Why I travel in the age of fear


Travel has always been about stepping outside your comfort zone, but today, it comes spiked with an extra dose of trepidation. When in winter 2016 I told friends and family I was going to Jordan, there were looks of disbelief, raised eyebrows and lots of questions amid anxiety of ISIS in the region. What I felt most coming from them was fear. No wonder: We live in the age of travel warnings. That involves facing fear.

The question we should all be asking ourselves as travelers is what do you do with that fear? There are two options: Stay safely ensconced in the life you know, or step outside and into another world.

My default choice is to acknowledge the fear — and then embrace it. This is what led me to Jordan in spring 2017 for AdventureNext Near East, the inaugural conference that brought together over 200 travel trade and media delegates on the shores of the Dead Sea.

How destinations become feared

Often it is the maligning nature of media reporting that keeps people away from certain destinations. Jordan is one such example. Though I found it the most welcoming place for travelers, rich with a mix of ancient sites like Petra and adventure options, it also sits surrounded by conflict, with two of its direct neighbors (Syria and Iraq) at the bottom of the Global Peace Index, a scale produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace. This has in turn affected tourist arrivals to Jordan, which dropped dramatically in 2011 after the Arab Spring and dipped even further in 2013 when ISIS became prominent and the refugee exodus peaked. When I visited, it broke my heart to see entire camps purpose-built for tourism sit abandoned in the spectacular Wadi Rum desert.

Things are looking up for Jordan, however. Recovery of tourism started slowly in 2014, and tourist arrivals have been on the rise since. There has been an increase of 10% in visitors from the U.S. in 2017 compared to the same period last year, partly due to the unveiling of the 400-mile Jordan Trail, which crosses the entire country. The inaugural thru-hike last April attracted 170 people from 19 countries.

The Middle East as a region is also experiencing a comeback — despite the proposed travel ban that has led people to lump all the countries into a no-go zone earlier this year. “American travelers are visiting the Middle East in record numbers in 2017. We’ve seen bookings to Egypt and Jordan out of the U.S. up 70% … in 2017,” Leigh Barnes of Intrepid Travel, a company that leads 150,000 travelers across the globe each year, said by email.

Shaking off a bad reputation

It’s a tall order to dispel media-propelled myths about destinations. Having grown up in Yugoslavia during the 1990s war, I know how many years it took to change perceptions — for more than a decade, people kept asking me: “Is it safe to go to Croatia?”

“There are a lot of destinations that continue to have ‘violence hangovers’ that have far outlasted the reality of the place,” Shannon Stowell, president of Adventure Travel Trade Association, said by email. Stowell organized AdventureNext Near East as well as a pivotal event for another region often associated with conflict, AdventureNext Balkans in 2016. “We worked with governments from 12 countries in the Balkans who are not inclined to collaborate and have almost no history of doing so in tourism,” he said “This was an incredible wake-up call event for everyone, showing that we are all in this together and we’ll only succeed if we all help each other out.”

It’s common to brush aside destinations perceived as dangerous; it often takes a concerted effort to raise awareness and tourism for a once-deemed unsafe location. Back in 1986, during the Cold War era, a small tour company called MIR – from the Russian word meaning both “peace” and “world” – started taking groups of North Americans to the U.S.S.R. to meet their counterparts. The goal was to interact with people one-on-one and then make a genuinely informed assessment of the destination and its cultures. Today, MIR’s portfolio comprises 34 countries, mostly focused on the region between Tibet and Tehran.

“There are a lot of destinations that continue to have ‘violence hangovers’ that have far outlasted the reality of the place.” — Shannon Stowell, president of Adventure Travel Trade Association

“What we specialize in is bringing people together to discover more about the world and, consequently, about themselves,” said Annie Lucas, MIR’s vice president. “We know that some prospective travelers view our destinations, Iran in particular, with trepidation. In spite of that, in 2016, Iran was MIR’s fastest growing destination. The interest in travel to Iran for 2017 temporarily waned following the Trump travel ban and associated geopolitical circumstances between our governments. But we’re seeing it pick up again with last-minute bookings for fall 2017 and interest for spring 2018.”

Jordan and other places that may seem unsafe to travel in are actually as safe as anywhere — if you follow certain rules.

How to be an educated traveler

Lack of knowledge is often the culprit for drops in travel. For prospective travelers, it’s about education and awareness.

“If you don’t know, don’t assume. Ask questions and educate yourself about the risks,” Jessica Pociask, owner of Want Expeditions, a small-group travel company focused on conservation, said in an email. “If you decide to go forward with your trip, you can minimize your risks by choosing a reputable tour operator with experienced guides.” Pociask has guided in more than 80 countries and safely evacuated two groups, one in Mali and another in Central African Republic, in the midst of a coup d’état.

“There is no way I could have done that without a decade of experience in the region. My contacts go beyond just booking a hotel. I know the roads/routes, twists and turns, not to mention having multiple contacts (government officials, plane charters, guides, hotels) in my back pocket that enabled me to do this responsibly and safely.”

In addition to ensuring safety, there are other reasons to use a tour operator you can trust. It’s a lot easier to do a deep dive into a culture if you’re working with someone who’s well-regarded. Intrepid Travel, which started in 1989, is one such company. “Our style of travel is really focused on immersive cultural experiences. We want our travelers to leave a country with a sense that they not only visited a destination but truly experienced local life. We do this by exclusively using local leaders, local transportation and often including home stays or guesthouses on our tours,” said Barnes.

How to stay safe

In this age of likes, selfies and grams, travel has become about bragging rights. Getting to dangerous places may be a great social media boost, but it often involves glossing over conflict for a moment of online glory. More so now than ever, it is important to travel responsibly – culturally, socially and environmentally.

“Read up,” MIR’s Annie Lucas said. “Consider subscribing to services such as Stratfor or Geopolitical Futures, or follow any number of websites that do regular reporting on the destination. Ask for references from people who’ve traveled to that destination and contact them for their thoughts.” Having an awareness of your surroundings is critical.

Heading far from the familiar can lead to transformative experiences. When we travel with a deep awareness of our social responsibility, we can benefit the people and places we visit. Malia Everette — who has taken people to Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cuba, Iran, Lebanon, Myanmar and Rwanda — is the mastermind behind the California-based Altruvistas, which crafts socially responsible tours to destinations around the world with a focus on human rights issues.

“One of the profound lessons of my travels is that I can travel not only sustainably and ethically, but also as a citizen diplomat,” Everette said. “As such, I can — we can — do what our governments cannot: create people-to-people ties.”

Travel today is a serious decision, and moving through the world comes with its own set of responsibilities. While you shouldn’t let fear stop you from embarking on adventures, you should also know your limits. Countries struck by crises — like North Korea, South Sudan or Yemen — are simply too risky and dangerous for travelers currently.

Embrace the uncertainty

“We all know there is no guaranteed safe place anymore,” ATTA’s Stowell, who recently helped arrange an internship for his 20-year-old daughter with an adventure travel company in Jordan, said. Stowell spent a week in Kosovo with his wife and said he would go back in a flash; he also recently traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan.

We live in a world of uncertainty, where travelers have become moving targets in a string of random acts of terrorism around the world. To counterbalance the hatred and extremism, it’s never been more important to build bridges instead of bolstering barriers with other cultures. Since coming back, I urge everyone to go to Jordan — not only because I am awestruck by the country’s poignant beauty, but also because it needs visitors, for economic and morale-boosting reasons.

Many destinations around the globe need exactly that. The idea behind travel is to connect, accept and learn to respect. That involves embracing fear and going with the flow. Ultimately, that’s what travel is all about.