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Assessing the Risk: How Safe is Safe?
Werner Zehnder, July 2001
Safety is an issue that arises when considering adventure travel. Our far-flung expeditions often journey in or near regions that, for one reason or another, are considered dangerous. Passengers will sometimes call our offices inquiring, for instance, "How safe are we traveling in the Philippines or the Middle East?" These concerns are important and valid and I wish to address them from the standpoint of Zegrahm Expeditions' philosophy and procedures, as well as my personal observations.
First, our passengers' well-being is paramount. We plan our expeditions with the utmost care, weighing a number of factors when selecting destinations. Safety is chief among these. We consult government officials, representatives from the private sector, and even researchers conducting fieldwork. Program managers and expedition leaders conduct scouting trips, both to select optimum routes and sites, and to judge the lay of the land. Obviously, we do not send travelers into war zones or areas where civilization has collapsed. Rest assured, we would never send anyone to a region where we would not go ourselves.
Perceptions can run counter to reality, a situation often abetted by the media and, in this case, by the United States government. My wife Susan and I recently experienced this dichotomy firsthand during a trip to the Middle East, Indonesia, and the Philippines, three areas currently perceived as perilous. Our purpose in visiting the Middle East was to scout for upcoming expeditions. To this end, we visited several countries in the region, including Iran, a nation that has recently opened its borders to tourism. For many Americans, the word "Iran" conjures images of militant protesters burning the American flag. The State Department reinforces this perception; a Travel Warning posted on their web site warns U.S. citizens to "defer travel to Iran" because "...hostility to the United States remains in some segments of the Iranian population."
Let us place this in an appropriate context. The hostage crisis was over twenty years ago; a generation has been born and achieved its majority since then. Times, and governments, change. Furthermore, the State Department's warning is dated 14 September 1999, not exactly an up-to-the-minute report. Hostility? We encountered none. On the contrary, we were very warmly received by the Iranian people.
Departing the Middle East, Susan and I flew to Indonesia to join an expedition traveling through Sulawesi and the Philippines. You may have seen the headlines regarding these countries: "Indonesia Poised for New Round of Turmoil," "Philippines President Says Coup Plans 'Fizzled Out.'" The State Department cautions, "A series of security-related incidents has made travel unsafe in certain areas of the Philippines," and "American citizens resident or traveling in Indonesia are advised to exercise caution at all times..."
I am not suggesting that one disregards these warnings as false. Taking proper caution is essential in adventure travel. These areas are potentially volatile and we take this into account; planning and common sense mitigate possible danger. As an illustration, consider Seattle, where I live. Seattle is a relatively peaceful city. Yet, like any big city, Seattle has its seedier areas. Do I tell my friends that visiting Seattle is unsafe? Certainly not. They should merely avoid unsafe areas at inopportune times.
Apply this reasoning to the Philippines. Yes, Muslim insurgents occupy a couple of islands in its southern reaches. But remember, the Philippines comprise 7,000 islands, the vast majority of which are perfectly safe. We did not put ourselves or our passengers in harm's way by hobnobbing with revolutionaries; rather, we availed ourselves of the wonders offered by the thousands of other islands in the archipelago. The result was a magnificent expedition. Had we avoided the Philippines entirely, we would have denied ourselves a most pleasurable and enriching experience.
We strive to assemble as complete a picture of a country as possible, drawing from a number of sources. When reading media reports or government missives, we always consider their motivations. The media are controlled by large, for-profit corporations. They must make money, and danger sells; their focus will always be on the dramatic. The State Department has an obligation to be overly conservative when issuing advisories. Also, these advisories are often politically motivated to enforce current foreign policy. Let us return to the Seattle analogy. The city has certainly made headlines during the past few years-WTO demonstrations, Mardi Gras riots, an earthquake. A foreign country could very well issue a Travel Warning for Seattle based on these. Would they be correct in doing so? No, because these events are only a very small, transitory part of living in Seattle.
In closing, let me say that Zegrahm Expeditions constantly monitors situations around the world. If you have questions about a region's safety, please call us and we will offer our frank appraisal. It is an important element in our ongoing mission to offer the best in expeditionary travel to the remote parts of our world.