Open Ticket Would You Travel Somewhere With A Dangerous Reputation? Stephanie Spitler

Photographs of angry protesters holding signs and flags, police officers in riot gear, fires stretching high into the night sky – these were the images coming out of Belfast, Northern Ireland last week. Reading the news stories, and looking at those pictures made me think about how strange it is when your experience of a place is so different from the public perception of it.

I found my way to Northern Ireland by chance. I was on vacation in Dublin and had decided to get out of the city. I stopped in to the tourist office to look at the day trips offered and was immediately seduced by the pictures of the rocky cliffs and sapphire waves of the gorgeous Antrim Coast and the Giant’s Causeway (Full disclosure: I had also seen a TV show that said the Causeway might sink into the ocean in a few years, so I figured I better get on that if I wanted to see it in person).

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Irish history (or, really, to even know much about it beyond the potato famine and an awesome book I read about a fairy exorcism. Seriously, guys, it was a really interesting (non-fiction) read), but I had a vague notion of the troubles that had plagued Northern Ireland. Because of that, I paused for a minute before booking the trip, but ultimately I figured, they wouldn’t offer the trip if it wasn’t safe, right? So the next morning, pre-dawn, I found myself on a bus heading north.

It was an amazing day of wandering along picture-postcard cliffs that plunged straight into the sea, taking pictures of myself in ridiculous poses on the Giant’s Causeway and strolling along the streets of Belfast and Derry. I’m glad I didn’t let my fear dictate my travel decisions. If I had, I would’ve missed one of my favorite days of the whole trip.

But as much as I want to feel free to go/see/do anything and anywhere that strikes my fancy, there are plenty of places I’ve dreamed of visiting that I would hesitate to actually go, because of the things I’ve read/heard. I’d love to go to Egypt to see the pyramids, for instance. And I’ve always wanted to go on safari in Kenya. The list goes on and on, and can change in an instant. It’s difficult to balance what we see/read in the media versus what others tell us (“Oh, I’ve been there. It was fine!”). The news media is there to report the facts, but also to get a good story. Are they exaggerating the danger for effect? How can we really ever know?

The fact is, I know that anything can happen anywhere. You could be in the safest city on earth and get mugged; violence is unpredictable. So you have to weigh the risks versus your desire to see a certain place. My suggestions are to read the State Department travel warnings, and travel blogs/forums. The best information will come from people who’ve actually been where you’re thinking of going. And read/watch the news; be aware of what’s happening in the world, not just in our country. Information is the best defense, and will be the best preparation for your trip.

I don’t want my trip itineraries to be dictated by fear; I love traveling too much. But I also want to be smart about my safety.

Is there anywhere you’re scared to travel? Or anywhere you were hesitant to visit that turned out to be amazing?

For more travel stuff, follow me on Twitter @StephSpitler

Featured image via ShutterStock

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  1. I am (originally) from Northern Ireland too and would like to quote WikiTravel in relation to this article:

    “Belfast was recently awarded the accolade of being the safest city in the UK, based on a comparison of nation-wide crime figures, and, as part of its commitment to maintain peace, now seeks tourism from all around the world, especially from countries other than the Irish Republic and the rest of the UK.”

  2. I nearly applied to Queen’s University, Belfast, but my mum vetoed it on the grounds of the safety situation…
    I’ve travelled quite a lot in Asia, which can be dangerous for a young woman if she does the wrong thing – despite being completely covered up I got ogled by a school-load of teenage boys in the National Museum in Delhi.

  3. When I was 16 and fearless, I travelled to Seoul, South Korea, despite several family members being highly concerned that it was dangerously close to North Korea. As is turned out, I was completely safe, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Solid decision, 16-year-old-me. :)

  4. Fear is a sympton of ignorance, it’s all you can say about this…

    • I wouldn’t say that is 100% true. Some cities are legitimately dangerous with sporadic violence and high rates of crime. Yes, something terrible can happen anywhere, but I think people would be justified in not wanting to visit a country that is in the middle of a civil war or has daily street bombings. It’s nothing against the country or its people as a whole, but if a country is going through a violent upheaval, it’s probably not the best time to visit.

  5. I’m an american exchange student living in turkey. before I left, I got warned by many relatives not to go – and yet here I am, happy (and safe) as ever! everyone is very welcoming, very warm, and the situation in syria does not affect daily life. I love it here, despite the “dangerous” reputation some give it!
    I think the moral of the story and this article is that, as long as you stay informed about where you’re going, and as long as you aren’t stupid, you can travel almost everywhere safely.

    • Random, but my boyfriend and I are planning a trip to Turkey this spring and it’s good to know you feel safe there! I wasn’t worried about safety in terms of violence really (we’re probably staying in Istanbul the whole time and just going to the touristy sites and museums during the day), but I was a bit worried that our last names (obviously Jewish) or looks would draw negative attention or harassment. I’ve traveled a lot in Europe, but it’s easy to blend in with the locals in the countries your ancestors are from, so I never worried.

      Since you’re living there, any good traveling tips?

      • In Istanbul, you should be fairly safe. It is a gigantic city, like New York, so there are the obvious safety precautions. If you stick to the touristy areas, most people will speak basic English and be good with foreigners. You probably won’t stick out too much, either, unless you’re very pale and blonde. The religion thing – doesn’t really affect daily life for most city-dwellers. I’ve found most Turks to be very welcoming wherever I go. Just be respectful to the locals and cover your head if you go in a mosque. Good luck, hope you love it as much as I do!

  6. Don’t hesitate to go to Kenya because of what you hear! I went when I was sixteen and had the best time of my life. I’ve never met friendlier people and they were all so lovely and welcoming. Around Mombasa I ventured off with another 16 year old on many occasions by ourselves to look at market stools and visit shops. We also left our groups truck unattended full of all of our possessions on the side of Diani’s main road and not a spot of bother!! The safaris are amazing, definitely worth a trip!! =)

  7. I went to Guatemala City with my family… my step-dad is from Guatemala and we went to visit his side of the family. My mom is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American, and even my dark hair and eyes didn’t help disguise me much. He told us not to wear any jewelry, even if it’s not real gold or silver, because someone might try to snatch right off of us. Don’t carry a purse or bag so we don’t get jumped. Don’t leave the house without him, even. There were guards standing on the corners with machine guns to deter robbers.

    We spent time in Antigua as well as some other parts of Guatemala that are beautiful and probably LESS dangerous than the SF Bay Area that I live in at home, but Guatemala City itself actually made me feel a little unsafe. I’m not sure how much it is true or how much is reputation, but that was how I felt about it!

  8. Thanks for your comments, Amy. I didn’t mean to perpetuate any stereotypes, just to relate a personal experience and my thoughts on traveling to places that can be portrayed (in the media, in popular perception, etc.) as less safe than other destinations. I agree with you that it’s important to educate yourself about places you might visit. Thanks for reading!

  9. I know this is not what I should be getting out of this article… but what is the book about fairy exorcism?! You can’t just mention a book and not give a title!

    • Sorry about that! It’s called “The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary” It’s available on amazon and was a really interesting read!

  10. It’s important to realize that there are hazards present in any city you choose to visit. I visited Barcelona, and I got mugged. I had never heard any warnings about a plague of muggers (and there aren’t – I just got mugged once. See my point?), but I was cautious enough to not carry everything in my wallet. Anyone visiting a foreign country should at least be on guard. You never know what could happen, but at the same time, you never know what adventures lay before you. Do I warn everyone about the potential of getting mugged if they visit Barcelona? No, because that was a singular experience that shouldn’t be used to pigeonhole an entire city. Ya dig? By the way, great article, Stephanie.

  11. As a resident of Belfast, I clicked on this post with interest. I have been living and working in a city that has been in the world headlines for the last month and a half and while often what has been happening in parts of my city has been an inconvenience, life has also been going on.
    The in most areas of the city and province it’s business as usual. A large majority of people in Northern Ireland have adapted their daily lives with their usual attitude of opposition and humour (just check out ‘no surrender’ and flegs on youtube).
    I was glad to see that you recognise the impact of the media and the risks of travelling in general, Stephanie, and I hope that anyone considering visiting Northern Ireland will decide to visit despite the negative media coverage. Link in with the hotels you’re staying in. they will be able to advise you what’s happening in the city. And taxi drivers are the best source of information but most of all- have fun in our wonderful city.

    • Great advice to check with the hotel where you’re staying! And I agree, I hope people will visit Northern Ireland, too. I’m glad I did!

  12. I went to Paris right after the movie “Taken” was released and all my friends were freaking out. So not really somewhere with actual danger, but moreso Hollywood-movie-based danger.

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