Monday, 4 April 2016

Fear Of Travel

An Idiot Abroad?
My wife and I are just back from a trip to Turkey - Capadoccia and Istanbul. I knew all about the recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul when I booked the trip and continued to pay attention up to the time we travelled. There were bombings while we were there and threats have continued this week since we got back. I registered these terrible events before travelling and considered the risks. We did not change our plans. We stayed in the busiest tourist area of Sultanahmet Square but in a smaller guesthouse in a side-street. We even joined the somewhat diminished hoards and visited the Hagia Sophia mosque as well as the Grand Bazaar and we ate out in restaurants near to the square. Traders, hotel managers and restauranteurs in Istanbul told us how the terror attacks had caused about a 50% reduction in tourism for the time of year. They were suffering badly. Given the countless news reports then, friends of mine found it surprising that I would take the risk of continuing with this holiday. They probably think I'm a bit of an idiot.

Istanbul - The Golden Horn

Tourism & The Psychology Of Risk
I should say here that risk management is what I do for a living. I have studied it in great depth both at an intellectual and a practical level. The statistics do not support the average person's view of the level of risk. As human beings we are programmed to avoid things that scare us, but most of us go by fairly unscientific instinct. In my work I see how people will take great care to use safety controls when what they see frightens them but not when what they see looks unthreatening. People will not put their hand into an industrial mincing machine because they can see sides of meat being put in and minced meat instantly coming out. They can imagine the pain of that happening to their arm. They will not make a parachute jump without training and careful checks of the safety procedures because they are afraid of heights when they look out of the plane door. But tell them they need to be careful of how they sit at their computer because over time they could develop life-changing back problems and they will laugh (and continue to sit badly). So seeing pictures and film on TV of people blown-up in a Paris nightclub or outside a hotel in Istanbul scares us and we will take action. We will stay away. But statistically the likelihood of my wife and I being injured or killed in a bomb blast in Istanbul was miniscule. It was probably no higher and perhaps lower than the same thing happening to us in London and yet in London we would feel safer. Human nature and our perception of risk is not reliable. If you don't believe this, see how nervous you feel standing at the edge of a high structure even when there is a solid barrier to protect you from falling.

Our instincts are not always a reliable indicator of the true level of risk

The Impact Of Terrorism On Tourism
The impacts of terrorism on the travel and tourism industry can be enormous. It can lead to unemployment, homelessness, deflation, and many other social and economic ills and spreads beyond the immediate tourist industry to effect the wider economy of a country. The contribution made by tourist spending in many countries is so great that any downturn in the industry is a cause of major concern for governments. It matters little that the actual risks are low, it is about how the consumer perceives things, and in that the media with their often sensationalist focus do not help. The repercussions spread far and wide, into many industries associated with tourism like airlines, hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to the tourists and allied services but also to the businesses that supply them. In the end it affects the whole economy. Terrorist organisations have become more sophisticated. They know these things. They know that seriously damaging the economy of a country is just as effective as frightening individuals.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Normally at this time this scene would be filled with tourists.

The Underlying Causes
Clearly the world needs to address the underlying causes of terrorism. People will always have differing views on how things should be run. At one time people with strong views against the status quo would simply protest in the streets or lobby politicians for change. They might even go into politics themselves to try to achieve those changes. That kind of change can be slow to bring about. Increasingly we live in a world of instant gratification. It's all about having what we want and consumerism plays a big part. While millions starve, many of us are out shopping for stuff we do not need. Stuff that will fill up our houses only to be eventually thrown into landfill. Or perhaps we sooth our consciences by making the effort to put it in the recycle bin. Even in relationships we are no longer prepared to work through difficulties, we simply change partner and move on. Chuck one away and order another. Young people turn to terrorism because they want change now, and terrorism seems the fastest way to get it. It can be as simple as the media telling them they need a Ferrari to be successful but there being no realistic chance of them achieving that. We all need to think about the way we are choosing to live and the way we bring up our children. Terrorism as an immediate problem needs to be addressed en-mass by governments, academics and think-tanks, but it is through our personal life choices that we will really change things.

We are all responsible for the state of the world today.
There are unseen consequences to all our actions - especially consumer actions.

So What Can We Do?
When it comes to public response to the terrorist threat, there are obviously things we can do as individuals to protect ourselves. We can ask ourselves if a journey is really necessary. We can choose to travel at quieter times and choose a means of transport less likely to be targeted. We can take holidays in places where gatherings of large groups of people are unlikely and in locations where political tensions are lower. But will this solve the problem? Of course not. Terrorists will simply adjust their methodology and target us in other ways - in schools, sports stadiums or workplaces. They will target us more in our own country. Most of all they need us to be afraid and they benefit from us being unscientific about risk. If we perceive that we are likely to be blown up every time we get on a plane and we are afraid of this, then they will try to blow up more planes because they can see it is effective. Planes feel less safe to us because once they take off we are trapped inside. We can't change our minds because we don't like the look of the guy in the seat in front and get off at the next stop. I cycled 10,000 miles from Ireland to Japan (and survived). I did not perceive it as especially dangerous but I'm sure the likelihood of me being killed was far higher than flying there. And yet I felt safer because I was in control. And I would suggest that this is what we can do. Stay in control.
Travel safety & security advice:
Travel preparation, health etc:

Common-sense Checklist

1. Be aware of the statistical risk - what are the realistic chances of something bad happening and make your travel plans based on that rather than your instinct (which is affected by media hype)

2. Avoid large gatherings where possible (sports stadia, big events and attractions) but be realistic about the risks - the chances of something happening to you are still low.

3. Check the Foreign Office Travel website for the latest advice on travel locations. I find these very reliable since they are not affected by media exaggeration.

4. Stay in cheaper hotels or better still a small B&B. They may not have armed guards at the door and bag searches, but terrorists are highly unlikely to target them.

5. In high risk countries such as in certain locations in the Middle East, be careful what you say in public. You needn't be paranoid but don't broadcast yourself as a western tourist or let everyone know your political views.

6. Many people feel safer abroad in organised tour groups, but perversely larger groups of tourists are a far more vulnerable target. Research things properly in advance and you will find travelling individually can be safe - sometimes much safer (as well as more rewarding).

Finally I would say that it's important to tell others. It's not always possible to see the threats, but if you go to somewhere like Istanbul and have a great time with no signs of a terror threat, others back home need to know that. Otherwise we remain at the mercy of the sensation-seeking media who are not averse to being 'selective' in their broadcasts to give the impression that a mostly peaceful location is more like a war-zone.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.



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