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.
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.
But 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 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.
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.
Staying 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.
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.
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 to 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.
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.
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.