Anna Moreau asks just how religiously we should follow cautionary measures when travelling abroad.
International SOS, an advisory company on levels of international risk, released an interactive global security map at the end of 2019. The map illustrates the safest and most dangerous places for both tourists and businesses going into the new year. The map ranks countries from insignificant travel security risk (in green) to extreme travel security risk (in dark red) by assessing variables ranging from political violence, social unrest, crime rates, efficiency of emergency services and susceptibility to natural disasters. The map highlights that amongst the safest countries are Luxembourg, Norway and Iceland and amongst the most dangerous are Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan.
These maps should, arguably, be viewed with a pinch of salt. If the start of this decade has taught us anything, it’s that the current geopolitical nature of our world is volatile and constantly changing. Tensions between the US and Iran have heightened since the beginning of 2020, suggesting that Iran - a country deemed to be the same level of safety as the UK - is no longer safe to travel to. The same could be said for countries such as Chile or China, which both experienced mass protests during the past 12 months, or even more recently the deadly bushfires raging through Australia. Occurrences such as these have been prevalent through the last decade, and will certainly be present going forward. Can we really predict where it will be safe to travel, given the geopolitical and environmentally hazardous nature of today’s society? And does this suggest that we shouldn’t travel at all?
Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in the US, states that places said to be unsafe are - for the most part - pleasant to visit, and that he personally does not heed the US State Department’s public travel advisories as he believes them to be out of date. He also points out that our perceptions of a country’s safety can be skewed by headlines and their representation in media, which often solely shine a spotlight on reports focused on violence, conflict and disasters which exacerbate negative perceptions of countries.
This attitude towards travelling is beneficial, not only for one’s personal enrichment, but also for wider international relations. Travelling to countries with negative stereotypes projected by western governments and through the mainstream media promotes understanding, which in turn builds tolerance and relationships between differing communities. This involves exploring and experiencing different cultures, talking to local people - really immersing yourself in a country. A gradual flow of people travelling to countries considered dangerous would also force greater communications between governments to ensure that citizens in both the receiving and donor countries are safe. Travelling and experiencing different cultures could arguably be a solution to a divided world.
Obviously, whether you can do so depends on personal circumstance. While I don’t expect parents to take toddlers on a family holiday to war zones in the Middle East or the Amazon rainforest, I do encourage those who enjoy travelling to expand their horizons. Travelling to high security risk countries would have to be a gradual process - I doubt that a swarm of British tourists arriving in politically fragile countries would do much to help. Slowly normalising travelling to countries considered dangerous will bring nations together and encourage a more accepting society, driven by communication and tolerance as opposed to being driven by fear of a perceived other and misunderstood cultures. Today, we are at risk of living caged lives within enclosed nation states where specific countries and spaces become branded with negative connotations due to excess pessimistic media coverage and the build-up of historical stereotypes.
International SOS’s travel security risk map is helpful in giving a brief overview of unsafe zones across the world, but it risks generalising communities and simplifying geopolitical issues. To truly understand our world, we must travel to those places bombarded with stereotypical connotations and create our own world view which has not been skewed by media or politics.