While we’ve visited several countries that are considered to be ‘dangerous’ I seem to find myself dwelling on the safety aspects of travel more frequently as time goes by. By now I’m pretty sure I should be one of those intrepid travellers who is hardened to the drama of travel advisories and is confident to venture out to places where you wouldn’t typically find many holiday makers. I kind of wish I was, but actually, whilst I’m braver than I was, travelling to dangerous places is something I can find myself getting pretty worried about.
The reason this is on my mind so much at the moment is because we’ve booked flights to spend a couple of weeks in the Philippines in the next few months… only to find that the latest travel warnings (issued 9th May) suggest that kidnappings are being planned in some of the major tourist areas.
After seeing this, I immediately started googling further, and managed to completely tie myself in knots – to the point that I almost cancelled our trip on the spot. In the last few days I’ve joined Philippines backpacker Facebook groups, asked fellow travellers for advice and lost myself for many hours reading forums and various blogs about people’s experiences travelling there. Safe to say that this has shown me I’m not the only one with concerns.
What’s been really hard to find out is how dangerous it actually is and what the likelihood is of us being caught up in something over there. All the advice seems to fluctuate between the extremes of those desperate not to see the (important) industry of tourism in the Philippines damaged, or the advice from keyboard warriors who don’t travel much themselves but take every word they read in the papers completely literally.
Our Experiences of ‘Dangerous’ Places
It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve visited a country that would be considered dangerous. We went to a very much deserted Egypt on a Nile Cruise and Cairo City Tour a couple of years ago, not long after the Arab Spring; visited Rio de Janeiro around the time of the Olympics whilst the papers were full of stories of crimes against tourists and have spent time in Tunisia and Morocco to name but a few examples.
We’ve caught long distance buses on routes that have previously been hijacked in South America, and spent a month motorbiking around Thailand in spite of its notoriously dangerous roads. Mexico also tends to crop up on lists of the most dangerous countries in the world and is another one we’ve visited without issue.
My research has shown on the one hand that yes, relatively speaking compared with some other countries, a lot of Brits and Americans die in the Philippines. But on the other hand, I’ve also read that much of this is either related to elderly expats or those who have been mixed up in drugs.
Neither of these issues apply to us which probably makes us a bit safer, but you never think it’ll be you until it happens! It’s one of those where your rational mind is telling you that you’ll be fine and not to be daft, you can’t stop thinking well… what if something does go wrong. I’m not sure if anyone else is the same but I find that once I get into these patterns of thought it’s really tough to break back out again and think about things logically – hence this post I suppose.
What Makes Somewhere Dangerous to Visit?
Thinking about destinations in this way raises the question of what actually makes a country dangerous to travel to. Obviously there are some places which are, and should continue to be, completely off limits to tourists – active war zones for example. I certainly wouldn’t visit Syria, despite some companies offering tours (or at least they were in 2015).
Based on government advice, I also wouldn’t risk visiting countries like South Sudan, Libya or Somalia amongst others. This is all based on levels of government control and the political situations in these places, but of course that’s not the only way to define whether visiting a particular country poses a risk.
Traffic accidents are usually the biggest danger to travellers and some of the spots that are the highest risk when it comes to driving include Thailand, Namibia, the Dominican Republic and Iran. Would I visit these countries? Yes probably. Even though I’m more likely to get run over or hurt there than I am to get kidnapped in the Philippines, for some reason it feels like a more ‘justifiable’ risk.
In the same vein, medical care for tourists can also be a major issue, especially if you’re travelling from somewhere that’s lucky enough to enjoy excellent health care, like we do in the UK. Some of the countries considered to have poor health care include places we’ve been or wouldn’t think twice about going to – like Myanmar, Laos, Egypt and even China. Again, whilst it’s important to know what to do in case you do fall sick or get injured, and to always have comprehensive travel insurance, we wouldn’t typically let these stats stop us from travelling.
Crime and petty theft are other big problems faced by travellers in various countries. I read the advice for countries we’ve recently spent time in and enjoyed like Vietnam and Cambodia to see how they stacked up, and was shocked by just how commonplace crimes against tourists seem to be. Perhaps this is another sign that we need to go ahead with our travel plans but just take some precautions and exercise some common sense.
A final aspect of this issue that springs to mind is how far our concerns are influenced by our feelings on terrorism. I don’t want to get too political but it’s true that one of the threats towards tourists in the Philippines comes from Islamic terror groups who fund themselves through kidnapping and hostage taking for ransom. I’m sure that this must be contributing to at least some of the fear that’s currently being expressed by travellers who are heading to the Philippines in the coming weeks.
I tried to work out how many tourists have been killed or injured by terrorists in recent years in both the UK/Europe and the Philippines/South East Asia, which I’m sure would be interesting to see, but couldn’t find any comparable statistics. Overall though, the threat of terrorism towards tourists is relatively small compared with other dangers, although it seems to cause disproportionate levels of fear.
How to Decide Whether Or Not To Risk It?
So how do you even decide when a country should be a no go or when you are happy to take a balanced risk. As it stands our tickets are booked and we have our hostels reserved, but we’re still not 100% sure whether we’ll definitely end up going. It seems kind of bizarre considering what we’ve covered above with traffic accidents and health care abroad, but I guess anxiety isn’t always rational.
We’re definitely not visiting any of the places where ‘all but essential travel’ is advised against and are sticking to very touristy areas. We’re not even visiting Palawan, the subject of this week’s warnings.
I don’t want to miss out on seeing amazing countries because we’ve taken over cautious travel warnings too literally, but at the same time spending a trip constantly on edge and looking over my shoulder isn’t my idea of fun. Not to mention that if you visit anywhere that your country’s government has said to avoid travelling to then you’ve probably voided your travel insurance…
Regardless of what country we’re headed to, we tend to look over the travel advice before visiting so we know what we need to look out for. It’s always handy to see how many tourists visit and whether issues are widespread, but it is hard to know when exactly to make the call on deciding not to go somewhere based on this advice.
Would you visit the Philippines at the moment? Have you visited dangerous places and had positive or negative experiences? We’d love to hear more about how you decide whether or not somewhere is safe to visit.