Finding Favour and Fervour while Travelling in an Era of Instability

LONGFORM

Politics


A wake up call for locals and travellers alike

But if we let them stop us from doing what we love to do - they win

 A memorial to the Paris attacks of Nov 2015 - image taken from earlburton.wordpress.com

A memorial to the Paris attacks of Nov 2015 - image taken from earlburton.wordpress.com

Peace is one of the most fragile commodities in the world. A bomb goes off in London, a truck rams into crowds in Barcelona and a shooting at a nightclub in Istanbul... a pretty damning state of affairs from any perspective.

It is thus not hard to see why the issue of safety keeps arising whenever the topic of travel is brought up. Are we more unsafe in foreign countries today as compared to previous years? The answer to this question, like most others, resists simplicity. 

This post aims to shed some light on the many facets of terrorism, how to avoid being a target and finally, to put forth an earnest plea for us to not only continue to travel, but to become an even greater believer of its benefits.

Terrorism and its discontents

In the past, people judged just how safe a destination is based on the particular location’s crime rate. Nowadays, with the proliferation of lone-wolf terrorist attacks, a new dimension of uncertainty is added to the mix. It’s not unreasonable now for people to reconsider their travel plans due to fears of terrorism. 

Simply put, terrorism is a politically motivated tool with the aim of inciting fear; a form of protest with deadly characteristics. A resistance to change and xenophobia often motivates such actions, with terrorist groups sometimes aiming to supplant or undermine national governments.

What then can explain the rising incidence of lone wolf attacks in cities not usually associated with terrorism? One explanation lies with how disenfranchised youths are being recruited and radicalised by groups that seek to ‘give meaning and structure’ to life. Another possible cause can be traced to how attacks are ‘inspired’ by the actions of these same groups. While there are also other terrorist ‘profiles’, attacks are generally accompanied by a social or political message that has been twisted to include an element of terror. A pretty grim set of circumstances. 

Terrorist attacks are also a means of saying: ‘don’t come here, your lifestyle and views aren’t welcome.’ Others also theorise that attacks on tourists are aimed at dealing a blow to the country’s tourism sector. For countries that rely heavily on tourism, attacks destabilise the country psychologically and economically. If the lessons of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia are to be learnt, the terrorists have so far achieved their aims of discouraging the flow of western ideas and money through tourism.

Should we still be travelling?

Yet, all of this is happening while we are living in a golden age for travel and tourism. Innovations in air travel have made it cheaper and faster to visit both near and far-flung destinations. Similarly, with the ubiquity of cashless payments, there has never been an easier time to travel. 

The size of the global travel industry has ballooned in recent years. In 2016, travel and tourism made up 10% of the world’s GDP, and is set to grow by 3.6% in 2017. For comparison, the World Bank estimates that global GDP is set to only grow by 2.7%. Any efforts to discourage travel and tourism can thus be seen as a threat to growth.

Similarly, a fall in tourism serves to put a halt on efforts to improve cross-cultural cohesion and understanding amongst nations and peoples. Many forget that travel is a potent form of intercultural communication that has, in the past few decades, sought to reduce instances of misunderstanding. Before the advent of modern travel, literature was littered with countless books that portrayed foreigners as ‘savages’, which were often accompanied by imaginative illustrations. For the common man living in the 19th and early 20th century (basically 99% of the population) for whom travel to foreign countries was unimaginable, one simply accepted these false illustrations and ideas as full truths. 

A famous example of this comes to mind. You’d be surprised to find out that the widely known ‘fact’ that Napoleon was an incredibly short leader is actually a mistruth. Used as a means to undermine his authority and influence, we now know that Napoleon was actually of average height. The reason for this inaccurate claim?  The English and French inches of those days were inconsistent measurements.  

One of the greatest achievements of the 21st century is the recognition that diversity is good for all of us. Greater intercultural awareness allows us to better discuss and resolve the many political and social conflicts of the day with an effectiveness that radicalism could never hope to match. Yet, participation in this movement does entail some form of exposure to attacks. What then are the risks involved when visiting a foreign country?

There is no singular answer to this question. There are certainly risks associated with every activity and the chance of being caught in the middle of an attack often varies based on demography, location and timing. It’s also pretty much impossible to predict where and when the next attack will take place. While researching the topic, I originally intended to provide a whole range of statistics regarding this issue.

However, I found that numbers and risk indices varied widely, which is often a clear indication that figures are perhaps more telling of who is counting than what is being counted. However, for those really squeamish, here's a good summary of the risks of being a fatality in a terrorist attack in European countries. The chances are still very very very low.

Nevertheless, for those who want to convince themselves that terrorism is a stupid reason for not travelling, I’ve found that this is a great resource to peruse. With the odds of being caught off guard by a terrorist attack being so low, you are much more likely to die in a plane crash (still very unlikely). There have also been no successful terrorist-related aircraft hijackings since 2010. Only one bombing was successful. Therefore, let me be clear: if you do stop travelling because of terrorism, it kind of essentially means that the terrorists have won.

Hence, make smart decisions about where you are going and what you are going to do there, and you’ll be absolutely fine. 

 New York's iconic Grand Central Terminal is protected round the clock against terrorist attacks

New York's iconic Grand Central Terminal is protected round the clock against terrorist attacks

Tips to follow

1. Follow the advice of your country’s foreign ministry

Terrorists tend to target certain nationalities because they think that they stand to gain the most leverage in influencing policy if they are able to kill or take these groups of people hostage. This is the exact reason why your foreign ministry has to issue travel warnings and advisories. Using the resources compiled by your government should be the starting point for any effort to plan a trip.

For Singaporean travellers, register with the MFA as it gives you the best avenue for seeking support if you run into any unforeseen difficulties while overseas. Similarly, take note of where and how you can seek consular assistance. Big Brother may seem malevolent at home, but he’s going to be your Best buddy if you’re stuck overseas.

2. Avoid countries that are embroiled in a civil war or have been labelled as failed states

While I am not saying that you should not by any means travel to high risk countries, take note that you are doing so at a significantly higher risk of being harmed or detained. Tourism to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela are at an all time low for good reasons. 

It is not uncommon for tourists in conflict regions to be caught in the middle of a civil war or a government crackdown simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. More often than not, communication (or lack thereof) becomes a huge problem. Exercise great caution and awareness if you do decide to travel to such places. 

3. Plan ahead, and keep updated with what’s happening

Never assume that ‘nothing is going to happen’ on your trip. With the state of instability the world is in now, things can begin to take a turn for the worse in a very short period of time. Keep yourself abreast with the possibility of potential hazards like natural disasters and civil unrest.

As long as you are aware of the who’s who and what’s where of the country you’re visiting, you shouldn’t run into problems. I’d also encourage you to take this a step further by giving this information (along with your itinerary) to someone at home. Bonus points if you are able to include details of where you can seek medical attention.

4. Travel Insurance

Buying insurance is usually a thorny issue. Buy it and you will likely not reap any of of its benefits (travel is INCREDIBLY safe), but skip it once and that’s the time you need it the most.

There’s no hard and fast rule about whether or how much coverage to buy as this really depends on where you are going and what you are doing. Furthermore, costs scales according to how unsafe a country is perceived to be. 

Insurance is however, relatively affordable even if you need to travel to high-risk locations. While I tend to skip on travel insurance if I’m going to countries that are relatively safe, your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, do get covered if travelling without insurance makes you feel uneasy. 

5. Identification documents

Don’t leave home without copies of your passport or any other forms of identification. Make photocopies and stash them across your belongings. I’ll even forgive you for typing out your details in Papyrus so long as you have the necessary information. 

 The grand lawn outside the Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo just before the Japanese Emperor opens the palace groundd to visitors

The grand lawn outside the Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo just before the Japanese Emperor opens the palace groundd to visitors

Real impact

With all I’ve said about how overstated the risks of being a victim of terrorist attack are, it’ll be disingenuous if I were to say that this hasn’t affected me. 

Months ago, I was pretty much obsessed over planning for a month long trip to Iran. Over the span of two weeks, I amassed a comprehensive list of the various historical sites and natural wonders I wanted to see. I’ve long been fascinated by the politics, history and culture of Iran for quite some time, and the opportunity to go on this trip was too enticing to ignore. 

Despite being in one of the world’s most volatile regions, Iran still remains as an extremely safe country for tourists, even for the solo female traveller. This generally stems from that the fact that Iran is still yet untouched by the negative consequences of highly commercialised tourism. Locals are very hospitable and eager to help, and the government is fiercely committed to maintaining internal security.  

However, this aspiration was quickly dashed after ISIS released a statement that outlined their intention to step up attacks on Tehran. ISIS’ adherence to Salafi-Wahabism (an extremely radical sect of Sunni Islam), puts it in direct conflict with Iran, where a majority of the population practice Shia Islam. This undoubtedly caused a great deal of apprehension not least from my parents.

On hindsight, while the threat of ISIS attacks is real (my cop out), I feel like I should have went ahead with my plans anyway. In any case, I'd wager that the spectre of terrorism is perhaps more representative of the state of the region's politics rather than a particular indictment of Iran as a tourist destination. 

Think different

Travel has been a revolution for peace and intercultural understanding on par with century-defining events like the creation of the UN and the reunification of Germany. Travel also forces us to directly contend with the cultural, racial and linguistic diversity found across the globe during our journeys. As far as I’m concerned, this is great for the future of humanity.

Despite the alarming frequency of attacks, it is important to note that terrorism is not only a radical idea, but also a radical movement, one that is confined to the peripheries of our modern left-right political spectrum. Hence, it is still not too late to reclaim our public spaces and conversations from these groups.

Tour guides are important to the industry for this very reason. Guides aim to explain to the traveller; the history, culture and politics of whole nations. A keen understanding of these ideas hence allows us to realise that radicalism is a fringe phenomenon and not the guiding philosophy for a whole region of the world like the media would like us to believe. In the same vein, the popularity of tours speaks volumes of our innate wish to understand and know more about others. 

This approach to travel is something that resonates deeply with me. I believe that behind the awe inspiring facades of a building, there exists a story of history or culture that is screaming to be uncovered. My aim is to be able to discover and write about such narratives simply because they’re usually pretty damn interesting. 

We may all come from different countries and have wildly different experiences of life, politics and religion, but at the end of the day - all we want out of life is to be loved, feel a sense of security and have the ability to chase fulfilment. Travel more and you’ll see just how true this is. Don’t let them win. 
 

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