Magazine article Geographical

Into Harm's Way: Soldiers, Aid Workers and War Correspondents Aren't the Only People Attracted to Unstable Countries. Travel Is Rarely without Risk, but a Small and Growing Number of Us Are Choosing to Ignore Government Advice and Visit the World's More Dangerous Places. Tom Chesshyre Discusses Why Some Tourists Put Themselves in Harm's Way and the Issues That Are Raised When They Do

Magazine article Geographical

Into Harm's Way: Soldiers, Aid Workers and War Correspondents Aren't the Only People Attracted to Unstable Countries. Travel Is Rarely without Risk, but a Small and Growing Number of Us Are Choosing to Ignore Government Advice and Visit the World's More Dangerous Places. Tom Chesshyre Discusses Why Some Tourists Put Themselves in Harm's Way and the Issues That Are Raised When They Do

Article excerpt

When 24-year-old aid worker Kate Burton and her parents, Hugh, 73, and Win, 55, were taken hostage by Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip last December, the nation was horrified. Grave fears were held for the safety of the bright, young, fluent-Arab-speaking Briton, who had been showing her parents some of the refugee camps in which she had been working.

Brandishing AK-47s, the kidnappers had forced the Buttons' taxi to pull over before dragging them out and whisking them away to a secret location in a refugee camp. Then came the video of Burton standing beside a masked gunman reading demands condemning the UK's role in the "Palestinian tragedy" and threatening to take more hostages unless his demands were met.

Fortunately, the hostages were released after three days as a "gesture of goodwill", following British and EU promises to work to end the Israeli no-go zone in northern Gaza. But when the dust had settled, people began to ask questions. Why had Burton taken her parents into such a high-risk area? Is it right to take a holiday in so unstable a region?

These are questions that might be raised for travellers visiting anywhere considered 'dangerous'. Is it ethical to visit an area whose inhabitants have suffered the devastating effects of war?

Are such people simply being selfish by putting themselves at risk and causing their family concern? After all the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had advised against non-essential travel to the Gaza Strip at the time Burton and her parents went there, effectively, on holiday.

ASSESSING THE RISKS

'Danger' and 'risk' are words that are interpreted and understood differently, depending upon our perception and position in the world.

The FCO's travel advice, however, is explicit. For example, it discourages all travel to Chechnya, saying "terrorism and kidnapping in the region remain a serious problem". It also strongly advises against all travel to Afghanistan as there is a "continuing high threat from terrorism". In such cases, the FCO has to offer precautionary advice. On the other hand, the Afghani Tourist Board website understandably plays down the risks, asserting that the security situation is continually improving. The two organisations have different agendas.

Of course, the FCO is far from the only authority on what constitutes a dangerous place. The US-based Risk Management Solutions assesses both natural "catastrophic" risks, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and windstorms, and man-made risks such as terrorism. Its annual global terrorism risk map shows the predicted numbers of significant terrorist attacks for that year, based on the recent history of attacks, 'threat-group' profiles and local trends.

Another source of information for those considering travelling to a risky region is Earthscan's State of the World Atlas, which offers a "survey of current events and global trends" with 50 maps covering the globe and information on "everything from control of space to sexual freedom, from biodiversity to sport, from tourism to malnutrition".

One of the more controversial publications on the subject is The World's Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton. The book rates places according to danger levels, ranging from Apocalype Now five-star danger (warfare, banditry, disease, land mines) to one-star 'Bad-Rep Lands' (not dangerous but have a bad reputation). Pelton also runs a website that offers advice on travelling to the type of places at which FCO mandarins would blanch.

Pelton, who was kidnapped for ten days by a right-wing paramilitary group in Panama's Darien Gap in January 2003, says that it's a myth that travelling to these places is dangerous. "Statistics prove that people have far more injuries and so on in 'safe places'," he says. Regarding his kidnapping, he says, "I had not expected it to be a risk. My wife had told me to stop going to all these dangerous places; I'd been hanging out in Liberia for a while. …

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