Broader horizons, wider minds
What's wrong with 'risky' foreign travel? asks Lyn Hughes, editor of Wanderlust magazine
What is the most common cause of death or injury when you are travelling abroad? Terrorism? Violent assault? No. It is far and away the good old road accident. Pranging the hired car or falling off a holiday moped is a much more likely occurrence than getting mugged, caught up in a riot or eaten by a lion. And yet, time and time again, we see any venture abroad that goes beyond a sun, sea and sand package holiday labelled as something dangerous.
This was brought home at the end of December when the news broke about some Brits being taken hostage in Yemen. The phone in my office at Wanderlust magazine started ringing at nine sharp in the morning. 'Know anything about Yemen? Can you do a quick interview?' By lunchtime we had a TV crew squeezed in among our desks and several radio interviews under the belt.
No details had been given about the hostages at that point and so the media was jumping to its own conclusions, painting a picture of young thrill-seekers who got a kick out of visiting dangerous places. 'Do they go to these places looking for danger?' 'What advice would you give their parents?' There was genuine shock when it was revealed that these hostages were middle aged and middle class.
Meanwhile, as the media feeding frenzy got underway, a real-life tragedy was unfolding. When the news came through that several of the hostages had been killed, many members of the media turned hostile towards anything and anybody connected with 'adventure' travel.
A Radio 5 presenter asked why I took 'wild risks' by going to destinations further than Benidorm: 'Are you mad?' Another asked, 'Don't you think it's irresponsible of your magazine to run articles on dangerous countries?'.
I tried to explain that British tourists have been killed in Florida, the Caribbean and Australia in the past few years, yet none had been killed in Yemen in the same period. Anyway, who is to say which is a dangerous country? The advice the Foreign Office was giving out on Yemen prior to this incident was very realistic, warning of kidnappings. On the other hand, tour operators got very frustrated recently at the over-cautious official warnings that went out about the risks facing British people travelling to Chile (during the General Pinochet case) and China (after NATO bombed its embassy in Belgrade).
When the IRA was bombing the British mainland, did we warn tourists not to visit us? There would have been outrage if the USA had declared that the UK was unsafe and Americans were not to visit.
Then there is Egypt, another Middle Eastern country where tourists have been killed. And yet we have short memories. Most tour operators who go there report a resurgence of interest, with numbers of visitors almost back to the levels before the Luxor massacre in November 1997. Just a couple of weeks after that dreadful massacre, I was on a live travel show when a viewer rang in and expressed her disappointment at her dream trip having been cancelled. She wanted to know whether there were any companies still doing trips to Egypt that she could switch to. This was no danger-seeker, but a typical package holidaymaker.
Perhaps the media reaction stems from ignorance. In the case of a country that has had little attention over here (I bet a lot of journalists had to rush to their atlases to find Yemen) it is immediately categorised as being full of savages. But the most annoying thing to come out of the barrage of nonsense spoken both before and after the events in Yemen was the claim that people like me go travelling in search of danger. Nothing could be further from the truth. Serious, responsible travellers do their homework, weigh up the risks, and take rational decisions.
People travel to places like Yemen because of a desire to experience a foreign culture, see the exotic, and to taste the unknown. This was certainly true of the group kidnapped, who were intelligent, educated, well-travelled people. They were well aware of the political and cultural situation before they went to Yemen. They were travelling with one of the most respected and experienced tour companies around.
What didn't get reported was that several British groups that were out there at the time of the kidnapping chose not to cut their trips short. Indeed, one of my readers who was out there rang up to say that Yemen was 'truly amazing', and that her group had felt 'completely safe'. She said she felt desperately sorry for Yemen and how the tragedy would hit its budding tourist industry.
Sadly, shortly after the Yemen incident there was the awful tragedy in Bwindi National Park, Uganda, where eight tourists were killed by Rwandan rebels in March. It seemed to confirm the view of some members of the media that the travel industry is callously sending unwitting tourists out to dangerous corners of the world. Again, they were doing travellers a disservice. Thousands of people a year have been travelling safely to the border parks of Uganda to see the last few mountain gorillas living in the wild. To trek through muddy paths for several hours, and then spend an hour in the company of our nearest relatives is an unforgettable experience. It is one that intelligent, caring people will hopefully want to continue to have - they are probably the gorilla's only chance of survival.
Castigating travellers for pursuing their interests in foreign lands is ridiculous. Of course an element of risk comes with all travelling, but by just getting out of bed in the morning we are opening ourselves to risk. Travelling can be rather scary, but not because of any physical dangers. Culture shock and new experiences conspire to challenge us abroad. But that is how it should be, and that's why an intelligent person loves travelling. Anybody who believes that travellers just do it for the risk should get out a bit more - preferably overseas.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999