It used to be that, barring the occasional pickpocketing, dishonest taxi driver or clever con, tourists were reasonably safe as long as they didn’t flaunt their comparative wealth. There were the occasional murders, of course; sometimes when someone wandered where they shouldn’t, when they got mixed up with the wrong sort (either local or fellow traveller), or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But travelling was generally a pretty safe pastime.
Then, not so long ago, travellers—like journalists—became an attractive target for terrorists and others wishing to gain notoriety.
Suddenly, an international hotel, a tour group or a backpack—with or without a flag patch—became a target as desirable as a political leader or member of the police or military, and significantly easier to attack.
In the past few years we have seen deadly terrorist attacks claiming the lives of tourists in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Turkey, India, Israel and Kenya, among others. Some were blatantly targeting tourists, while others scooped up unfortunate travellers among local casualties. Visitors were also victims in some of Paris’s recent bombings as well as the earlier London bus bombings, and even New York’s 9/11 attacks.
For the terrorists, tourists are a rich target, as such an attack not only ensures local headlines but also international ones. Terrorist attacks on tourists also help damage the local economy and therefore destabilize the government or institutions that the terror organization presumably opposes. Visitors are also generally quite easy to spot, and unlike “hard targets” such as politicians or security forces, often completely unguarded.
So here’s the question: as terrorists increasingly pursue travellers, should we all just stay at home on our vacations instead of venturing overseas?
It’s almost as easy to say “I’m never leaving Canada again!” as it is to say “Damn the terrorists, they won’t stop me!” But the reality lies somewhere in between.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Agency, in 2015 there were 1.18 billion people in the world who travelled internationally for tourism. And only an infinitesimally small number of those became the victims of terrorism.
While we should by no means disregard the threat that terrorism poses to travellers, we also shouldn’t allow it to prevent us from going, from experiencing different cultures and peoples, and from seeing some of the greatest sights in the world. We should also be sure not to deprive ourselves of the many life-changing and mind-broadening positive realities of travel that some of the greatest minds have been advocating for centuries: namely, as Mark Twain famously once put it, that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
So how do we find that happy balance between seeing the world and staying safe? If only for practical reasons that involve travel insurance and consular assistance, we should always abide by our own government’s warnings and travel advisories. Even if we feel we know better and that the warnings are exaggerated, outdated or even outright wrong, to ignore them can provide all sorts of problems that are best avoided.
“We should never lose sight of the fact that of the more than 1 billion people who travelled internationally for tourism last year, barely a handful fell victim in the process”
We could choose to only travel to so-called “safe” destinations—but what exactly is a “safe” destination these days? There’s barely a spot in the world that someone wouldn’t describe as risky, from every corner of Europe to idyllic sun-soaked South Pacific or Caribbean islands, and even warm and welcoming Australia.
Between terrorism, natural disasters and disease, there will always be someone who raises a red flag somewhere. We could heed the ubiquitous government warnings to avoid “crowds” while travelling, but that would deprive us of seeing pretty much every tourist sight in the world and likely nullify our reason for leaving home in the first place.
We could avoid big, flashy international hotels and choose smaller less conspicuous backstreet properties preferred by the locals, but there’s no guarantee that one day those won’t be targeted as well.
Or we could just stay at home and explore our own big cities and tourist hot-spots; but if many security analysts are to be believed, it’s only a matter of time before we suffer our own domestic incident here, anyway.
Instead, I propose that while steering clear of places such as Somalia, Iraq and Syria is still a good idea, we should continue to travel, to explore this great world of ours and make new friends. And as likely as it is that terrorists will continue to target travellers all over the world, we should never lose sight of the fact that of the more than 1 billion people who travelled internationally for tourism last year, barely a handful fell victim in the process.
By all means, be alert, sensible and vigilant—but always be open to travel.