these are the tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Terrorism

Don’t stay where all the foreign tourists stay. The sorts of attacks that happened in Burkina Faso, Tunisia and Egypt were carried out in places the terrorists knew all the tourists would be staying: central, crowded spots and hotel strips. You can both stay safer and get a better sense of the place you’re visiting, by choosing a hotel off the beaten path.

If you see someone carrying a gun, whether it’s an Italian carabiniero or a Nigerian in civvies, walk the other way. This may seem obvious but, as we’re travelling in strange parts of the world, we have a tendency to get used to things we are not used gunsto at home. This is often a good instinct: it’s what keeps us from ordering the hamburger instead of, say, the duck hearts, and from prudishly keeping our swimsuits on – in hammams, health spas, nude beaches – when all those around us have shed theirs.

But guns are different. We don’t have an instinct for who should and who should not be carrying them in far-flung parts of the world (or in Texas, for that matter). Sure, police and military carry guns in many parts of the world, but remember: Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist, dressed up as a policeman so people wouldn’t question his guns. And frankly, even if they are real police or military officers it’s still best to keep your distance.

 

Crime

Don’t carry the little paper envelope or holder that often comes with your room key. You don’t want anyone knowing your room number.

Similarly, use luggage tags that cover up personal information like your name and address, so casual observers will not have easy access to it.

Try to get a hotel room on an upper floor, near the elevator and away from exits. I recently stayed in a hotel in Reykjavik, Iceland, with a full security system, including electronic card locks for the hallway doors. I invited someone over, thinking I’d meet him in the lobby, but before I got down, he knocked on my door. He’d just walked in through an open emergency exit.

Travelling as a woman is different than travelling as a man. Most of the things you need to stay safe as a woman travelling are the same things you have to do to stay safe as a woman on the streets of your hometown.

There are a couple of extras, though: some hotels have women-only floors, to make rogue men wandering with ill intent more obvious; avoid making eye contact with men in rural Middle Eastern areas – it can be considered brazen and could invite confrontation; if you’re staying at a hotel that requires you to fill out a check-in form, use only your first initial, and don’t check any Ms, Mrs. or Miss boxes; do a little research about what women wear where you’re going and, if it’s different from your usual, make an informed decision about your own choice of wardrobe.

And sheer numbers don’t always tell the story. Jamaica, for instance, has a huge murder rate, but almost all of these were in Kingston, in certain neighbourhoods, among certain groups. A couple of years ago, when I attended a tourism conference there, I learned the only tourist who had been killed in recent memory was shot by her boyfriend.

trafficDriving

Try to drive like a local, even if locals seem to drive like maniacs. Accidents are caused by anomalous drivers, even when the anomaly is someone abiding by the rules of safety they use at home. In many parts of the world, lanes are suggestions rather than facts, for instance – come to think of it, that’s most parts of the world other than North America and the German-speaking world – and staying rigidly in the middle of yours can cause problems.

Food

If you’re going to eat street food – and you absolutely should – just make sure it is cooked in front of you. Very little that will make you sick can survive the heat of a flame or boil. And if it’s alcohol, well, that kills everything for you just fine, too.

Using this simple rule, I’ve eaten dhal on the streets of Calcutta, street noodles from a cart in Bangkok, shared a pail full of millet beer on a guy’s porch just outside Arusha in Tanzania and tried all sorts of other things in places like Kandy in Sri Lanka, Beijing, Acre in Israel and Luang Prabang in Laos. Food’s such a big part of travel, you don’t want to rob yourself of perfectly safe experiences. And for what it’s worth, I’ve never once gotten sick.

Flying

And if you are still worried about flying, take a look at the International Air Transport Association’s flight statistics on what they call “hull losses” (the term the aviation industry uses for planes destroyed or damaged beyond repair).

In 2014, there were 12 fatal plane crashes out of 37.8 million flights, making your chances of being in one at almost exactly the same as your chances of being killed on the ground as a tourist. Put another way, if you were to take a flight today and then every day thereafter, given the odds, it would take you roughly 8,000 years to be in a plane that crashes.

All this travel anxiety actually has an upside: prices are coming down all over the world as resorts, museums, even airlines and hotels struggle to keep their numbers up as nervous travellers opt to stay closer to home. If this anxiety lasts, there may even – for the short term, anyway – be fewer crowds to deal with in traditionally popular spots.

As long as you keep these tips in mind, it’s entirely possible 2016 could turn out to be an exceptionally good year to travel.