23 July 2008

Is it really dangerous?

In our daily lives we tail or our movements and activities for safety. When we travel we also do this, although sometimes it is completely subconscious. We do not even consider going to certain places no matter how interesting or inexpensive they may be, as they are beyond our comprehension.
So how much do we really have to fear bombing and terrorism and extreme acts of violence? Well, almost not at all. Tourists are rarely targeted as a group for acts of political or military violence. The largest attacks on tourists in a major foreign destination (in terms of deaths) took place more than a decade ago in 1997 in Egypt, and turned out to be the last attacks. Egypt stepped up security, and the militant groups were totally suppressed.
The real dangers are common street crimes such a pick-pocketting, mugging, and assault. These are far more likely to touch the average tourist than any major or minor political or military incident.
The sad fact is we have become the target for a virtually endless moving picture show of images and sound bites telling us to be afraid of the world. Governments and the media have restricted our outlets to the world by tightening our perception of our own safety zone. By vilifying certain countries and regions and peoples, the power that be have effectively reduced our space to travel. And the result is somewhat bizarre.
The list of the most dangerous places for Canadian tourists is rather strange and somewhat counter-intuitive. The top three countries for violence against Canadian tourists are China and Cuba and Mexico. Mexico and Cuba are two of the top foreign destinations for Canadians, attracting more than a million people each year. Given the number of incidents of violence versus the hordes of travellers, the actual number of incidents seems small.
A good example of a vilified country said to be unsafe would be Iran. There is no question it is difficult to get a visa to Iran, but it is a safe destination. The official Canadian government position is that we should avoid all travel to most of Iran. At the same time, DFAIT says “Travel is safe in most areas.” The fact is Iran remains a safe destination with many wonderful sites such as Persepolis, and an extremely cheap and efficient rail and airline system. This is just to say the travel warning system is politicized, and cannot always be counted upon for good advice.
On a recent cruise we expeienced this phenomenon first hand. Our stop in the capital of Sri Lanka was cancelled due to political tensions in the far north of the country, well away from our port. At the same time, we added a port visit to Colombia which was then engaged in a nasty little war with a great deal of U.S. military aid. Was there a real, or just a perceived, security concern?
Since the 11 September incidents, US tourists, who make up the bulk of the english travelling public, have by a slim but real majority, selected safety and security as their top concern when looking at foreign travel. They have largely bought into the lie, and thereby cut themselves off from real travel.
External Affairs, now known as DFAIT, issues travel advisories and travel warnings about all countries and places. They are easy to check and sometimes fairly clear in meaning. However, there is a degree of political motivation present, as friendly countries are never violent, while unfriendly countries get lower safety ratings. That said, the DFAIT list and the UK Foreign Office list are head and shoulder above the virtually useless and extremely partisan list produced by the US State Department.