Istanbul

The tram to Taksim Square – on a normal day.

As we’ve seen in Turkey this week, a place that’s relatively calm, peaceful, and stable one week can see all hell break loose the next.

So how do you decide if you should change your travel plans or just adjust them to avoid the trouble spots? How do you answer the question, Should I stay or should I go now? The key is to figure out how localized the problem is and how easily it can be avoided.

Is this for real?

Usually you have to ask yourself two questions: “How bad is it really?” and “How widespread is the problem?”

I shouldn’t have to tell you that American TV news is downright horrible. You’ve got four 24-hour news networks (and a few others from abroad) all trying to beat each other out in the ratings by being louder, more sensationalist, and more “of the moment” than the rest. It’s a clown in a business suit: entertainment packaged as news.

By it’s very nature, 24-hour TV news is focused on the story of the day, the more outrageous and powerful the better. What’s going to make you tune in and keep watching? Usually disasters, tragedies, and violence. So if there are protests in the street somewhere, that’s going to be at the top of the hour. If a pretty young woman gets raped in some scary foreign country like India, that’s next. (If she gets raped in the USA, of course, that’s not news unless it’s part of a long-term abduction or something really horrific happens.)

Istanbul travel danger

Taksim Square in Istanbul lately. (Flickr photo by Will Cowan)

Anger in the Streets

We’ve seen a lot of riots in the streets every year I can remember, going back to when I was a little kid and my parents had the one hour of news on. They’ll still be happening long after I’m dead. Things reach a boiling point, angry people organize, and there are clashes between protesters and police. Sometimes it’s a revolution and the government goes down. Other times there’s either a nasty crackdown or some kind of negotiated settlement. Or it just plays itself out and fizzles.

For travelers, if it’s localized in one place, as it mostly was in Bangkok a few years ago and in Egypt after that, then you don’t have much to worry about. Away from the epicenter, life goes on as usual.

Other times the upheaval is part of a nationwide explosion of anger or desire for change, the kinds of protests that bring down the iron curtain or turn a country we formerly got along with into one that paints giant Death to America murals everywhere. That’s if they succeed. If they don’t you get a violent tit-for-tat or just violent oppression. The first gives us Syria, the second may be what we get in Turkey if things continue on the present course. Neither is a good outcome if you’re there.

Current news verdict: Yellow alert. If I were in Turkey now, as I was just a month ago, as a backpacker I’d either get out or head somewhere mellow, far away from the big cities. It could get worse before it gets better. The power-grabbing prime minister is not known for compromise and is saying plans to pave paradise and put up a shopping mall will move forward. That was the spark (well, and strict new alcohol rules) that started the whole powder keg…

A High-profile Crime Against a Tourist

The news media loves nothing better than a pretty young woman who has been a crime victim in a scary foreign land. It makes for good films, good books, and yes, good cable news stories. That narrative taps into so many emotional triggers the producers probably get downright giddy when this comes down the newswires.

Recently a woman was raped by three Indian men in a popular area for backpackers between Vashist and Manali while hitchhiking. Alone. In the wee hours after midnight. That’s not a bright thing to do many places on this planet, but India’s not getting any slack since this is on top of a string of other similar high-profile incidents. Still, if this happened in the USA though, where there are some 200,000 reported incidents a year, nobody would have heard about it. Especially if she were not traveling.

Tourism was reportedly already down by 1/3 among women before this happened, so it’s going to add insult to injury. Any woman who’s been groped for weeks on end in India will probably say, “Good, they deserve it.”

I’d say it’s part of a much larger issue of religious sexual oppression that exists across huge swaths of the world. Are there any quick fixes for that? I doubt it. But they can try.

Current news verdict: It’s your call. India has always been a tough place for any woman to travel. I stayed in a hostel with a woman that had been raped two days before when I was first there, and this was 18 years ago. Things haven’t gotten much better. The risk is real, but millions of women have traveled India alone without more than annoyance and frustration. As a BBC story on this case says (italics mine), “Reported cases of sexual assault are on the rise in India, although foreign tourists are rarely targeted.”

travel plans spoiled

Budapest this week. (Flickr photo by Jonk)

Natural Disasters

Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York City, tornadoes in the midwest USA, and now serious floods in Central Europe. One act of God can ruin your whole trip—especially if the fine print on your travel insurance says they don’t cover “acts of God” (true verbage sometimes) or “natural disasters.”

The floods hitting Europe right now are serious business and they are having an impact on the following popular tourist destinations: Bratislava, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Plus a bunch of cities in Germany along the Rhine. River cruise boats are docked, with all those passengers up the high creek.

Sometimes the news is overblown: a tornado often only hits a small specific area. It sucks if you’re there, but fine a mile away. Floodwaters are relatively easy to track on a map. Hurricanes are a different story, as are earthquakes and tsunamis nobody saw coming.

Travel verdict: Take your financial lumps and get out. Unless you want to stick around and help. Nobody has time to take care of the tourists, so you’ll need to become a volunteer.

Crime Waves (and War Zones)

There’s seldom any such thing as a crime wave. It’s usually been rising for years, but suddenly people wake up when it makes the news.

Then those viewers have veerrrrryy long memories. It was two decades ago when Mexico City taxicab abductions last happened regularly. More than a decade since Medellin wasn’t safe to walk around at night. Croatia hasn’t been at war since 1995.

In some places though, the violence is a very real threat. The key is knowing where that threat comes from. Guatemala City and Caracas are not places you want to go partying at night if you have a choice. Same for the two main cities in Honduras. Or the border towns/cities in Mexico. But does this mean you shouldn’t go to see the ruins of Tikal, Uxmal, or Copan? Of course not—one has little to do with the other, just as Santa Fe’s homicide rate has nothing to do with the one in New Orleans.

Travel verdict: get the real story. Most crime stories are overblown, but some are not. You only know by doing some real research. You won’t find me spending the night in Tegucigalpa, Ciudad Juarez, or northern Nigeria anytime soon. Go an hour or two away, however, and it’s a different story. Crime is local—where you live and where you’re going.