Is it Possible to Travel Safely in the Middle East?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world
03.04.09 | 10:35 AM ET
I have traveled extensively in North America, but I’ve always dreamed of going to Asia—and particularly the Middle East. The problem is that this part of the world has gotten a dangerous reputation in recent years. Is it still possible these days to travel safely in that part of the world?
—Debbie, Buffalo, NY
Believe it or not, traveling to Asia and the Middle East is statistically no more dangerous than traveling across your hometown: As at home, most dangers and annoyances on the road revolve around sickness, theft and accidents—not political violence or terrorism. So the same common-sense precautions that serve you well at home should help keep you safe on the road. For example, don’t wander around drunk at night, don’t befriend pushy or shady characters and don’t stray into dicey neighborhoods.
Even if you accidentally find yourself in a somewhat dangerous region as you travel, the key to keeping safe is to know and talk to the locals (who can tell you where specific dangers lurk), patronize mom-and-pop businesses (which are rarely targeted in political attacks), avoid a loud or flashy appearance (this includes dogmatic debates of religion and politics) and travel outside of predictable tourist areas (which are easier for troublemakers to target). Should the security situation seem especially tense in a region, go a step further and avoid hangouts that cater exclusively to foreigners, stay away from public demonstrations and crowds (this includes small bands of drunks and rabble-rousers), and don’t share your travel plans or lodging arrangements with strangers.
Naturally, specific political and military hot spots should be avoided to begin with—and, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to stay current on the safety situation of a given region in Asia or the Middle East. Several online sources collect information relating to global travel dangers, including World Travel Watch and U.S. State Department Travel Warnings. Through the State Department site, Consular Information Sheets are available for every country of the world, describing national entry requirements, currency regulations, unusual health conditions, crime and security situations, political disturbances and areas of instability. In the event of a specific and current danger in a country, a special “Travel Warning” is posted alongside the consular information. (Just keep in mind that State Department warnings tend to err on the conservative side and are best cross-referenced against other sources of information.)
Finally, despite all the headlines and hysteria about anti-Americanism abroad, keep in mind that most people in the world will see you not as a political entity or an appendage of the “Great Satan.” Rather they will regard you as a private guest in their country. Even if these hosts vehemently disagree with your country’s policies and practices, they will invariably honor your individuality and regard you with hospitality and respect. The best way to return the favor is to be honest, ask sincere questions, listen patiently to people’s worldview, learn why people believe the way they do and practice courtesy.