Has travel gotten safer

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Killian Conyngham sets out to answer the question of whether, international pandemics notwithstanding, travel has become a safer pastime over the last 50 years?

I grew up on the fantastical tales of my grandparent’s travels. I would sit and listen to my Grandad’s whirlwind adventure that saw him travel overland up the length of Africa, from South Africa to Egypt before tripping over my Grandmother on a beach in Greece. Or to my Grandmother’s tales of leaving her hometown of Cork for a job in the newly formed EEC in Strasbourg; hitchhiking her way all around Europe with her friend Valerie before she ended up on that beach. I heard stories of being stopped by Stasi in east Berlin, sleeping in bag racks in Egypt, and everything in between, with my parents even chiming in at times with tales of their own ill-advised travels.

Hearing those stories, especially as a child, I wanted more than anything in the world to recreate them, to continue what I saw as my family’s legacy of carefree adventure. To my surprise, these plans were not met with enthusiasm. The phrase used so often when I set out my plans came to ring in my ears: “You just couldn’t do something like that now, it was a different time.”

As I grew older, I couldn’t get this phrase out of my head. Not only because it was standing between me and my dreams, but because it was more fundamentally at odds with the world as I understood it. For most of my childhood, I had been implicitly sold on a view of history as progress. Hadn’t the advances in medicine and technology made the whole world a safer place? Weren’t global institutions lauding the reduction in global poverty over the last 50 years? Shouldn’t these advancements and others make it safer to travel now than ever before? How could I possibly have missed the golden age of carefree travel? Unsurprisingly, I never found satisfactory answers to these questions.

Years later, as I sit here now, they still irk me. Because while I may be a whole lot more cynical, with what I hope is a slightly more nuanced worldview, a part of me still feels like (ongoing international pandemics aside) the world surely must have become a safer place to travel over the last 50 years. So where does the perception to the contrary come from?

Tourism, Crime and Commodification

One key factor in understanding the sentiment of some bygone era is mass tourism’s tendency to be self-defeating in many regards. Whether it is the often-heard complaint by tourists that all the other tourists are ruining their authentic experience, the hotels which bulldoze cultural sights to cater to those coming to experience them, or the environmental damage often wrought by tourists on the sites they seek to see, rising tourism levels can often have self-limiting effects. These and other negative effects wrought by tourism can build resentment from locals towards tourists. This, in turn, makes it less likely that those tourists who do wish to engage in the local culture or get to know local people have a chance to do so.

One key area where this self-defeating effect can be seen in regards to safety is with crime. As more and more people travel, a proportional rise in the number of crimes committed against tourists is inevitable, but many tourist hotspots have noticed that crime levels can actually increase more generally with rising tourism. Tourists are often easy targets, and in many cases, more affluent than the average person in the places they visit, making them prime targets for thieves, pickpockets and scam artists. Tourists themselves can also bring disorder, as many locals in cities designated as party destinations would attest. It is almost taken for granted that many of the world’s most popular tourist hotspots, such as Barcelona in Spain, also have significant problems regarding crime. This has become a key issue in the development of sustainable tourism sectors, both because the perception of high crime rates can lead to destinations being avoided, and more generally because high crime rates come at the expense of local citizens, who should be on the receiving end of the benefits of tourism if it is to be truly sustainable.

To me, this correlation of tourism and crime levels hints at a more subtle shift in the last century too, whereby the commodification of everything has reframed those who travel from visitors to tourists, the latter term carrying a whole lot more economic baggage. As consumer capitalism sweeps most of the world, disrupting the livelihoods of millions, throngs of tourists often follow. And when capital becomes king, it should hardly come as any surprise that tourists arriving with cash to spend are seen as opportunities. While it is most commonly the corporations involved in tourism responsible for the most egregious acts, it is hard to blame locals for not welcoming with open arms the tourists who populate their hotels and tours.

On a purely anecdotal basis, I have always tended to feel the safest precisely in the places where the nearest hotel complex was the furthest. One tends to receive a far warmer welcome in a small countryside town far from any famous sights than in a big city full of them where the sharp costs of mass tourism are all too familiar.

So maybe, when people say “it was just a different time”, they are harkening back to when all these effects had yet to kick off in earnest and on such a global scale. A time when tourism was less common and hadn’t yet had the chance to turn so many against it. Of course, if this is the case, then there is no simple solution. Pandemic years aside, travel is becoming accessible to more and more people every year, and the behemoth travel industry seems to care little if their expansion comes at the expense of a widening rift between tourist and local.

Regional Differences and Statistics

Putting tourism’s self-destructive tendencies aside, it is very hard to build a compelling story when it comes to global travel safety. One of the key problems when setting out to answer a question as broad as whether travel is safer now than it once was is that the world is not a homogenous place. Travel to many countries across the world has likely become much safer over the last 50 years, but one could equally find countries where travel has become more dangerous in the same time period. A convincing narrative of travel as either a more or less dangerous past time could be constructed with the right choice of destinations.

The numbers seem hopeful, however. Huge strides have been made in the safety of air, sea and land transport that get us to where we want to go. Many global diseases which ravaged the world when my Grandad was making his trip have been eradicated or significantly curtailed (even though it can be hard to remain optimistic on that front currently). There are countless examples of countries that have dramatically reduced homicide and petty crime rates. The advent of the internet has also made it much easier to do research on destinations before you go, and phones and global banking have made the nightmare of being stuck somewhere with no money or way home much less likely. These trends all paint a picture of a world becoming safer to visit, rather than the opposite.

It is important to remember in all this, however, is that countries do not and should not exist solely to be visited. Considering whether countries have become more or less safe to travel to over the last 50 years often means considering wars, revolutions, dissolutions and political upheavals. To consider decolonisation or devastating proxy wars through the lens of those countries becoming more unsafe for tourists to visit seems uncomfortably reductive at best. Countries being safe for their own citizens is unquestionably more important. There are likely examples of colonial nations which were relatively safe for those from colonising countries to visit, at the expense of brutal oppression of the local populace. This can hardly be seen as a positive. If a trade-off had to be made, a country becoming safer for its citizens at the cost of being less safe for tourists would seem to me to be an unequivocally good thing. 

Perception Versus Reality

Most people who say “you couldn’t do that nowadays” haven’t come to that conclusion by sitting down and looking at global trends, crime statistics, technology changes, inequality ratios or any statistics at all. Now that’s not necessarily a problem; measures can be reductive, narratives of progress can be misleading and statistics can be misused or misconstrued. It takes a whole lot of time to parse through all the studies on travel safety, and you can emerge with few more concrete answers than when you started (or at least that was my experience).

Most of the time we simply arrive at our safety judgements through heuristics and anecdotal evidence from people who’ve been mixed in with some media and news mentions. For the large part, these anecdotal safety evaluations can be sufficient. We don’t need statistics to build a sense that Spain is a safer destination than North Korea - especially when we know many people who have visited the former with no incident and have only ever heard a harrowing news story about a tourist in the latter.

That does not mean they cannot lead us astray, however. The shortcuts we employ to personally quantify safety can often incorporate significant biases. When it comes to travel, one of the most common examples of this seems to be the idea that rich and western means safe - a notion that might have some support in data but also implies a far more dubious inverse, whereby low income automatically equals danger.

Adding to this is the barrage of contradictory reports at our fingertips on the internet. An easy way to scare yourself about any destination is just to google “is _ safe?” and click on the first result from a travel forum. You will almost certainly be greeted with a series of horror stories, as a pretty heavy selection bias means that the people with the worst experiences are those most likely to chime in. Equally, one blogger or forum poster might espouse how very safe somewhere is, having been there themselves and not gotten in any incidents. This information, while very nice for them, tells us very little about the country’s safety, as even in the most dangerous places some people can simply get lucky.

If it wasn’t all confusing enough, many countries which rely on tourism spend inordinate amounts of money trying to cultivate a perception of being safe destinations. As such, hopeful advertising and sponsored influencers can muddy the waters even further. Our brain interprets the happy people smiling on beaches to mean the place must surely be a crime-free paradise.

Much as with the original question of whether the world truly is a safer place to travel now than it was 50 years ago, you can convince yourself a country is either perfectly safe, terribly dangerous or anywhere in between with the right selection of sources. So does this mean we should all give up on trying to judge the safety of any destination and stay home forever or travel the world with indiscretion? Of course not. What it tells us is that safety is a complicated topic, so it might be worth thinking twice before writing off a part of the world because none of our friends have been there and we don’t see it quite so often on Instagram. Letting our snap judgements limit the slice of the world we get to experience would seem to me to be an awful shame. From my own limited experience, often pushing past a bit of fear is exactly what is needed for the most memorable experiences.

Letting our snap judgements limit the slice of the world we get to experience would seem to me to be an awful shame.

This is not to say you should always go directly against their instinct when deciding where to go, though. A perception of safety can be just as important as safety itself. Feeling safe somewhere is absolutely a valid criterion by which to choose a destination. For me, a white guy with no underlying health conditions or allergies, there is objectively a shorter list of things that even my hyperactive brain has to worry about when I am choosing a destination. No matter how many cliches one repeats about places being safer than you might think, that does not change the fact that there are real risks out there in the world, and a trip spent in constant fear is unlikely to be an enjoyable one. I suppose, more than anything, it is just worth knowing what biases might shape our perception before we let them limit ourselves to any one corner of the planet.

So is travelling the world really a more dangerous pastime than it was 60 years ago? Well, I maintain it seems unlikely, so I reserve my right to be annoyed when someone harks back to a simpler time. There is no definitive answer one could give to such a question, however, so I will try to reserve my judgement next time it happens. The world is a complicated place, and as we are all aware now more than ever before, stepping out the door always brings risk. I suppose that’s just something one has to accept if they want to see the world, whether it be today or 50 years ago.