Current events in Egypt (and last month in Tunisia) have once again raised the question of whether it is safe to travel to destinations when there is some sort of unrest occurring. Your immediate answer would probably go far in defining you as an adventure traveler. If you have traveled with ElderTreks before then you are probably more of an experienced traveler than the average person taking an all-inclusive package to the Dominican Republic. Your response should be more measured and less panic-driven than others. Or so you would think.....Our office routinely receives numerous calls from those booked on a trip where unrest has occurred and the attitude ranges from “hey cool, no problem, let me know what is happening” to “oh my god! I can't travel there - are you guys crazy!” Let's see if I can apply some objectivity to this question.
A few years ago I was due to lead a group to Ethiopia, spending 3 weeks visiting the sites around that amazing country. Within 2 days of our departure violence broke out in the capital, Addis Ababa and spread to other cities in Ethiopia. Media reports painted a bleak picture of a country about to explode. Foreign Governments were advising their nationals to defer all non-essential travel. The participants in my group were calling the office wondering what was going to happen, equally alarmed by what they had read in the newspapers and on-line. I was faced with an immediate dilemma as to whether or not we should continue the trip as planned or cancel until a safer time. I made one phone call to a colleague in Addis Ababa who assured me that the situation was under control and that the ‘problem’ as he described it was no longer an issue. I ended up taking the group (our Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Washington D.C. was 75% empty) and even though we arrived to find a deserted airport in Addis Ababa we encountered no problems anywhere throughout the country. In fact one advantage to the trip was that most tourists stayed away and our group had the whole country to ourselves. Am I suggesting that you travel regardless of the situation? Absolutely not but it is imperative to get all the facts clear.
How is one to determine whether the news we get is media hysteria or factual reporting? With the world in constant change how is someone to decide if going on that trip to Morocco or taking a safari in South Africa is a wise decision? Flash points across the world can occur with barely a moments notice. Today’s modern traveler has to be prepared to make an instant assessment on a trip they may have planned (and saved towards) for a number of years. There are many resources available that will enable you to make a well-informed decision. Depending on how the trip is organized will define your first source of contact.
If your trip has been arranged by a licenced travel agency then you should be speaking with them to find out what they know and what they are prepared to do. At ElderTreks we are in constant communication with our offices located around the world. If a problem occurs in a destination where we have our groups we want to know the facts and to ascertain the security situation as quickly as possible. If we have travelers in a troubled destination we quickly work to get them safely home. If the group has not departed we need to assess the situation and to decide if the trip will occur. Sometimes unrest is contained to a small part of a given country and it is possible to bypass the troubled areas and to continue our travels. At other times the risk is too great and we are forced to cancel the trip. Ultimately it is the safety of our clients which determines our course of action.
For those traveling independently or who just wish to get current information there are a number of resources at your disposal. A good first source to check for updated information is your own Government. The U.S. and Canadian Government's provide web sites where their citizens can view current country reports. Most governments offer web sites that they update regularly, especially in a time of crisis. The U.S. Government web site can be found at: http://travel.state.gov/. The Canadian Government's foreign assessment page can be reached at: http://voyage.dfaitmaeci.gc.ca/destinations/menu_e.htm. Most trip cancellation insurance will cover you should your government issue an advisory warning against all non-essential travel to a particular country. I find it is a good idea to compare country reports with other foreign governments such as the U.K. and Australia. Keep in mind that governments always announce every little problem (perhaps for legal reasons?), while they seldom issue a follow-up memo to state that things are now calmer - much to the annoyance of the many countries that are targeted, such as Ethiopia in my earlier example.
The internet is also a great source of current, up to date information. People all over the world now have their own blog sites that give a local viewpoint. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are being widely used as recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown. Travel web sites such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Branch (http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/) allow internet users to post questions and get updated information from other travellers who are there or who have recently returned from your planned destination. Another site that lists current country reports is: http://www.airsecurity.com, where you will find country updates under their Hot Spots listing.
Keep things in perspective. Unrest in the Congo should not make you cancel your trip to South Africa. The war in Iraq does not affect a trip to Dubai. The media’s job is to sell papers – bad news sells (if it bleeds it leads) – there is oftentimes a tendency to overstate a situation. How many times have we been in a country only to receive a frantic telephone call or email from a friend or family member asking if we are alright and that they had just heard that there was a massive earthquake in our region. For many of us it is simply an opportunity to thank them for the update and to reply that we had no idea of any problems and that we are doing well!
Try and get an idea of how any unrest affects tourists (and foreigners) in general. Many conflicts are localized and may involve small street riots or demonstrations and are not specifically targeting tourists or foreigners. For many years Nepal experienced a low-level civil war yet the only effect this had on foreigners was a “head tax” that was imposed on those trekking in the Himalayas. It is also possible to amend an itinerary to avoid problem areas and still see the major highlights of a country.
In the end you have to use your own best judgement to decide if you should travel or not. Try not to fall victim to media/government hysteria. After all it is your trip and you want to enjoy yourself as much as possible. If traveling is going to make you uneasy in any way than you should reconsider or postpone your travels to another time. But as I like to say to those who question my decision to visit exotic places - either you’re a traveler or you’re not.