Ignorance, Fear and Travel

This is NOT Chechnya
This is NOT Chechnya
As I travel around the world I get to talk to a wide range of people. As you would expect, many of them have some affiliation with the travel and tourism industry. I speak to tour guides, representatives of national tour boards, waitresses, hotel managers and even the cleaning staff.

One questions I always ask is how tourism is doing in their particular country or region. Some places are up, some are down and some are very dependent on visitors from another particular area. If the area where the toursits come from suffers economic problems, then the destination will suffer as well.

Back in 2010 I had a front row seat to major political protests in Bangkok, Thailand. During the protests many travel experts, including the legendary Arthur Frommer, were advising people to completely avoid Thailand. With the information I had on the ground, I could see for myself that other than a few square blocks in Bangkok, nothing was happening in Thailand. People who weren’t there were making judgements based on what they saw on television and then extrapolated that to the entire country.

…but at least something was happening in Thailand. While I disagreed with Arthur Frommer’s assessment of of the situation, I at least understood why he was taking the position he did.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve noticed people making judgments based on a complete and total ignorance of the world.

The most spectacular recent example are the people who, after the identities of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were released, didn’t know the difference between Chechnya (a predominantly Islamic region of Russia) and the Czech Republic (a predominately Catholic country in Central Europe). To make matters worse, many people called it Czechoslovakia, a country which hasn’t existed for over 20 years.

The last two weeks I’ve been exploring the country of Jordan and the story I’ve heard from people all over the country is that tourism has dropped dramatically since the Arab Spring events started in 2011. Violence broke out against regimes in many Arab countries including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and Syria. In some countries, in particular Libya and Syria, the violence was/is so great that it is advisable for travelers to stay away.

Jordan and other Arab countries which didn’t sufferer anything like what happend Libya or Egypt were lumped together because they happen to be in the “middle east”. People canceled travel planes to Jordan based on what was happening in Syria. People avoided Dubai because of events in Egypt.

It boggles the mind.

It is true that countries like Jordan and Turkey have been unwillingly effected by the conflict in Syria. 100,000’s of refugees have flooded into both countries. The thing is, they fled there because both countries are safe and stable.

One of the worst things you can do is to paint with an unnecessarily broad bush. “The Middle East” is just a geographical abstraction. I’ve been to many countries in the region and they are all different. They have different governments, ethnic and religious makeups, histories and geographies. What happens in one country (or even city) shouldn’t necessarily impact travel decisions.

I don’t necessarily advocate traveling to dangerous places, but you should make an effort to find out the specifics of where you are planning to travel and not lump together countries which have nothing to do with each other.

If you don’t make informed decisions, you do things like suggesting we invade a country that hasn’t existed for two decades because of some kids who come from a similar sounding place 1,000’s of kilometers away.

25 thoughts on “Ignorance, Fear and Travel”

  1. I’m Pole – neibour of Chech Rep. and Slovakia. I swear that I many of Poles are not able to distinguish these two countries. So don’t worry about ignroance of your countrymen.

  2. That is so true for the Philippines especially those who would like to explore Mindanao. People think that just because a foreigner was kidnapped somewhere in Mindanao, the entire island is not safe. As a result, they miss safe havens that offer adventure, beauty, quiet and a laid-back atmosphere.

  3. True words!
    Ignorance is an ugly thing.. but ignorance coming from mass media, ignorance that can actually influence people at large, that’s even worse!
    When I moved to Dubai about 6 years ago I had people telling me “is it safe?” and jokes like “careful with the bombs”.. because they just put the Middle East in one big shelf of “radical terrorists”.
    On online travel forums, such as Lonely Planet, I keep on reading (and replying) to people who are just so afraid to go to Mexico, even if we’re talking about Cancun and we know that, many of them, won’t even make it out of their beach resorts of surrounding areas.
    Gotta get informed before you travel, otherwise, it’s your loss.. you’ll miss out on A LOT!

  4. I am entirely in agreement! There are certain places you probably don’t want to travel to because they are dangerous, but it is important to make that decision after doing research and forming an educated opinion – not just listening to a catch phrase on Fox News!

  5. The truth is you’ll never know if you never go. And when you’re 80 you’ll regret that your comfort has brought you no stories to pass on.

  6. I stop even paying attention to most news when it comes to travel otherwise you will never want to leave the house based on all of the ‘dangerous’ places in the world that happen to be outside of America. So much of it is just hearsay or negative perceptions that have no basis in reality.

  7. If we allow ignorance and fear to stop us, then we might as well stay inside the house forever, I remember my mom once told me that if only she can lock me inside the house to prevent me from traveling to far places and keep me safe… but then she acknowledges my freedom and of course, my need to explore the world.

  8. We travel to satisfy our ignorance and to meet different people with different culture. Thumbs up for this nice article.

  9. Nice post. I consider myself well traveled and I visited a lot of countries around the world. While traveling I didn’t notice much about ignorance or fear for countries because most people are open minded. Since 5 months i’ve been living in Australia and I notice most people here only know Bali as Asia. They all go to Bali and think they’ve seen all of asia and know everything about it. This while Bali is, at most places, very aimed at tourists. This means they usually never discover a real taste of Asia and the many different countries in this part of the world.

    Good post! I’ll keep following your blog!

  10. I know this is an extreme example, but I just returned from N. Korea (DPRK) having been there at the height of the rhetoric. I along with my travel mates, contemplated long and hard about cancelling – and what a mistake if we had! We were welcomed to playing children and others going about their daily routines – with no signs of missiles or tanks or anything CNN or BBC was showing on endless repeat as we were there! So much hype in the press..

  11. Every time I that I am preparing to leave the U.S. for an international destination, something dreadful pops up on the news. Swines flu, volcano eruptions, another terrorist situation, salmonella, North Korea antics…….there is always something that if we allowed it to could interfere with our passion and enthusiasm to see the world. I finally just stopped listening to the news.

  12. Americans are notoriously bad for being ethnocentric and under-educated when it comes to geography. I have friends who still believe that Spain is in South America, that Bolivia and Bulgaria must be close to one another because they sound the same, and that there’s nowhere in Mexico where drug cartels won’t kill you.

    Travel, Experience, Education – they’re synonymous.

  13. I’ve had friends explore places like Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Iraq and they come back with such an appreciation for the unique culture and beauty of these countries and more importantly an experience of the people that live there which isn’t distorted by mainstream media

  14. When the American woman got killed in Turkey my sister referred to Turkey as “one of those countries.” I asked what that meant, I never did get an answer.

  15. Oh, and I just like to add: Those Jordan photos look great! Never been to that side of the world aside from layovers in airports so will have to ad this to our travel destinations soon :)

  16. Wow. So there really are people that can’t distinguish between Chechnya and Czech republic?

    But I get where this is coming from. Having traveled recently, a lot of the misinformation and pretentiousness that comes from people are all the result of not traveling enough :D

  17. Does this mean that it is cheap to travel to Jordan now? I didn’t know the tourism industry was doing bad. Actually, Mexico suffers from this too. I have never felt unsafe anywhere in Mexico and I have traveled it extensively. Given, I am Mexican American, but when I travel, with DSLR in hand, it is obvious that I am a tourist.
    I went to Puerto Vallarta a few years ago and prices were down to 60% discounts, mainly because ignorance had kept American travelers away.

    Maybe you can put something to rest. Is it true that if you travel to Jordan, the Israeily government will not let you into Israel?

    • I think Jordan has always been relatively cheap compared to Europe or even Israel.

      I know Petra was a lot less crowded this time than it was when i was there in 2009.

  18. Yemen is generally not safe, but I went to the Island of Socotra last year, and that was totally safe, despite being Yemeni. There is no such thing as a safe or unsafe country, only safe and unsafe places. There are much safer places in Kurdish Northern Iraq than certain areas of Baltimore; you just need to do your homework.

  19. Just got back from Jordan as well and it was painful to hear how much their tourism industry is suffering as a result of the ongoing issues in Syria. I think pieces like yours and shared on-the-ground “real traveler” experiences can mitigate fear with a little reality.

  20. Yeah, we heard a lot of that sort of crap when we told people we were going to Mexico for a few months. “There are all those murders down there!” Yeah, well we’re not planning on joining a drug cartel or visiting any cities where they’re fighting it out. About the only danger we’ve run into so far is over indulging my margarita jones.

  21. most american can not tell the difference between checnya and
    the czech republic.
    i even know a few american who can not tell the difference between china and japan!

  22. I can certainly identify with the Thailand /Bangkok situation Gary. Greece suffered the same damage due to the Athens unrest a couple of years ago.
    However, there might be a logical explanation for the Jordan situation. I imagine that many of the trips cancelled might have been packages, including both Jordan and other countries more directly affected by the Arab Spring events; so the peaceful destinations in the package are affected as much as the rest.

    • I think most package tours will visit Israel if anywhere. Very few would go to Syria and Egypt is usually its own thing.

      Most of the package group people I met were doing ‘Holy Land’ tours on both sides of the Dead Sea.

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