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

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

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

Dear Debbie,

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.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


15 Comments for Is it Possible to Travel Safely in the Middle East?

Jerry Haines 03.04.09 | 12:33 PM ET

About a week before it happened, I had a couple of cups of coffee in that Cairo square that recently saw a tourist-directed bombing.  From the demeanor of the Egyptian people I talked to there, you would never guess that Americans are anything but adored, particularly after the recent presidential election here.

But it only take one person with an agenda and a violent frame of mind to create mayhem.  But also, please, some perspective:  it also only take one bus driver who neglects his vehicle’s brakes; it only takes one kitchen worker who forgets to wash his hands.  Life is filled with risks; you can’t stop living because of what might be hiding under the bed.

I agree with Rolf, but would expand on one thing:  the “predictable tourist areas” are precisely that because they have things that people—even readers of World Hum—want to see.  That square in Cairo is adjacent to a huge market and a historic mosque.  A complete picture of a destination sometimes includes must-sees that are popular with tourists.  You just have to keep your wits about you, and time your visits to reduce risk.

Think I’ll go have some peanut butter snacks now for lunch.

Braiden Harvey 03.04.09 | 9:10 PM ET

I hope it is it is a beautiful place.

Braiden Harvey

Chris 03.05.09 | 12:24 PM ET

“Just keep in mind that State Department warnings tend to err on the conservative side”

That’s an understatement! The State Department could make Canada sound like a dangerous place to visit. There is a lot of good information there but definitely take it with a grain of salt.

ivona 03.05.09 | 1:27 PM ET

Traveling to Iran may seem to you as a bad idea, considering all the messages brought to us by the media and the political leaders, but the reality is that most of the world does not have the insight to what this country is really about. If you want to learn about the people in Iran and their rich culture, the changes that took place in Iranian history and lead to one global propaganda promoting only the negatives, you should read The Age of Nepotism by Vahid Razavi and try and see things from one liberating and positive angle. If we agree that truth is somewhere in the middle, then we should at least give ourselves a chance of not being biased and learn about what we fear, since fear itself is mostly caused by ignorance…
Also, i think for some people travel is a way of life and it does not necessarily include 5 star hotels and vacations on the far away beaches. There are so many other ways to experience different cultures and enrich ones life. The best one is to try and observe people, interact, stay in hostels or find contacts and stay at people’s homes if possible, go to the national cuisine restaurants and visit markets, stadiums, theaters etc, try and really feel the pulse of the country you are visiting. Some places can really surprise you, you can find the most friendly people in the countries you heard nothing but bad things about. So brake that chain of prejudice, and go see the places from the bottom of your list, you will be amazed by all you’ve been missing. There is a book that talks allot about these kind of things, it is a travel journal of an Iranian American entrepreneur traveling in Balkans, called The Age of Nepotism. I warmly recommend it, and also the site http://www.theageofnepotism.com

Travel Blog 03.05.09 | 3:48 PM ET

I definitely agree with the post. Middle East isn’t as dangerous as many may think. I know a lot of my friends working there and they say it a great place. We should all know that danger is everywhere. What is important is that we should be aware of this possibility.

Nigel 03.05.09 | 5:29 PM ET

My wife and I spent three months in the Middle East. We started with a train from Istanbul to Aleppo in Syria. From there we went to St Simeon, Hama, Palymyra and Damascus, before taking a couple of buses to Aqaba. From Aqaba we took taxis to Petra and Wadi Rum and from there to Amman.
From Amman we took a taxi to Beirut and then Iran Airways to Tehran.
We spent six weeks in Iran going where we wanted when we wanted, all the time without an itinerary or reservations.
At no time in the entire three months did we feel threatened in any way and were met with absolute kindness and respect everywhere we travelled.
My wife felt somewhat uncomfortable with the staring from men in Syria, but in the other countries and especially Iran, she felt protected by the locals who looked on her as a visitor deserving of their attention and kindness.

Nigel

Nigel Harris 03.05.09 | 5:31 PM ET

My wife and I spent three months in the Middle East. We started with a train from Istanbul to Aleppo in Syria. From there we went to St Simeon, Hama, Palymyra and Damascus, before taking a couple of buses to Aqaba. From Aqaba we took taxis to Petra and Wadi Rum and from there to Amman.
From Amman we took a taxi to Beirut and then Iran Airways to Tehran.
We spent six weeks in Iran going where we wanted when we wanted, all the time without an itinerary or reservations.
At no time in the entire three months did we feel threatened in any way and were met with absolute kindness and respect everywhere we travelled.
My wife felt somewhat uncomfortable with the staring from men in Syria, but in the other countries and especially Iran, she felt protected by the locals who looked on her as a visitor deserving of their attention and kindness.

Nigel

ivona 03.05.09 | 6:31 PM ET

Hm nice experience Nigel, isn’t it? Middle east shouldn’t be on bottom of our list ‘must visit’.
Some places can really surprise you, you can find the most friendly people in the countries you heard nothing but bad things about
All of this you can read in book The age of nepotism
http://www.theageofnepotism.com
:0)

Chris 03.06.09 | 12:17 PM ET

I just read that last year a civilian was 3.5 times more likely to be killed in Juarez, Mexico than in Baghdad. Maybe we should be more worried about visiting Northern Mexico.

Lindsey 03.06.09 | 4:32 PM ET

The “wild west” is said to be tamed over in the “sand box”.

Everyone is right! Danger can be anywhere and everywhere…. But as Eleanor Roosevelt simply said “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Pushing limits is different for everyone. Recently I went to Mexico and bunches of people freaked on me when I told them. Personally I had a wonderful time.

Some people have a hard time finding their way out of a paper bag! Travel, no matter where you go, should be smart and savvy. If you feel like going somewhere, you should totally just go!

Funny comparison with Canada there Chris. Some countries are just better at keeping quiet than others.

ivona 03.10.09 | 2:33 PM ET

Anna, Ohio, U.S.A. 03.13.09 | 2:01 AM ET

Don’t you think it might be a different scenario for a “foreign” WOMAN traveling ALONE in the Middle East, even women journalist are “required…strongly advised” to wear a head dress (long scarf)! And also to NOT travel ALONE…I would hope you’d share that with women who visit your blog regarding traveling in especially Arab states.

Marie 03.13.09 | 8:56 AM ET

There is NOT a firm unspoken rule that foreign women should travel with others or wear a headscarf. Do it if it makes you comfortable, but don’t forget that us “travelers” are a minority in Gulf states. There are thousands of single women WORKING there from the Philippines, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia, as well as from North America.

Anna, Ohio, U.S.A. 03.13.09 | 4:56 PM ET

Thank you Marie….I appreciate your response.
But yes, I would feel more comfortable dressing like a “local” as much as possible…and travel with a companion or guide…as should “other foreign women” just traveling or sighting-seeing especially if anywoman would want to go to say…Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria!? I would dare say it is highly foolish and dangerous not to take extreme precautions in any event.
The women working there are at a better advantage as “the locals” would know they are there working say…at an embassy or foreign company and are therefore not likely to abduct or “bother” them.

ivona 03.16.09 | 8:16 AM ET

Some places can really surprise you, you can find the most friendly people in the countries you heard nothing but bad things about. So brake that chain of prejudice, and go see the places from the bottom of your list, you will be amazed by all you’ve been missing.
http://theageofnepotism.com/2009/02/chapter-5-red-white-and-the-blues/

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.