Fear of becoming a victim of crime continues to dominate almost every discourse on gap year or independent world travel, despite the facts and the statistics showing that relatively speaking it is no more dangerous than staying at home. I want to use my experience and background to give all potential travelers some perspective on the issue of travel safety and provide you with some real, practical advice.
Anyone planning to take a gap year or backpacking trip will have to run the usual gauntlet of concerned friends and relatives reacting as if you have just said you are planning to walk naked into an active war zone with a huge target painted on your back.
Parents are often guilty of this the most, and account for a good portion of the emails and messages I get every single day about safety concerns when travelling. It is understandable of course, they are just worried about their loved ones setting off on their gap year adventures, but many of their concerns are overblown due to the messages they receive from the mass media.
Some of the reactions you get will of course will be positive, some may even be jealous, but others will throw the word ‘dangerous’ in your face as much as possible and for many travellers that will build up an unnatural and unbalanced sense of fear.
I have always been blessed – or cursed, depending on your perspective – with a profound lack of that fear. I don’t say that out of a misguided attempt at masculine bravado. That is the honest truth. I have been aware of potential risks on a dispassionate, intellectual level, but have never really let them become more than a potential risk or obstacle to prepare for.
Now granted, I’m not exactly your average traveller.
I have studied various martial arts forms from early childhood, specifically the Japanese arts of Karate, Judo and Ju Jitsu, although I have tried my hand at a few others during my travels to different cultures and have gained a profound sense of self confidence and self esteem from that. I have even taught martial arts and self defence courses to both civilians and professionals in my time. On top of this I have military training from an earlier career choice and 15 years of travelling the world, including to some of the worlds supposed ‘danger zones’.
I guess that is a fair amount of training and experience in keeping myself safe.
Now being 6″2 and not exactly a small guy by most standards, all of this gives me a fair advantage when it comes to protecting myself and keeping myself safe on the road, and I have had it said to me – especially by women – that because of this I can’t possibly understand what it is like to travel the world and be at risk.
I can see where they may be coming from, in a sense, but I heartily disagree.
I would argue that it gives me a particularly unique understanding of the dangers of travel, the dangers of everyday life and how to protect myself from both, and more than that, given that my first degree was in Criminology and my dissertation for that degree was a study on the gendered differences on the fear of crime, a deeper understanding of what it means to fear becoming a victim of crime versus the actual reality.
You see all of this does not make me magically immune to becoming a victim, it just gives me the tools and knowledge I need to avoid, deescalate or deal with events if they do occur.
Of course wherever you go and whatever you do there is always a chance – however remote – that something bad may happen, and it is important to prepare for and protect yourself from the prospect of those things happening to you.
In this regard I am not in any way trying to dismiss anyone’s genuine fears or concerns about travelling the world. It is important to respect those opinions and deal with them in a very real and head on way, because the fear is there for a reason. It is a natural human reaction to the unknown and a defence mechanism of sorts to try and keep you from putting yourself in harms way. From an evolutionary standpoint those instincts have been honed since the time the very first world travellers may have genuinely been stalked by a sabretooth tiger as they wandered in search of food. That part of feeling the fear is completely understandable.
However, I also think it is important to manage those fears and concerns and inject a healthy dose of realism into them.
It is completely natural to be concerned about the potential risks out there and prepare for them in a sensible and practical way. Where many people go wrong is when they allow those fears to become all consuming and dictate their actions.
Precaution is good. Fear is not.
A big problem here is the general public’s perception of travel and safety, which is often based on the extreme philosophical ends of the truth. Read a great deal of travel blogs or travel publications and you will often see world travel portrayed as a sanitised, wonderful utopia where you will discover yourself, have amazing adventures and meet awesome locals who will only ever want to befriend or help you. Listen to the mainstream media and you will think that the world has descended into a crazed civil war where the entire population of every given country wants to kidnap, rape, murder, rob or scam you – not necessarily in that order – the second you get off the plane.
The truth is the reality of travel is somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but for the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time it is far closer to the former rather than the latter on a sliding scale.
Fear versus reality.
Let’s for a moment just look at the statistics here. According to the Office For National Statistics and The Foreign Commonwealth Office for example, the evidence shows that out of the 4 million UK citizens who travelled abroad between 2014 and 2015 (the latest statistics available), only 19, 244 travellers needed consular assistance worldwide, and that is for every issue, from serious crime to getting drunk and losing their passport.
Maths isn’t exactly my strong point, but isn’t that a pretty low percentage?
And while we are at it, why not look at the statistics of our own home countries too? You may just come to the conclusion that it can be as dangerous to stay at home than travel the world!
Bad things can happen to good people anywhere, anytime.
Now I do have to say as a disclaimer that I am aware – like most academics – of the problematic nature of statistics, I used examples from the UK only out of expediency, but those for the US, Europe and Australia show similar percentages. These examples are also very broad averages and do not distinguish between violent crimes, petty crimes or misdemeanors for example, and are even skewed by numbers of travellers needing consular assistance due to their own actions, being hospitalised due to a drunken accident for example.
They do however give a very broad overview of just how skewed the fearmongering amongst the mass media is, and shows that the actual victims of crime are a fraction of those who actually travel the world and come back home safe and sound.
To use those same statistics for a specific crime that most women in particular tend to quote as their main fear when talking about becoming a victim, out of 4 million travellers in the 2014 – 2015 period, there were just 106 rapes and 152 sexual assaults. Worldwide.
People will argue that those numbers are still 106 rapes and 152 sexual assaults too much, and I’d personally find it hard to disagree with that, but it still shows that the fear of becoming a victim is far greater than the actual statistical chances.
The recent hysteria over safety in Thailand, and in particular the island of Koh Tao, is a prime example of how skewed the fear of crime can be over the actual reality. Fear of becoming a victim started reaching fever pitch when a social media post went viral, yet the national statistics (for UK travellers) show that out of 956,312 travellers and residents in Thailand in 2013 – 2014, there were 362 deaths, 11 rapes, 6 sexual assaults.
Any of these crimes, any incident where a traveller becomes a victim is horrific. I do not for a second deny that and do not in any way mean to demean any victims experience. I just want to put it into a little perspective.
When statements like ‘it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman to Thailand because you will be raped or murdered’ are on the verge of becoming so common that they are practically hyperbole, someone needs to step up and just introduce some common sense into the fearmongering. Yes, you may be one of the 11, but you are much more likely to be part of the other 956, 301.
Cultural stereotypes and safety.
One of the things I hear so often from female readers on the topic of safety is the fact that women are treated differently in other parts of the world.
Well yes, they are. That is because there are a wide variety of countries with differing cultural, religious and societal paradigms, and there are many societies where men and women are treated differently than they are in the average western society. That difference does not automatically make it more dangerous to travel to those places.
There are places that will challenge female travellers on many levels, there are countries that are still in many ways patriarchal, you may encounter situations that challenge your own political or social belief systems or even make you feel uncomfortable. That does not necessarily make them dangerous. In fact being challenged and exploring different cultural viewpoints is one of the reasons to and the best parts of travel!
Yes you may encounter cultures that have different paradigms on gender to your own Western ideals, especially in large parts – not all – of the Middle East for example. You may come across men who are misogynistic in their behaviour or attitudes, just as I have encountered misandrist women in the West! You’ll get idiots like that anywhere in the world. But at the same time those very same cultures may give you the experience of other women actively looking out for you, inviting you into their homes for a meal or showing you to the female only train carriage in a way that male travellers never will.
Is the fact that many countries are still very patriarchal and view women in a certain way wrong? Well, not for them. Those views may be seen as wrong in the West, but you are a visitor in another culture and it isn’t for us to judge.
What those societal norms are not – and I emphasize that word very specifically – is an automatic danger zone for all women.
You can’t paint entire regions or cultures as unsafe because of notions of how you perceive things on a gendered basis. Safety is much more nuanced than that.
So yes, bad things do happen to travellers out there, but they are far from being the norm. It is important to know about the small chances that you may become a victim of any type of crime, it is important to know how to avoid or survive being a victim if necessary, but it is also just as important to know that you are much more likely to travel safely and without incident.
Male or female, does it really make a difference?
No, not really.
I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this, but it’s true.
There is a perceived notion – mostly from women – that it is infinitely more dangerous to travel as a woman than it is to travel as a man, especially when the notion of physical safety and crime gets mixed up with societal views on gender as I have just discussed, and that men – simply by virtue of that magical appendage between their legs – are automatically much safer.
Yet this isn’t borne out by the facts.
It is certainly true that women have a much greater fear of crime year after year according to the British Crime Survey, and certainly there are more female victims of certain types of crime such as rape, but the reality is that it is men who are statistically much more likely to become the victims of all violent crime overall, and much more likely to be severely injured or killed as a result.
Does this mean women shouldn’t justifiably fear rape and sexual assault and take steps to prevent becoming a victim? Of course not, to suggest otherwise would be ridiculous. But it does mean there is no justification for assuming that it is automatically more dangerous for women to travel. It just isn’t.
There are absolutely some fundamental practical differences between travelling as a man and travelling as a woman I completely agree. Men and women are different after all, and their experiences of travel will be slightly different. But that fact alone does not automatically make it more dangerous for women to travel, and that is something that really needs to be emphasized.
In fact if you look at my general safety tips for women, and general safety tips for men, on the whole (with a couple of practical differences), they are almost universally the same, and there is a reason for that. Most safety advice and self defence advice is universal and gender neutral.
The actual risk of travel.
So statistically it is a fact that the fear of crime is far greater than the actual risk, but that does not mean that some risk is not real. There is risk in everything we do in life, from crossing the road to having a night out, and travel is not immune from that risk either.
Just because the risk of something bad happening to you on your gap year is relatively low, that doesn’t mean that there is no risk at all.
The difference is there are actual steps you can take to prepare yourself for those eventualities. There are things you can do, knowledge you can learn and mindsets you can adopt to reduce that natural risk to the point where it is negligible.
So should you learn self defence before you go travelling?
Well yes and no. Training in any of the numerous martial arts is an amazing way to learn how to physically defend yourself if needed, that much is a given, but simply learning a technique or two for a week is not. Learning self defence isn’t about pounding a guy bigger than you or learning how to ‘kick ass’. If you see it that way and only take enough time to learn a few techniques, then you simply won’t remember it when the adrenaline is pumping in a real situation and it may even give you a false sense of confidence and bravado which can get you in more trouble. So if you want to learn how to defend yourself do it properly and train long term, choose a martial art that suits you and stick with it. You’ll find – as I did – that it will not only give you the tools to defend yourself if needed, but also an innate self confidence, philosophy and personal self esteem that will give you the courage, determination and fearless tenacity to travel anywhere in the world independently and on your own terms.
Quite apart from the specific safety tips about staying safe on your travels that I have talked about at length on this site, such as learning about the local scams or tips on avoiding being robbed abroad, there are ways to learn how to avoid, deescalate and deal with situations as they occur.
This is all about changing your mindset, your physical and psychological way of being in a way that will protect you.
My unique REACTE system which you can learn more about in my book here goes beyond the basics of staying safe, beyond the physical practicalities of self defence techniques and martial arts and into the specialist psychological, emotional and physical techniques used to limit and manage any potential risk to your own personal safety.
Sometimes you just have to be your own hero.
Safety is all about learning how to reduce any possible risk as much as possible to the point where that risk is deemed acceptable enough for you to travel safely. It doesn’t mean that the risk isn’t there, but it does mean that the tools you have and the preparation you have done will allow you to avoid most of it or know what to do and how to survive if the worst does happen.
You will never get rid of risk entirely.
Travel itself is not risky. Life itself invites risk, it invites danger. The trick to keeping yourself safe is using common sense, preparation and knowledge to reduce the risks of anything negative happening to you, and knowing how and when to act if things do go wrong.
Is taking the risk worth it?
This really should not be a question that needs answering. Of course it is!
In all my years of travel I’ve only had a few things happen to me that could be considered dangerous, far less so than when I have been at home in fact! But I have never been in a situation that I have not been able to avoid completely, deescalate or extract myself from without too much trouble, and In all those years of travel those situations are an absolute fractional minority compared to the positive, awesome experiences that travel has given me.
Those experiences, even the bad ones, have made me a stronger, better and much more adaptable person. I have had a lifetime of self defence and martial arts training, I have had military training and experience, but it is travel that has allowed me to hone those skills. It is travel that has given me a wealth of cultural and social experience to apply that training to. It is travel that has given me the knowledge and self confidence to know that I can assess a risky situation, make the right judgement call when I need to and act to save myself if I need to.
Risk can be a good thing too!
Bad things can and do happen, but they are far from the norm, in fact I would go as far to say they are absolutely abnormal, and if they do happen then most of the time it really is just a case of random bad luck as opposed to being your fault for travelling to any given country on your own or with someone, as a woman or as a man.
So if something bad does happen on your travels, make sure you have the tools and knowledge you need to deal with it and keep yourself safe, and then carry on with the rest of your adventure safe in the knowledge that you are a better, stronger, more resilient person as a result, and you have a ton of awesome experiences ahead of you.
Listen to your fear, then overcome it.
Remember, fear can be a good thing as long as it doesn’t turn into paranoia. Fear should be at the level that it keeps you alert, keeps you on your toes, but it should never get to the point where it stops you from travelling.
As I said before, bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere at any time, even when you are at home. Travel in and of itself isn’t inherently dangerous just as staying at home is not inherently safe.
Identify any potential risks in the places you are travelling through, take steps to minimise those risks and then enjoy your travels! In 15 years of travelling the world I have seen and experienced far more wonderful, amazing things and far more compassionate and friendly people than I have ever experienced bad, risky or dangerous situations.
Don’t allow your mindset to be one of fear. Don’t be one of those people who believes the scaremongering of the mass media and never travels because you are frightened of the potential risk.
Change your perspective. Don’t be afraid. Learn how to keep yourself safe and view the world as it truly is. Wonderful, awesome and generally safe to travel.
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