I remember one morning back in September of 2001, getting a series of last minute cancellations by phone at our hostel, The Beehive. Each caller had a different excuse as to why they couldn’t make it, with strange stories about their flights being cancelled that sounded like the equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”. What did they mean a plane flew into the World Trade Center? It was crazy.
Then we jumped online to CNN’s webpage and found a static image of the twin towers burning. For the next 24 hours phones were jammed and news spread slowly. The internet, which wasn’t particularly fast at the time anyway, was totally blocked. From then on, life changed for just about everyone.
Since then, working in travel, we’ve experienced many other disasters – some natural and others man made. Even though our experience might not have always been first-hand, the world is all connected and the impact ended up on our doorstep one way or another. The volcano in Iceland that grounded all flights for a week; the beginning of the Iraq invasion; countless airport and transport strikes throughout Italy and France; and now the attacks in Paris, Istanbul, and Brussels to name a few. Each time our hearts break, our faith in humanity slumps, and as we brace ourselves for cancellations and losses, we wonder if this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Even without terrorist attacks people ask us regularly if it’s safe to travel to Europe, so every disaster seems like it could be the beginning of the end of what we do.
Our first, and perhaps knee-jerk reaction to that question is that yes, Europe is safe. Certainly safer than any major city I’ve visited in the US. If you really want to get technical, when it comes to malicious, senseless, violent crime, even Paris, Brussels and Istanbul are safer than these places:
That’s some powerful perspective, but despite living on a continent that has very little violent crime, and virtually no mass shootings, we found ourselves this last month on the other end of the debate.
Our family has been planning a trip to Tel Aviv and Istanbul this summer, and after the bombing in Istanbul, our kids were clearly freaked out. One tried to be the voice of reason, saying “but it’s not like we would be near where that happened, right?”
But no, it was on Istiklal street – a bustling, amazing part of the city. One of the areas I was most excited about us hanging out at together. Our young adventurers, who are always eager to travel, were thinking twice.
The reasons for their fear are clear and justifiable – I’m not denying that. In fact, it’s pretty tough to argue against it. Fear just doesn’t respond to reason. You might be able to intellectualize it, but that doesn’t make it go away.
But let’s intellectualize anyway: on the one hand, I ask myself how can I willingly and wilfully put myself and my family at risk by going somewhere where things like this can happen? But where would I draw the line with that kind of thinking? Is traveling risky behavior? Riskier than driving on the highway, or flying in a big metal bird high in the sky across the world? We can’t put our lives on hold and lock ourselves away from potential danger, especially when the world has so much to offer us that are worth all these risks.
Philosophically, why does it feel different to brave the highways each day, knowing that statistically my chances of dying in a car accident are higher than getting caught in the crossfire of a terrorist act? How many risks do I face each day and where does terrorism, or any kind of unexpected disaster, fit into them?
My answer is that there’s a difference between accepting risks as a cost of life’s necessities, and adding risks onto voluntary and seemingly unnecessary luxuries of life. In other words, we can accept that driving in our cars imposes serious risks, because we feel we have few alternatives – we have to go to work. We have to go get groceries. We have things to do, and getting there is a necessity, so that’s an acceptable level of risk.
But I don’t have to go to Istanbul. I don’t have to go skydiving.
Travel is optional. It’s a luxury. And there are many destinations, some that are safer than others. So choosing one that seems at a higher risk, even if that risk is marginal, is precarious, right?
Perhaps if my only goal was to go on a vacation – unplug from the stresses of life and recharge my batteries, then yes, it might make more sense to choose a beach holiday (although past terrorist attacks in Bali and Tunisia would be a good rebuttal for that option).
But for me, travel is more than vacationing and getting away for a break. European travel especially isn’t so much about getting away from your life, it’s about understanding your life better. It’s about putting the entire modern, Western world in context. It’s about experiencing an alternate world – one with different value systems and politics that need to be experienced. It helps us understand ourselves and understand others. It helps us be more tolerant and accepting. It helps in combatting what terrorism is all about.
This might be optional, but it shouldn’t be. What is more dangerous is viewing the world as “us versus them”, dividing people and cultures and always seeing the world from the center of your own value system. People who don’t have their mind opened by travel are more of a hazard to the world in general because closed mindedness is what fuels the kind of hatred behind terrorism and makes the world unsafe.
When I weigh the pros and cons, the pros far outweigh the risks. I think the result of never traveling, or delaying until the world is “safe” enough, is risky.
Travel is optional, and the risks may seem unnecessary, but when we have that feeling of the world as a dangerous place, and our faith in humanity is at its lowest, travel is the best, if not only, cure.
For more interesting reading on this topic, check out this article on Isis’ strategy, and in particular why France is important to them.