Deciding When It Is Not Safe to Travel

Camel in Egypt
Riding a camel in Egypt in 2007.

I have never thought much about safety while traveling.

This may seem odd, but let me explain. Most of my travel early on was to Europe, which generally doesn’t raise many eyebrows – or travel warnings. I traveled with groups not because I feared for my safety, but because I was nervous about figuring out logistics and I wanted to meet new people. My first non-European country (aside from Australia) was Egypt in 2007. Again, I traveled with a group, but also spent a few days on my own. My worries revolved around the language and not being able to communicate, not so much whether Egypt might be a dangerous place to visit. But times change, and today Egypt would give me more pause.

More than anything, safety was not a major concern during my 13-month career break through the former Soviet Union. Sure, some of the countries I visited had internal conflicts in recent years (i.e., Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), but nothing was ongoing and none were known to have particularly high rates of crimes. So I didn’t worry. I took ordinary precautions throughout my trip that I would take in Chicago – not walking on dark streets late at night, keeping an eye on my belongings and putting my guard up ever so slightly when talking with strangers. These are things I do as a matter of routine at home, so I don’t think about them while on the road.

And in the past, I never reconsidered travel plans due to safety concerns.

Bokonbaevo, Kyrgyzstan
With new friends in Kyrgyzstan.

In the last year, however, I have changed my tentative travel plans on a couple occasions because I didn’t feel safe. The first was a proposed trip to Yemen last Christmas and New Year’s. Two other bloggers had recently been and were leading a tour back to visit Socotra Island. I was incredibly intrigued and their posts convinced me it would be ok. But then the United States stepped up drone attacks on Al Qaeda targets in Yemen and I quickly changed my mind. I realized I very likely would be a target traveling in Yemen and despite how amazingly cool the trip might be, it wasn’t worth the risk for me.

Last winter, I started making plans to return to Russia this fall. I reached out to tour companies about trips around the Kamchatka Peninsula and I tentatively thought I would spend a few days in Moscow as well. Then Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and my mindset changed. Was Russia suddenly more dangerous for travelers in general? Absolutely not. Indeed, despite the politics, I think it is an incredible country and I would still encourage people to go. But now is not the time for me to go back. I have spoken out on this site about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and have done so even more on social media, including getting into a heated argument with my former homestay host in Moscow on Twitter. While it would be presumptuous of me to think that the Russian government would care enough about a minor blogger like me to detain me, I don’t really want to take the chance. I probably overreacted in cancelling my plans, but that’s ok. I did what felt right to me.

Most recently, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been all over the news. Even though I have plans to visit Mali and Burkina Faso in late November, I didn’t really think too much of Ebola being a risk until a man died last week after flying from Liberia to Nigeria via Ghana and Togo. Then two American aid workers in Liberia caught the virus. Suddenly, headlines were screaming about how bad the outbreak was and how there were no signs of it slowing. Airports started upping their screening efforts and countries in West Africa doubled down on their efforts to stop the spread of Ebola. Warnings were issued against traveled to the affected countries, but not to any neighboring countries. My mind started racing and I had awful visions of being stuck on a flight with some guy who unknowingly has Ebola suddenly gets sick and pukes all over me. While I was previously mildly concerned about the security situation in Mali (travel to the northern part of the country is still not advised and I have no plans to go there), I am now questioning whether it still makes sense to go at all.

I haven’t yet booked my flights to Mali, so I could easily call it off. Actually, the flights had been booked and then Turkish Airlines cancelled one leg, which led to me getting a full refund. A few people have told me I should take this as a sign that I shouldn’t go after all.

But I am not deciding anything yet – I don’t need to book my flights, get vaccinations and apply for visas until mid-September. The question then will be, what do I need to feel comfortable going? I’ve been in touch with Phil Paoletta, another blogger based in the region, and he told me this:

“It’s also important to consider that the majority of sick are : people who ate this bat soup that originally started the outbreak, those who came in contact with the sick – family etc, health workers and people preparing bodies for burial. It’s unlikely that you will come in contact with someone’s bodily fluids while they are having symptoms unless you are in one of those former categories. It’s all very terrible, though, and it’s a shame, because it really should not have gotten to where it is now.”

I have also reached out to my contact at buildOn (with whom Passports with Purpose partnered to build schools in southern Mali – my whole reason for going in the first place) to see how they are addressing the situation. If they were stopping their staff from travel in either country, I would probably cancel the trip, but if they are comfortable going there, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be.

In the end, everyone’s risk threshold is different. What one person is comfortable with, another may not be. The best you can do is do your research, review the travel warnings out there and try to talk to people on the ground – and then make the decision that is best for you. That’s exactly what I’ll be doing come September when I decide whether or not my trip to Mali and Burkina Faso is still a go or not. Stay tuned…
 

What do you think about when deciding whether or not it is safe to travel somewhere?

 

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24 thoughts on “Deciding When It Is Not Safe to Travel”

  1. Hi Katie,

    I hope you’ll make the right decision and have a very safe journey, going to Mali.
    As for me, I would not believe in coincidence and take the cancellation by Turkish airlines as a sign too.
    Also…..the ebola virus is also transmitted airborne.That makes it a lot more dangerous to catch.
    I have planned my first trip ever to Georgia in September, I read your blogs on Georgia, which were so enjoyable to read.(I am from the Netherlands)
    Enjoy summertime!
    Regards,
    Maria

    1. Thanks Maria. Actually, Ebola is NOT transmitted through the air – only through bodily fluids, which makes it less contagious than some other diseases. That said, if I had to decide today, I probably wouldn’t go. But, I don’t have to decide now, so I’ll give it some time and see where things stand in mid-September.

  2. Interesting food for thought, Katie! I haven’t traveled (or been planning to travel) to places with the kinds of challenges you’re talking about, so I’m not sure how I would handle it. There’s no question that everyone’s risk tolerance is different, and one person might think nothing of a situation that would seriously worry someone else.

    This past spring (before the military coup), my husband and I were in Thailand and we decided not to actually spend any time in Bangkok because of the protests that were escalating. We probably would have been fine, but we didn’t have a lot of time to research what areas to avoid and the like. I’d been several times before, and he wasn’t particularly interested, so we just decided to skip it.

  3. Hey – maybe we would have been on the same trip to Socotra! I backed out even earlier because the dates ended up not working with my schedule, but even at that point I had decided I would try to join in Socotra, avoiding totally amazing Yemen because of the safety concerns. Then we started thinking about a Russian River cruise that included Ukraine. . .

    I worry that we are coming to a period when internation instability starts limiting travel and making the world a smaller, more insular place.

    Keep watching the situation in East Africa and rely on the advice from your contacts on the ground there. But don’t let the fear that others have infect you – be realistic about what the risks really are. I’m guessing you’ll end up going and that it will be amazing.

  4. Argh! I’ve been innundated with questions from people asking whether they should cancel trips to Russia and it makes me so sad that it’s come to that. I think, however, your cancellation was hasty and unwarranted – I want to shout from the rooftops that Russia is perfectly safe! I hope you’ll be able to come back another time. It’s a shame that such an awful display of politics has once again put people off Russia.

    I hope your Mali trip works out better – I’d wager with proper precautions and by mid-September you’d be all right. Good luck!

    1. As I stated in the post, I agree Russia is perfectly safe right now. For me, however, the fact that I am a blogger and have been outspoken against Russia’s actions in Ukraine makes me personally nervous. I would not discourage anyone else from going there.

  5. I get a lot of questions about Israel and Iraq, both of which are kind of hard to answer at the moment. That said, through educating yourself about what the situation is actually like on the ground, you can learn a whole lot about the realities of places that are perceived to be dangerous. Phil gave you some great advice about the situation in Africa that will definitely help you make an informed decision. As for not wanting to visit places like Russia for political reasons? Well…that’s a whole other story…

    1. The only place consistently unsafe in/around Israel is Gaza and it’s hard to get there anyway. When I tried, I was stopped by the Israeli military.
      The rest of Israel is relatively safe and very much worth a visit.

      In Iraq, I would limit myself to the Kurdish part at the moment.

  6. Such a tough decision. As you said, you have to go with what makes YOU feel comfortable. It’s not always easy to separate real safety concerns from perceived ones, but luckily you have another month or so to do some more research, see how things go and ultimately decide how you feel about the trip.

  7. I actually like going to places that are dangerous, especially when it’s political unrest. It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it’s interesting. Something else than our safe and stable and boring home countries (I come from Germany, which is particularly safe and stable and boring).

    In June 2009, I went to Iran to join the protests against the government and I ended up being beaten by the police and spent one week in a scary prison, accused of being a spy: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/reports-about-my-trip-to-iran-in-junejuly-2009/ It was tough, really tough. But I survived it and now it’s a great story to remember.

    I always think: it’s better to die in an explosion or to be shot than to die of Alzheimer’s disease or cancer.

  8. Very insightful post.
    I often fell the same about many places but at the same time,coming from Latinamerica I see how extremely frighten are people from North America and Europe about many things we usually don’t care. Is hard to say when the risk is real.
    Maybe the news are more scary than reality.

  9. Hi Katie, I can certainly understand your concerns. It’s always tough to sift through media sensationalizing and get a sense of how things are on the ground.

    Because of the intense media scrutiny over several high-profile rape cases in India, a lot of people have worries about the safety of travel there for women. I get interviewed and lot, and asked if I feel safe travelling there. I don’t actually find India unsafe, though I do take lots of precautions. It is a very different culture, very traditional, and women are not as free to wander there. However, I do thing the media has made things seem far worse than they actually are for tourists.

    Always do what feels right for you, that’s my advice. Listen to your gut, your intuition.

    ps Maybe see you in Toronto?

    1. Sorry to miss you in Toronto! I had a packed weekend and very little free time. But I definitely need to go back – there’s so much to see!

  10. I think about the probability of getting a bullet in my back, as you probably did with Yemen. With regards to Russia, my stance is more political than safety orientated, as I cannot endorse a country exhibiting such expansionist, authoritarian and homophobic tendencies…

  11. In September of 2012 my partner and I planned to spend a week in Italy, followed by a week in Tunisia. Then, the attacks on the embassies in Benghazi (Libya) and Tunis happened. Our trip would have put us in Tunisia only a few weeks after those events. U.S. State Department issued serious travel warnings about Americans traveling there, and we decided to change our plans and spend the full two weeks in Italy instead. (Rough, I know!) I was extremely disappointed and upset about making the change, and still fully intend to visit Tunisia someday, but I know it was a good choice that we made. The scariest thing was that Americans were specifically targeted – that was what tipped the scale.

    Good luck deciding about West Africa…I know that it is not an easy choice to make.

  12. Hi Katie!

    Thanks for posting this. I’m new to travelling outside Europe and the US (I’m Irish) and I have panic disorder, but in my head I am one of those adventurous world travellers who can traverse the globe with just a Kindle, a camera and a change of underwear 🙂 In reality, I need to know I have four kinds of medication on me just to leave the house!

    It’s great to read about someone who has travelled extensively and still assesses the risks. I feel like a bit of a failure for deciding I am never crossing a street in Saigon after dark in the rain while wearing flip-flops ever again (nerve-wracking, trust me!) and for my feelings about travelling to conflict zones. Good to see this experience represented, delighted I found your blog!

    Ellen

    1. Thanks for reading Ellen! I think the key in any situation is doing your own research and deciding what your personal comfort level is. And not just relying on what you might hear in the media, especially the US media.

  13. Great points! I almost didn’t go to Sochi for the Winter Olympics because of what everyone else and the media was saying. I ended up going and having a blast. I was made at myself for being influenced like that and use it as a reminder to look past what is on TV.

    Next up Africa. Nothing currently going on there right?!

    Shaun
    http://www.thislifeintrips.com

  14. Great points here, Katie. I think the most important step is talking to people on the ground, but yes that needs to be balanced with your own research.
    (PS A Yemeni man just told me about Socotra, and now I’m dying to go someday! He insisted the island alone was safe, but I suppose I had better do my research…)

    1. The thing with Socotra is you have to go through Yemen to get there. And Yemen just isn’t safe right now (as I’ve heard from someone who has been there recently).

  15. Not worth it! Take the cancellation as a sign that now’s not the time. Even the Spanish priest working as a missionary has died with Western medical intervention (in all fairness, he was gaunt and older), so I wouldn’t risk it. Whatever you decide to do, research and decide what’s best for you!

  16. I wouldn’t.

    This isn’t a vague political threat…this is an outbreak of an incredibly dangerous disease, fatal to most, transmitted through skin, in a region not known for its medical facilities.

    If you went, the chances of getting ebola would be incredibly low — but the alternative is so horrifying that I wouldn’t risk it either way.

  17. Well, I’m a wimp, so I say don’t go 🙂 I had a similar to dilemma myself in whether to take my 5-month-old to Europe. At 5 months, a baby hasn’t received many vaccinations yet. There was a range in opinion; almost all doctors said go. A good doctor friend said don’t go because there have been a lot of measles outbreaks. Ultimately, I was more worried over common ailments ruining our trip with such a small baby (who is especially small for her age). I say you go somewhere else, have a wonderful time and do this trip at a later date when things are better in the region.

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