Is It Worth It? On Travel, Adventure, and Safety

Owen Freeman

Recent attacks have redrawn the perimeter of travel, but giving in to fear is an illogical—and dangerous—response. 

While walking along a street in West Beirut in August 1983, I noticed a brass plaque beside a building entrance announcing the location of the Lebanese national tourism office. Nineteen eighty-three was not a good year for tourism in Lebanon, but neither were the previous eight. Since 1975, the small nation on the Mediterranean had been ripped apart by a brutal, multisided civil war that had left the city of Beirut, once known as the Paris of the Middle East, largely gutted. By that August, West Beirut was essentially under siege, my travels limited to an area of about four square miles and made more unsettling by the occasional mortar shell arcing in from the city’s east side or the foothills beyond.

Curious, I entered the shell-pocked and seemingly abandoned building and climbed a darkened stairwell, littered with shattered glass and spent bullet casings, to the tourism office. Peeking through the doorway, I saw three middle-aged women calmly sitting behind desks. 

They were surely as startled to see me as I was to see them, but once I offered a reason for my visit—I was new in town and interested in seeing the sights—they swiftly swung into action. Within minutes I was laden down with brochures pulled from an enormous pigeonhole display case, each offered with a brief speech extolling the beauty or splendor or historical significance of a particular site, followed by a reference to whatever militia or occupying army currently held it and made any visit impossible. 

“It’s a difficult time for the visitor,” one of the women finally explained. 

I’ve been reminded of that day in Beirut many times recently, as terrorism and violence directed against travelers has spread around the world, striking devastating blows to economies that depend on tourism. In just the last year, foreigners have been deliberately targeted by Islamic extremists in Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, and Burkina Faso, resulting in the deaths of more than 300. Add to that terrorist attacks in places frequented by tourists—most notably the November 13 massacre in Paris, of course, but also Copenhagen, Istanbul, Sydney, and Jakarta—and, rather like Beirut in 1983, it’s suddenly enough to make the traveler wonder where it is safe to go. 

Logic would dictate that probably no city was safer than Paris immediately after the November 13 attacks—with the mass mobilization of police and military, any follow-up strike by the terrorists would surely occur elsewhere— but instead hotels emptied out, Parisian holidays were cancelled. That’s because our response to terrorism is dictated less by logic than by a kind of primal fear, its very randomness and lack of warning increasing its effect. 

It’s rather like our dread of sharks. We are constantly told that fatal shark attacks are exceedingly rare—indeed, statistically, a beachgoer is 30 times more likely to be killed by a falling coconut—but it is sharks that get the attention while the coconuts get off scot-free. Similarly, a traveler is vastly more likely to die from garden-variety street crime or crossing the street than from terrorism—factoids gently trotted out after terrorist events, but to little practical effect. The comparison to sharks falls short in one distinct and grim way, however: Our very response to terrorist attacks, the paralyzing effect they engender, leads to more of them. 

Yet it is by looking at the issue of crime that we can discern a road map of what is coming in the fight against terrorism. While rarely making headlines—that’s the point, in fact— over the past 20 or so years a number of countries reliant on tourism have quietly taken steps to minimize the threat of crime to their foreign travelers. In both Egypt and India, for example, specially designated tourist police endeavor to keep touts and pickpockets away from travelers. In places as disparate as Rome and London and Beijing, sites that naturally draw tourists—palaces and cathedrals and museums—are tightly policed. 

In all this, governments have been following a path laid down by private industry. For years, high-end safari operators in Kenya and Tanza-nia have whisked their guests from airport arrival lounges to heavily guarded hotels and then on to the bush, the accompanying armed guards simply part of the package price. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Haitian port town of Labadee, where Royal Caribbean cruise ships dock to offer their passengers an afternoon’s outing in “exotic Haiti.” What these travelers actually encounter is little more than an outdoor curio shop, a barricaded enclave where only select merchants are allowed in and not even the most adventurous cruise-ship passengers are allowed out.

With the rise in terrorist threats worldwide, we will now see a vast expansion of such cordons sanitaires. Some, especially around Western landmarks, will be subtle, barely noticeable. In poorer nations facing such a threat—unfortunately, this surely means not just the Middle East but much of the greater Muslim world, including Malaysia and Indonesia—these security safeguards will be more site-specific, which will mean more blatant, more cloistering, more suffocating. 

The question for those contemplating travel to such places then becomes the same as that posed by high-crime locales: Is it worth it? Where is the balance between safety and adventure? (Because true adventure inevitably involves some element of risk.) If a security bubble is so tight as to impinge on truly experiencing a foreign land, is it worth going at all?

The answer naturally depends on the individual. To visit the “authentic” Bedouin village outside Jerusalem, maybe not. To visit the Valley of the Kings in Luxor or the magnificent ninth-century Borobudur Temple, in Java, even if it means traveling in a special guarded “tourist bus” to get there, maybe so. 

The question also poses something of a false choice even within the Muslim world. Morocco remains a fantastically exotic land, with few of the security concerns that affect its North African neighbors. The eco-friendly ef-forts of Oman, a sprawling sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula, to develop low-impact tourism while preserving its wild animals and traditional tribal lifestyles has led some to dub it the Costa Rica of the Middle East. And despite the bloody chaos just beyond its borders, Jordan today affords travelers the chance to explore the fabulous rock formations of Wadi Rum and the ruins of Petra free from the hordes that once engulfed them—hordes chased away by the perceived threat of terrorism. 

And looking up the road, something else to keep in mind. Yes, for the foreseeable future, many places around the world will remain under the threat of terrorism—in some places, a deepening threat—but this doesn’t necessarily mean a new status quo forever. For those in need of encouragement, look at Peru. In the 1990s, the Peruvian highlands were a virtual no-go area for travelers because of the vicious “dirty war” waged between the national army and Shining Path guerrillas; today that insurgency is long over and travelers are once more flocking to observe the world’s most resilient pre-Columbian culture firsthand. 

Or, for that matter, look at Lebanon. This ever-fractious nation always seems to be teetering on the edge of the same kind of disaster into which it was plunged in the 1970s and ’80s, but there is a joie de vivre to the country that defies all reason and has allowed it to, once again, become the playground of the Middle East. In fact, the national tourism office, considerably spruced up since my first encounter with it, even has a website and a new slogan: “Live Love Lebanon.” Not in 1983, perhaps, but maybe in 2016.

See our complete special report, Traveling in Troubled Times »