I’ve been thinking of writing this post for a long time now and in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Stockholm, Sweden; the Palm Sunday attacks in Alexandria and Tanta, Egypt; and the roadside bombs in Dortmund, Germany; I felt it was finally time to do it. I am in no way trivializing these senseless tragedies, because what happened is truly horrific and I feel deeply for the victims and their family and friends, but let me tell you why I won’t let terrorism stop me from traveling and why you shouldn’t either.
These days, there is no such thing as a “safe” country or city
I spent 3 months last fall traveling around Europe and parts of the Middle East (Jordan and Israel) and when I told family and friends of my travel plans, many told me that they wouldn’t visit those countries/cities as they no longer felt safe there, given that they’d had one or several terrorist attacks in the last few years. I pointed out that even our own country (Canada) has not been immune to terrorist attacks, as there had been an attack on Parliament Hill in 2014 as well as several smaller incidents throughout the years. And that the odds of dying from a terrorist attack are less than 0.002% (you have better odds of winning the lottery). And that Winnipeg (the city where we live) has been the murder capital of Canada for many years. And that they routinely travel to the U.S.A. (we’re only an hour away from the border) which has one of the highest gun-related murder rates in the world and has experienced several terrorist attacks, including 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2015.
On my trip, I visited several cities that have had terrorist attacks in the last 15 years: London, Madrid, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amman, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And in fact, three cities that I visited were victims of attacks shortly after I had been there: 2 weeks after we left Israel, the areas around Jerusalem and several other cities were beset by fires on November 22, 2016. Some of them were wildfires but some were deliberately set by arsonists; 7 weeks after we visited Kerak Castle in Jordan, 5 shooters attacked on December 18, 2016, killing 14 people (including a Canadian tourist) and injuring 37; Exactly 2 weeks after I spent the evening with some friends at a Berlin Christmas market, a stolen truck was driven into a Christmas market (not the one I had been to) on December 19, 2016, killing 11 people and injuring 56.
It was scary to think that I had so recently been to all of these places and that it could so easily have happened while I was there, and yet I would not hesitate to return to any of those places, nor would I hesitate to recommend them to friends and family. As stated above, the odds of dying from a terrorist attack are very low, probably similar to your odds of dying from a natural disaster while traveling (I couldn’t find any statistics on the odds of dying from a natural disaster while traveling, though I did find this article about the odds of dying). Natural disasters happen worldwide and often without warning, but the fact that a country could have an unpredicted natural disaster while you are there probably won’t stop you from visiting. No one could have predicted the Boxing Day tsunami that hit in 2004, killing up to 9000 foreign tourists, and yet people continue to visit Thailand and other countries that were affected by that disaster. New Zealand, a country where earthquakes happen quite frequently, receives over 2 million visitors every year. Florida is known for hurricanes and yet many people still choose to visit Disneyworld during peak hurricane season. If the possibility of an earthquake, hurricane or tsunami doesn’t stop you, neither should the possibility of a terrorist attack.
We’ve seen in the past few years that nowhere is immune to these atrocities. Terrorist attacks have occurred and are occurring in places that would have seemed unimaginable just a short while ago. It could happen anywhere and at anytime. There is no real way to safeguard yourself against them, short of never leaving your house, and that is no way to live your life. Life is unpredictable and there are no guarantees, so I will not start avoiding public places and tourist attractions because they could be a target. I won’t let the fear of a possibility dictate where I go and what I do (obviously within reason).
Isolating ourselves is not the answer
Isolation leads to fear of the unknown, it makes it easy to hate and easy to label a group of people as being one thing. Travel is a great tool to combat this fear, it is such a great educator: throughout my travels I have a gained a better understanding of different cultures, of different religions and of humanity in general. I have met people from all over the world, from different backgrounds, races, cultures and religions, whether it be fellow travelers or locals, and it has made me a more open and tolerant person (you learn tolerance pretty quickly when sharing a hostel dorm room with 9 strangers). Traveling pushes you to be a better person, because it is constantly challenging your perception of the world, its people and the stereotypes you may have. It’s easy to fear the unknown and things that are different, but if you go out there and truly get to know them, you’ll realize that we’re not so different after all.
Education through travel
When family and friends found out I would be visiting the Middle East, there were many concerns and questions. If you’re from the Western world and you’ve never been to the Middle East or know anyone that has been, most of what you know probably comes from the media. Family and friends I spoke to heard “Middle East” and they imagined danger, extremism and a lack of women’s rights. One question I was asked frequently was if I would have to wear a hijab or a burqa while I was in Jordan. For the record, the answer is no. Jordan is a fairly moderate muslim country and many Jordanian woman (including Queen Rania) do not wear a hijab or burqa (although of course there are some that do). Having been to Morocco previously (a majority Muslim country) and having met a fair number of people who had been to Jordan, I was well aware that not all Muslim countries are extremely conservative and that Jordan itself is considered a very safe country in the Middle East despite being bordered by Syria, Iraq and Palestine.
Most of the Jordanians we met worked in the travel industry and relied on tourists to earn their living. They enjoyed their work and were proud to show us their beautiful country. We met many lovely local people while we were there: they were happy to share with us stories about their families and lives; to answer any questions we had about Islam, Jordan, and its history; they were even willing to talk about ISIL and their thoughts about what was happening in Syria and Iraq (and trust me, we asked a lot of questions, since my friend Julie and I are both very curious people). The Jordanians we met were also curious, wanting to know where we were from, asking questions about Canada, what we thought about what was happening in the US (we were there just before the November elections) and where we had traveled to previously. We learned so much about the country and its people. For instance, did you know that Jordan is the third-largest host country to Syrian refugees (after Turkey and Lebanon) despite being just slightly larger than Portugal? Did you know that Amman, the capital city, was the victim of coordinated bomb attacks by Al-Quaeda in 2005, resulting in 60 deaths? Or that the majority of terrorist attacks happen in Muslim countries?
If you don’t personally know any Muslims and have never been to a Muslim country, it’s easy to paint all Muslims with the extremist brush when that is what you see in the news. You have to remember that extremists come in all shapes and sizes. Just as you wouldn’t judge all Christians by the ideologies and acts committed by the KKK (Ku Klux Klan), or all environmentalist by the acts committed by ELF (Earth Liberation Front) nor should you judge Muslim people by the acts of Islamic extremists. Almost two months after I returned home, Canada was the victim of another terrorist attack on January 29, 2017, when Alexandre Bissonnette shot up a mosque in Quebec City. The suspected perpetrator (he has not yet gone to trial, though he did give himself up) was a white 27 year old male, born and raised in Quebec with far-right, white nationalist and anti-muslim political views. Not the “typical” extremist you see in the news, but an extremist nonetheless.
Keep traveling, but do travel safely
While I do advocate travel even with everything that is going on these days, I do want to stress that I’m not advocating travel to countries with a very high degree of risk or in the middle of a war. Countries such as Syria, South Sudan, North Korea or Afghanistan are certainly worth avoiding at the moment, although I always hope that one day it will be safe to visit again. I have a friend that visited Syria 10 years ago and she thought it was such a beautiful country and is saddened by the destruction of so many of the historic sites and artifacts that she had seen.
If you are going to be traveling to a foreign country, it is always a good idea to check your government travel advisories (Canada’s can be found here) as a starting off point, so you are aware of what is happening in that country. Don’t base your travel solely on the travel advisories, as several of the countries I visited: Jordan, Israel, France and Belgium have been rated as: Exercise a high degree of caution, though I felt perfectly safe in each one. Do check travel forums and speak to people who have visited to get a more rounded picture of what it is really like. If you’re planning on visiting a country that is more risky, such as Egypt, consider going with a reputable tour company. They will know which areas are high-risk that should be avoided and will be familiar with the local laws and customs.
Now that I’ve explained to you why I won’t let the threat of terrorism stop me from traveling, will you let it stop you? I certainly hope not. With nowhere being truly safe these days, isolating ourselves, being afraid of “others” and painting all Muslims with the same extremist brush is how the terrorists win. By making the world into an “us” versus “them” situation, they are able to win people over to their side and to their ideology. Don’t let them win. Continue to travel (safely of course), continue to meet new people and expose yourself to new cultures and ideas, because the more we learn about each other, the more we realize that what we have in common is so much more than what separates us. If everyone was the same, life would be boring, so let’s embrace our differences and use them to build a better and stronger global community. This is how WE win.