Fear, Risk and Travel

Fear, Risk and TravelLast week 17 tourists were killed by gunmen in Tunisia. You probably heard about it as it was all over the news.

You probably remember the case of Natalee Holloway who disappeared in 2005 in Aruba. You remember it because it was all over the news.

Every year there are one or two news stories about some British or Australian citizen facing execution in a Southeast Asian country for smuggling drugs. When this happens it is all over the news.

Certainly everyone can remember the Malaysia Air flight 370 which disappeared, or more recently the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525.

Tourist tragedy has become one of the go to stories for any cable news outlet. Travel tragedy can fill up days or even weeks of a 24-hour news cycle. When these travel related stories aren’t in the news, there is usually some other catastrophe which is playing out in the media. ISIS, ebola, fighting in Ukraine, are just some of the most recent examples of the media feeding fears about the rest of the world.

When I was recently in Haiti, I asked many people what they knew about Haiti and they didn’t know much beyond natural disasters and civil strife.

“Have a safe trip” has replaced “Have a nice trip” or “Bon Voyage” in our lexicon when someone leaves on a trip.

People have become so scared about the “what if’s” of traveling, they have lost all sense of perspective about actual risks. Moreover, the decisions we make based on fear can often make things worse, or at least provide no benefit.

For example:

  • After the September 11 attacks, so many people were afraid to fly that they took to driving. Several different studies have estimated that there were as many as 1,595 extra road fatalities in the United States in the 12 months after, because people switched to a more dangerous form of transportation: cars.
  • One man cancelled his $80,000 honeymoon safari to Mozambique because of ebola fears. Problem was, there was no ebola in Mozambique…or anywhere near Mozambique. In fact, the Mozambique capital of Maputo is farther from Sierra Leone than London. The guy also didn’t have any travel insurance.
  • People assume that traveling in large groups is safer than traveling alone, yet almost every terrorist attack against tourists has occurred…..against large groups. Which if you try to think like a terrorist makes perfect sense.

Our fears are massively out of whack with reality.

There are several things which distort our fears.

  • We tend to exaggerate threats which come from other people. We tend to worry more about the murderer, terrorist, rapist than we do about other threats which are not the result of malice. Crimes also have a greater tendency to make the news, which inflate the threat in our mind.
  • We fear single catastrophes more than smaller individual accidents. 150 people dying in a place crash will be the top story on the news for a week. 150 people dying in 150 auto accidents will never get a mention.
  • Assuming places in the same country or region are the same. There are parts of Mexico where crime and drug violence is rampant. When people hear these stories, they cancel travel plans to Mexico. However, Mexico is a really big country. There are other parts of Mexico where the crime rate is on a par with Finland. If someone canceled a vacation to San Francisco because of gang violence in Baltimore, most Americans would laugh, but that is exactly the same way we react to news in other countries.
  • Fear of the unknown. Most people have learned to adapt to the circumstances they live with. They know which parts of town to avoid and how to behave to avoid having bad things happen to them. If you know nothing about another place, however, you don’t know how to behave or what is the norm. I’ve had Americans express a fear of traveling to places like Norway or Germany, even though they are in fact much safer than the United States.
  • Over reliance on the media. Cable news wants people to tune in and there is no better way to do that than make everyone terrified. Fear mongering has become the stock and trade of television news. Almost 100% of what you hear about the rest of the world will be about some horrible event(s), the goal of which is to make you afraid.

There are things that everyone can do to put risk and fear in proper perspective when you travel.

  • Talk to people on the ground. Social media makes is very easy to find people who either live in the place you want to visit, or have recently been there. Ask them what they find on the ground. You will almost always find it to be very different from what you hear in the media.
  • Get travel insurance. If nothing else, it will give you peace of mind for whatever might actually happen during a trip. (Disclosure: I work with Allianz Travel Insurance and use them to cover me when I travel)
  • Learn about the destination. Most countries tend to have diverse regions and the situation in one might be very different than another. Know the difference between Northern Mexico and the Mayan Rivera for example. Same country, but totally different circumstances.
  • Familiarize yourself with statistics. Really understanding and having an appreciation for statistics will put your mind at ease when you are taking a plane flight with a 1-in-1,000,000 chance of crashing. Likewise, when you realize your risk of being a victim of a terrorist attack or getting ebola is less than getting stuck by lightening, you won’t be so quick to change your travel plans.

There are some things that you should be concerned about when traveling, but most of the fears people have are unwarranted. Educate yourself, look at things in perspective and stop watching cable news and you’ll will be more confident going on your next trip.

8 thoughts on “Fear, Risk and Travel”

  1. You are so right. We were in East Africa on safari last year around the same time of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Friends and family at home in Canada were convinced we were going to contract Ebola, or some other crazy disease, on our travels.
    Since getting back from our RTW a couple of months ago, we continue to get the question ” so what was the scariest place you visited” or “where did you feel the most uncomfortable”. Of course, they all expect us to say somewhere in Africa or Asia, but our honest answer in Vancouver, here in Canada. Don’t get me wrong, Vancouver is totally safe and we fell in love with the city….but some areas in the city made us feel more uncomfortable than we did anywhere else on our travels!
    Thanks for this post! :)

  2. beng from colombia say that i can ravel anywhere couse i already face all the dangers in my own country and everywhee else is safe. but the truth s that colombia is as afe as any place in the world. my wife was recently mugged in barcelona and she was never mugged in colombia. so the most imortant is not to be naive. foow the simpe rules that you follow in you hometown and enjoy

  3. Risk is everywhere, whether you are travelling or not, heart disease, cancer, stroke can happen to anyone at any time. Statistically speaking you are still more likely to die in a car crash on your way to the airport than on the actual plane itself.

  4. We’ve been thinking of this issue more and more as my wife and I continue our travels while trying to stay level headed. But it seems like this year was the year of all years–in recent memory–as far as travel disasters goes, which is taking its toll.

  5. An excellent article and a great reminder. It’s true that we’re often overly pessimistic about things. Your re-assessment puts it

  6. Great post and I totally agree. I would rather take a risk in going out there and living my life than sitting at home and never doing anything. Routine is fatal after all. But saying that I do think that travel is made to appear unsafe as another way to try to control us and make more money from us, travelling in groups for example, all inclusive complexes. We visited Ukraine last year and had an amazing time and saw a fantastic country without ever being in danger. Then just last week a man my age was stabbed in my home town for doing nothing other than being in the wrong time and the wrong place. We can’t predict the future so I say just go for it and live.

  7. Every word true. I travelled to southern Japan one week after the Fukushima accident, against the advice of many friends and family. My sister was living there at the time and for her, life was going on as normal. My first few days were a little nervous but then I was distracted by the food, the people, the culture and loved every minute. Calculate the risk realistically and use local knowledge – the way to go.

  8. Great reminder! I love your point about how our standard lexicon regarding travel has changed to ‘have a safe trip’ (even I, a travel advocate, is guilty of this) which seems to perpetuate the idea that travel is dangerous and you best be careful or else something bad will happen.

    I hate to see that people avoid traveling because they think it is dangerous. It only reminds me that we as a species let fear paralyze us too much. There is a difference between fear and danger and we would be wise to learn the difference.

    BTW, did you hear about the million travelers who didn’t die last week but did have amazing lifetime experiences?

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