The first step you can take to have safer travel is to choose your travel destinations wisely. First let me say that I’m not a person who looks at the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warnings site and, if a country is on the list, immediately scratch it from my list of possible destinations. I’m also not a danger junkie who immediately puts it on my to-go-there list. I’m somewhere in the middle. In general, the State Department’s travel advisories are not bad, but they often paint too broad a picture and ignore the situational complexities of travel safety. So, let’s consider that issue first.
What is travel safety?
Travel safety to me is about physical harm. It’s not about getting robbed. Getting robbed is a travel annoyance or pain in the ass….unless you are robbed at knife or gunpoint. So, generally I’m talking about getting beaten, stabbed, shot, killed, or kidnapped (with the potential for any of those things happening later). I’m also talking about getting squashed in a poorly constructed hotel room during an earthquake, going over a cliff in a chicken bus, drowning in a tsunami, crashing in a tuk-tuk, going down in an overcrowded ferry, etc. Lots of good, cautious people have died from those kinds of occurrences as well. Each country you choose to visit has the likelihood for some or all of these things happening to you. In evaluating countries I might consider visiting, I try to put together a potential-risk profile for each one and decide whether the risk outweighs my desire to go there at the time. Often the risk is dynamic…places that were safe before are no longer safe, or places that were once unsafe are now getting safer. Sometimes the places that were once unsafe are now the travel bargain destinations of the future. In fact, that happens a lot. You’ll start seeing articles saying things like “kidnappings and murders are way down in Medellin, Colombia…the new tourist mecca”.
Put together risk profiles for your destinations
When I put together risk profiles for different places I consider the types of dangers first. I split them into the following categories:
- Natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, mudslides, etc.)
- Accidents (bus, tuk-tuk, zip-line, etc.)
- Intentional violence for monetary gain (robbery, kidnapping, extortion)
- Intentional violence, political\religious\drug cartel message\terrorist.
- Unintentional violence (stray bullets, landmines, etc.)
- Illness (diseases, bad food or water)
For each type of danger, there are qualifying factors. For example, in almost every country where homicide rates are high, there are cities, or sections of cities, or particular regions of the country, where the danger is much higher than in other areas of the country. So, while the danger level in one area may be quite high, in another area it may actually be fairly low.
Another distinction I try to figure out from my research is whether intentional violence is specifically targeting foreigners or tourists, or does it also target the local population equally.
Once the dangers have been listed along with qualifying factors, then I have a good idea of the overall risks and I can think about the ways in which I can mitigate the risks. If I feel comfortable in my ability to keep risks below a certain (albeit subjective) level, then I’ll feel ok about going to that country.
An example of risk reduction
So, let’s use Guatemala for an example. My daughter Megan just traveled there (as well as Belize) and we plan to go there in late October. Guatemala has a high homicide rate, reports of high levels of violent robberies, in Guatemala City in particular, reports of chicken buses often being the victim of robberies. The robberies don’t seem to be targeting tourists in particular. The poor quality of chicken buses and high winding mountain roads makes them a higher risk transportation option. Taxis from the airport are also often subject to robberies.
The way Megan dealt with these various risks was a good example She booked a hostel in Guatemala City before she traveled. The hostel provided airport pickup, someone waiting who she knew by name, so she had secure transportation to the hostel. The hostel was surrounded by a high wall with barbed wire on top (apparently not uncommon in G. C.). She didn’t feel comfortable as a woman travelling alone exploring Guatemala City on her own, so she arranged an immediate shuttle from G.C. to Lake Atitlan where her friend lives…no chicken bus. Lake Atitlan is a much safer area and she felt comfortable once she was there, but she still did not go out alone after dark. She arranged another shuttle for her week in Antigua and felt Antigua was much safer than G.C. and toured the city on her own during the day, but not alone at night. She booked a long range bus (not chicken variety) to Tikal with a friend and was able to arrange another long range bus from Tikal straight to the boat dock in Belize (which included border crossing without having to change buses). Thus she avoided Belize City which is also on the sketchy safety list. Caye Caulker where she was staying had just been hit by Hurricane Earl three days earlier, so that part of the trip was a bit iffy, but she said the power was up when they got there and they drank only bottled water. The major unforeseen risk was probably the effects of the hurricane, as a number of people died in mudslides caused by excessive rain from the storm.
Places where risk varies widely by region
Mexico is a good example of a country where risk is extremely qualified by location. Most of the homicides are due to rival drug gangs or the police shooting each other. This occurs mainly in areas where the drug cartels are active, along the US borders and in certain states along both coasts. The homicide rate in many Mexican cities popular with tourists is actually probably lower than in many US cities. So, reducing your odds of getting shot is a matter of avoiding certain regions and cities. These areas are fairly well documented online at various websites. Just google “where is it safe to travel in Mexico”. Megan taught elementary school in South Chicago where the homicide rate is probably five times higher than most of the places we’d visit in Mexico.
Some countries you should just avoid
Obviously, as the title of this post states, there are some countries that are dangerous enough that you may just want to avoid them altogether, or put them on the “wait and see what happens” list. I won’t be planning trips to Somalia, Afghanistan, or Iraq anytime soon. But I’m concerned enough about things I’ve been reading about Honduras and El Salvador that I might take them off my potential travel list as well. The Peace Corps recently pulled all its volunteers out of El Salvador. They did the same in Honduras in 2012. Apparently the truce between the two big gangs in El Salvador has ended and there has been a sharp rise in homicides (over 70%) this year and also a large increase in extortion and violence aimed at non-gang citizens. The Peace Corps is used to operating in poor third world countries where violence tends to higher in general than other countries, so when they decide to pull up stakes I take notice. Before this happened they had forbidden volunteers from travelling to San Salvador, which is another bad sign.