Political Unrest and Your Travel Dreams
|Not everyone who looks like a terrorist is one. This American tourist found a photo of someone who looked like herself on a German terrorism warning poster.|
By Rick Steves
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, our media was filled with reports of Americans feeling jittery about travel. But the travelers I talked to then (and now) are unfazed. While mindful that war is serious business, they continue to pursue their travel plans. Maybe it's just the kind of travelers we're dealing with, but for most of the last decade (9/11 notwithstanding), our guidebooks and tours have never sold better. The fact is that more than 12 million Americans go to Europe every year, and for the last several years, not a single one has been killed by terrorists.
Even though it's in the news, terrorism is nothing new. Today travelers worry about al-Qaeda. In the 1970s, we worried about Italy's Red Brigades, Basque separatists, and the Irish Republican Army. And a century ago, the Habsburgs worried about these same issues — back when terrorists were called "anarchists." Here are some thoughts on keeping the risk in perspective and traveling safely.
Don't plan your trip thinking you can slip over there and back while there's a lull in the action. It's in your interest, psychologically, to plan your trip assuming there will be a terrorist event somewhere in the world sometime between now and your departure date. It will be all over the news, and your loved ones will leap into action trying to get you to cancel your trip.
Your loved ones' hearts are in the right place, but your trip's too important for sensationalism and hysteria to get in the way. Numbers don't lie: The odds against being killed by terrorists are astronomical (approximately 9 million to 1). While our foreign policy in the first decade of the 2000s likely increased the risk of terrorist attacks on Americans, I believe that risk is no greater for an American in Milan or Paris than at home in Miami or Pittsburgh.
It's human nature to feel anxious about some things, even when our brains tell us it's unfounded. I know that about 30,000 commercial planes take off and land safely in the United States every day, and entire years go by without a single fatality in the US airline industry. Even so, I'm still edgy on take-off. But the twinges of anxiety haven't kept me, or most other folks, at home.
While many travelers may feel fine about their physical safety, many grumble about airport security headaches. Europe, the acknowledged world leader in quality security, has been on "orange alert" since the 1980s. Be grateful for and patient with security procedures. I also expect a 30-minute delay for extra security when I leave and enter the US (for which I am thankful). I use the extra time to meditate on the thought, "How has America's place in our world changed...and why?"
If you want to worry about something, worry about this: Each year, more than 30,000 Americans are shot to death in the United States by handguns (8 times the per-capita gun-caused deaths in Europe).
Whether because of fear of terrorism, or the uncertainty surrounding the global economic crisis, some Americans have put their travel dreams on hold and decide to stay home. That's OK. I'm still bringing home TV shows that they can watch from the safety of their living room sofas.
But those of us who are able would rather enjoy the fun and wonders of Europe firsthand. Travel is a springboard for experiencing the beauty of our fascinating world. And there's never been a better time to dive in.
|These gentlemen in Diyarbakir, Turkey, were ruthless when it came to playing backgammon, but they were some of the friendliest travel buddies I've ever spent an afternoon with.|
Political turmoil is part of life these days, and security in Europe has never been tighter. Countries from Britain to Italy continue to deal with internal discord, from separatists to religious extremists. An awareness of current social and political problems is as important to smart travel as a listing of top sights. As some popular destinations are entertaining tourists with "sound and light" shows in the old town, they're quelling angry demonstrations in the new.
Travel broadens our perspective, enabling us to rise above the 24-hour advertiser-driven entertainment we call news — and see things as citizens of our world. By plugging directly into the present and getting the European take on things, a traveler gets beyond traditional sightseeing and learns "today's history."
There are many peoples fighting the same thrilling battles for political rights we Americans won more than 200 years ago. And while your globe may paint Greece orange and Bulgaria green, racial, religious, and linguistic groups rarely color within the lines.
Understand a country's linguistic divisions. It's next to impossible to keep everyone happy in a multilingual country. Switzerland has four languages, but Deutsch ist über alles. In Belgium, there's tension between the Dutch- and French-speaking halves. And Hungarians living in Slovakia had to rely on European Court intervention to get road signs in their native language. Like many French Canadians, Europe's linguistic underdogs will tell you their language receives equal treatment only on cornflakes boxes, and many are working toward change.
Look beyond the pretty pictures in your tourist brochures for background on how your destination's demographic makeup may be causing problems today or tomorrow. Start clipping newspaper articles and surfing the Web a few months in advance to gather political news on what's happening (information you'll seldom find in guidebooks).
With this foundation and awareness, you can get the most out of the nearly unavoidable opportunities to talk with involved locals about complex current situations. At any pub on the Emerald Isle, you'll get an earful of someone's passionate feelings about "the Troubles." In Russia and Eastern Europe, whenever you want some political or economic gossip, sit alone in a café. After a few minutes and some eye contact, you'll have company and a fascinating chat. Young, well-dressed people are most likely to speak (and want to practice) English. Universities can be the perfect place to solve the world's problems with a liberal, open-minded foreigner over a cafeteria lunch.
In the wake of the global economic crisis, European governments and businesses are struggling to continue providing the generous cradle-to-grave benefits that their citizens expect. As these items are trimmeds from the budget, new waves of protests sweep across the already strike-happy Continent. While American tourists are at virtually zero risk from these demonstrations, it's smart to be aware of them so that you can avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time...and to better understand one more facet of the European experience.
Wherever you travel, be prepared for a challenge when the topic shifts to American foreign policy. Among deaf people, the international sign-language symbol for "American" is the "fat cat" — holding your arms around an imaginary big belly. Like it or not, people around the world look at America as the kingpin of a global and ruthless game of Monopoly. As a person who loves his country, I see travel as a patriotic exercise in promoting people-to-people diplomacy and global understanding.
Practical Tips for Safe and Smooth Travel
All of us want to travel as safely as possible. Here are some tips:
Consider State Department travel advisories...but don't trust them blindly. A threat against the embassy in Rome doesn't affect my sightseeing at the Pantheon. While I travel right through many advisories (which can seem politically motivated), other warnings (for example, about civil unrest in a country that's falling apart) are grounds to scrub my mission. Keep in mind that in recent years, Canada and many European countries have issued travel advisories to their citizens for a land they consider more dangerous than their own: the US. For other perspectives, check the British and Canadian government travel warnings.
Be patient. Be thankful for security measures that may delay you. Call airports to confirm flight schedules before heading out. And allow plenty of time to catch your flight.
Pack lighter than ever to minimize airport frustrations. The current conditions at airports will favor those with carry-on–size luggage. The basic limits have not changed (generally one 9" x 22" x 14" bag plus a day bag — but check with your airline). But those checking bags will incur longer waits, fees, and less flexibility. Nimble ones with carry-on bags do better in the scramble to get through the flight-schedule shuffling that follows any major disaster or scare.
Avoid being a target by melting into Europe. Fancy luggage and jewelry impresses only thieves and gives you a needlessly high profile. Travel and look like a local. This is smart travel anytime. Likely targets include icons of American culture — towering American corporations, fancy high-profile American tour groups, military and diplomatic locations, and luxury hotels. Stay in local-style places. Terrorists don't bomb Pedro's Pension. That's where they sleep.
Two weeks after Sept. 11, I was in Padua, the town where Copernicus studied and Galileo taught. The square was filled with college students sharing drinks and discussing America's response to "our new reality." As we talked, I kept dipping little strips of bread into a puddle of olive oil on my plate, tiptoe-style. Watching me do this, my new friend said, "You make the scarpette...little shoes."
My Italian wasn't good enough to tell him my thoughts: Travel is a celebration of life and freedom. Terrorists will not take that away from me. My mission in life is to inspire Americans to travel, one by one — "making the little shoes" — to absorb and savor the wonders of Europe.
Updated for 2011. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.