There is a huge world of difference between listening to reasonable, justified and expert safety concerns and advice when setting off on your gap year, and listening to the often paranoid, overblown and sometime downright crazy warnings that are out there. So which travel safety advice do you listen to?
Reasonable safety concerns are important when you are setting off on your travels for the first time, but far too many people listen to all the wrong information and needlessly allow these concerns to develop into fear or paranoia that can ruin their travels or even stop them from travelling altogether. The fact is the world is far safer than people believe.
It is important to know how to take safety warnings and precautions in context, and weigh them up against the reality of the situation.
It may seem like a little bit paradoxical sometimes, as one of the most common pieces of advice I give out to the countless emails I get about travel safety is ‘relax, you’ll be fine.’ Yet at the same time I am a huge proponent of travel safety and having the right knowledge and skills to keep yourself safe and secure on the road.
I have a background in martial arts and self defence training and have studied many aspects of crime and safety at an academic level. I have even written books on the subject. So I’m not exactly a stranger to knowing how important the correct knowledge, advice and training is in keeping you safe. But at the same time I also know how easy it is for people to blow things out of all proportion.
Yes you should. You should arm yourself with the right knowledge, risk assess properly and prepare well, but you shouldn’t listen to so much safety information or stories of terrible backpacking incidents that it scares the living hell out of you. And you certainly shouldn’t be listening to too much of the wrong information that will just make you paranoid and overly concerned when there is no justified reason to be.
Let’s look at this objectively for a minute. Are there dangers and safety concerns that you should protect yourself against abroad? Yes, of course there are, just as there are dangers and criminal acts in your home country. Are you at risk of being a victim to these crimes or incidents? Probably not, but there is always a small chance. Are there ways to reduce that risk to yourself? Yes there is, with the right knowledge, the right preparation and in some cases the right training.
So again, just to make sure the message gets across here, should you be concerned about travel safety? Well, concerned enough to prepare, yes. Concerned enough to drive you to fear and panic, definitely not. Reasonable precaution is warranted, fear is not.
The big problem is many people who are first time travellers or are dreaming about their first gap year or backpacking trip become far too paranoid about travel safety.
People themselves aren’t entirely at fault of course. There is such a tidal wave of bad advice, misinformation and downright scaremongering from a wide variety of sources out there that frankly it is easy to see why people get overwhelmed and panicked.
Just look at any news report or news channel and somewhere in the archives you will find stories of travellers going missing, being kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered, sometimes but not always in that order.
Look at the official government advisories and you will see they immediately go into full on panic mode, change the light bulb to red and pull up the drawbridge at the slightest whiff of trouble.
If you dare to mention that you are travelling to any given country then your friends and family will delight in telling you all the gory details of how you will die a horrible death or have all your possessions stolen the second you step off the plane.
Tell your mother you are going backpacking around the world and she will drop to her knees and beg you not to go because she heard from a friend of her second cousin twice removed that the country you want to visit is dirty and unsafe. Especially if you also happen to be a woman, because as we all know the world is a big scary place that women should never venture out into, right? We all know women in particular should never travel alone, right?
It gets ridiculous. Calm down!
I mean seriously, how many times have you heard ‘don’t go there, it isn’t safe’, or ‘it’s far too dangerous for you to travel there!’. Usually these klaxon warnings are from a friend or a love one, or a mother who is about to go into a nervous meltdown because her little darling just told her she was going travelling through Thailand for a couple of months.
For seasoned travellers, these warnings have become the white noise in the background as we happily buy our next ticket. We know what safety advice to take into consideration for a realistic risk assessment and we know which ‘advice’ (and for ‘advice’ read mass panic inducing nonsense) to ignore, but many people don’t have the experience behind them to make that judgement and decide for themselves which safety concerns are warranted, and which are overblown and should be ignored.
The problem is many potential travellers listen to all of these scare stories and half truths and become paranoid, or take the actual facts and twist them in their own mind to such a level that fear is inevitable. This leads to a wholly disproportionate response to what should be a sensible and reasonable level of preparation and knowledge, and it can ruin entire trips or even stop people travelling altogether. Women in particular can fall into the trap of believing that they shouldn’t travel to certain places – or even at all – because women are somehow more at risk, in more danger, just by the fact that they are a woman. They aren’t of course, there is just so much media nonsense and societal stereotyping that perpetuates the myth that they are.
A recent conversation with a woman who said that she would love to visit India but declared in no uncertain terms that she never would because the country had the highest rape statistics in the world led to yet another debate where fact, reason and common sense would never overcome the entrenched mentality of erroneous self righteousness.
She was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that – as a woman – if she were ever to dare step foot in India she would certainly be accosted and raped. She had a belief that the mere fact she was a woman meant it was unsafe for her to go to India at all. She kept throwing ‘facts’ at me such as ‘India is the rape capital of the world.’ Is it? Really? Nothing would dissuade her from that, not the absolute truth that the vast majority of women travel through India safely, unharmed and after having an amazing time, and certainly not the fact that India is far lower down the crime statistics list than countries such as the USA and UK.
I mean, what’s the point in letting little things like truth and fact get in the way of belief?
It is a huge shame, because this woman will never see one of the most unique, diverse and culturally astounding countries in the world.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way saying crime doesn’t occur. I’m not saying that terrible things don’t happen, of course they do. What I am saying is don’t fall into the trap of blowing relatively isolated incidents out of all proportion and allowing fear and paranoia to cloud what should be an objective look at the facts. Let’s just look at things in a little more context.
When you are looking at travel safety information or listening to safety advice, just keep in mind:
Just to look into these in a little more detail.
News reports aren’t always giving you the full picture.
The mass media is absolutely notorious for spreading fear and misinformation throughout potential travellers by salivating over every negative story and blowing it up out of all proportion. Bad news sells, good news doesn’t, it really is that simple.
According to the mass media at home, countries such as Cairo, or more recently Bangkok, have been painted with an image that would make people think that the population of the entire country is rioting, every street is on fire and the military are quelling the protesters with lethal force and targeting travellers and tourists in some form of scorched earth policy. What they don’t tell you is that any protests are usually limited to one or two small streets in a very large city, and that the rest of the city – never mind the rest of the country – is carrying on as normal.
The recent story of the death of the missing traveller in Malaysia is another perfect example. There have been so many speculative reports of what may have unfortunately happened to this man, but the truth is at the time of writing no one knows for sure, yet. I’m certainly not denying that whatever has happened is terrible and I certainly feel for the guys family. However, the reports have led to a surge in my inbox of emails all asking is it safe to visit Tioman island, is it safe to visit Malaysia even!
Yes, it is!
Is this really a dangerous place because of one unfortunate incident?
As terrible as this incident is, it is one isolated incident. Hundreds – thousands – of people visit Tioman island every single year completely safely and without incident. I even wrote a recent post espousing how amazing Juara beach – where this man has gone missing from – is. That fact still has not changed. I felt, and was perfectly safe there and would return there again in a heartbeat. The absolute vast majority of travellers who go there are completely safe and one incident – as terrible as it is for that person – is no reason to expect otherwise.
Sometimes bad things just happen. It is terrible, but it is no reason to be afraid.
Stories of terrible things happening to travellers – women in particular – are always picked up by the media and portrayed as if it was almost inevitable because they happened to be travelling in that part of the world. I mean how dare a woman go to India on her own? How dare that man decide to go off on that trek? The fact that these are often single isolated incidents and far from the norm seem to be lost on most people.
The focus that they put on these stories distorts the whole picture and puts the fear of whatever God people happen to believe into them. There is no doubt that these incidents are often appalling for the people involved, and I am in no way wanting to detract from that or suggest that bad things don’t happen, but you need to remember that for every negative story the media reports on, they aren’t telling you about the hundreds and thousands of travellers who went to the exact same place, had a great time and arrived home perfectly safely.
Government safety advisories are often over protective.
There is a general rule that if something bad happens in a small part of one town, then governments will panic, go into meltdown and an advisory will be issued against the entire country and will not be removed for at least a generation. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but no more so than half of the government safety advisories out there.
The relatively recent protests in Egypt are a huge case in point. When the protests began, the government advisories were so heavy handed that even now – long after any incidents have calmed down, people are still asking is it safe to go to Egypt. There was no mention of the fact that the protests were confined to a very small area of a very large city in an even larger country. The more recent protests in Bangkok have seen the exact same thing happen again.
Look at any travel advisory, especially those written by the USA, UK or Australian governments, and one of the most common statements you will read is ‘there is a high threat of terrorism’. But when you look more closely you will find that there may have been a heightened threat in a very small province or region in some far flung corner of the country, and despite the blanket warning there is no more risk of terrorism in 99% of the country than there is in London, New York or Sydney.
Most of the warnings that governments put out are there more to absolve themselves of any responsibility than give actual practical advice, and is not really applicable to the majority of travellers or situations. They are often overly negative, and issue do not travel warnings for the slightest thing. This has led to severe criticism of many governments – the US and the UK in particular – from many tourism authorities round the world, and even ridicule from many long term travellers.
This is a shame, and is potentially leading to a scenario where people will just start to ignore the advice, which is wrong too. Government advisories are important and they can provide essential information, but you have to read them carefully and weigh up what they are saying against reasonable common sense.
There is one caveat to this of course, is that where government advisories lead, the travel industry usually blindly follows. So if your government does issue an advisory against all travel to any given country, check that your insurance will still cover you for travel as often the insurance companies can use this as a basis to null and void any policy.
Reality is often distorted.
Perceptions of any given place are very rarely accurate, and are often painted by people who have never been there or wildly erroneous statistics. Many people believe that countries in Asia, Africa or South and Central America in particular have the highest crime rates in the world, or that the entire Middle East is just full of terrorists waiting to target any innocent Westerner that happens along.
These are obviously ridiculous statements, but the problem is people believe them. Many potential travellers are often shocked to find out that the highest crime rates in the world are in fact in the very places most travellers come from such as the USA and the UK for example, and you are just as likely – if not more so – to become a victim of many crimes at home than you are abroad.
Consider the source.
When you are getting this huge tidal wave of information and advice, it is really important you consider where you are getting this information from and determine whether or not the information is justified. More often than not it isn’t from the most reliable or expert source.
Family members and friends for example are perhaps the biggest source of misinformation. The advice may very well be coming from a genuinely concerned place, they are your loved ones after all and they do care for you, but you need to ask yourself do they really know what the hell they are talking about? With all due respect to your loved ones, ask yourself:
Are they in any way an expert authority on crime, travel safety or self defence?
Have they even been to the country they are advising you on?
Have they been there recently?
Do they travel often and extensively?
When they travel do they travel independently the same way you will be doing?
If you can answer yes to all of these, then fair enough you should listen to what they are saying and take their advice. If however:
They have never even been to the country they are advising you on.
Are basing opinion solely on biased and often seditious news reports.
Have only ever travelled to resorts on package holidays.
Are in no way an expert on crime, self defence, travel or personal safety.
They are your mum.
Then they aren’t exactly the best source of information for you to be accurately assessing the potential risk of your trip are they?
All of it, is the short answer. Just put it through that filter of common sense I know you all have.
When searching for general safety advice, you want to be looking to the people who actually know what they are talking about. Ask experts who know and understand the intricacies of self defence, crime or personal safety, ask travel bloggers or other backpackers who are in – or have recently just come back from – the destinations you are heading to, ask backpackers who are well travelled and are more than used to seeing the reality of what any given place is like. Look at official advisories of not only your own country but others also, and make a logical assessment of the facts they put across.
But whatever you do, don’t be scared off travelling.
Being informed and being prepared is a large and essential part of staying safe on the road, but there is a reasonable point where you have to draw the line so you aren’t completely paranoid about your own safety or believing the hype that you are a huge walking target for every mugger, thief, rapist, kidnapper, murderer and terrorist!
Travelling the world is actually pretty safe. Seriously. The trick is to make sure you have the right information and the right skills to reduce any risk to acceptable levels.
There are of course times – and places – which genuinely present a risk to your personal safety or security if you travel there. Wandering into an active war zone for example may not be the best of ideas. Heading to a country but then specifically wandering around well known trouble spots or high crime areas is just asking for trouble. That is always going to be the case, and is even the case in your own home town or city at times. Danger or risk is not something that is wholly owned by and exclusive to world travel. But the truth is that provided you listen and heed carefully the useful safety advice and discard the rest, and make a reasonable risk assessment based on this information, then you have absolutely nothing to fear about setting off on your very own round the world adventures.
Think of the concept of travel safety as a suit of armour. The more layers of armour you have, the safer you will be. Discarding all the half truths and nonsense that scare the proverbial out of everyone, listening to the right safety advice and planning accordingly is just the first and perhaps most important layer.
Don’t be so afraid of what may happen that it stops you from following your dreams of travel.
After that of course, there are numerous layers of knowledge and skills you can add to that armour to reduce any risk to yourself even further; from the basics such as following sensible and reasonable safety tips or being aware of local travel scams, to the more advanced such as knowing how to recognise and evade potential safety risks or knowing how to diffuse potentially dangerous or risky situations. All of which I talk about here.
But my point is, if you let fear take hold of you, if you listen to all the bad advice out there, no amount of safety advice will convince you that you can be confident in your own safety on the road. Fear can completely ruin your trip and even stop you travelling altogether.
The more you travel, the more self confident you will grow, the more you will hone your instincts and learn to recognise and avoid the situations that could put you at risk before they happen, and the safer you will be.
The more you travel the more you will also realise that yes bad things do happen out there, but the vast majority of the world is reasonably safe with the sensible precautions you yourself put in place.
The more you travel, the more you will realise that the world is actually full of amazing, friendly people, and that it is actually a generally safe, wonderful and breathtaking place to explore.
But to discover all of that for yourself you first have to travel. So stop being afraid of backpacking the world independently, grab your pack and get out there!
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