My wife and I were drinking our forth top up of ginger infused coffee brewed by Havis, a huge Nigerian with a beaming smile. He owns a small coffee roasting shop in the bustling town of Kassala, Sudan. He had invited us for a drink, as he was interested in hearing our story. Foreign tourists do not visit the area and as we were not being driven in a NGO Toyota Hilux he assumed we were journalists. He topped up our cups with coffee as he continued “How will people ever want to come here and see this beautiful country if all they hear are bad things?”
He was right. Our perception of risk and safety of travel is heavily influenced by the media. The media has represented Sudan in recent years as a country of war, famine and terrorism. Of course this is the case for many other countries as well. The news is full of war-torn, terrifying countries. There are few incentives for journalists to report the peaceful day-to-day life of a country; after all it wouldn’t be news if the reports weren’t dramatic. So in general we overlook the “normal” lives people live in different parts of the world. This makes it hard to remember how kind and caring the majority of the world’s population really is.
This risk of developing a narrow and incomplete picture about a country, political situations or a group of people is something we need to become more aware of. A friend of mine was reporting in Cairo during the Arab Spring of 2011. He lived a 6-minute walk from Tahrir Square. On his walk to work in the morning, with helmet and gas mask in hand, he would pass; busy, cheerful streets, full restaurants and cafés noisy with crowds drinking coffee, playing backgammon and watching the latest football match. This is a different picture from the media portrayal of chaos and angry mobs. Political upheaval and natural catastrophes can be very localised and the troubles in one area can have very little or no affect on the rest the country. Avoiding a whole country because of troubles in one area can have a massive impact on local economies, especially if they are strongly dependent on tourism.
I have climbed and travelled in over 80 countries, including places like Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Mali, Sudan, Algeria and Colombia, many in times of conflict. I have only been a victim of violent crime twice, once in Bristol and once in London. There are so many stupendous destinations to be discovered. Many people deem these in countries too risky to travel to. In some cases it might be true. More commonly our risk assessment (largely based on media reports) is wrong, and wonderful opportunities are missed.
I met Havis whilst in Sudan exploring the granite domes of Jebel Taka for new rock climbing route potential. The genuine and beautiful hospitality and welcome we received from the Sudanese was even more special than the climbing. It felt like one of the safest places I had visited. Almost everyone I told (regardless of where they were from) found this hard to believe. This is often the case. My Bedouin friends in the Sinai Desert worry when I go to Iraq and my friends in Iraq worry when I go back to the Sinai. Both sides were concerned when I went to Sudan.
I experienced similar reactions in 2011 when I was exploring Southern China for unclimbed rock. Whilst there, London experienced it’s summer of rioting. The Chinese I met were convinced that most of London and half of the UK were up in flames. They warned me strongly against returning to a dangerous country. Would you as a Brit have been as concerned? Probably not, you would know that the riots were taking place only in certain areas. With your own experience and knowledge of the UK you would be able to adjust your perceived level of risk to something closer to reality.
Our perceptions of risk about other places are heavily influenced by the fact that they are unfamiliar to us, and reliant on the media representation. We are instinctively more likely to give more weight to the negative things we hear about them than the positive ones. This instinct was after all what helped us to survive as cave men and women.
I am not saying that we should just ignore what we see on TV and on the FCO website. Those reports are – at least a part of – the reality in those areas and should be considered seriously. But the next time you are researching new and exciting travel destinations look into other sources of information. Balance out the negativity by digging a little deeper online and picking out some of the positive stories as well. Try to contact locals or people with current local knowledge. Keep in mind that there are thousands or even millions of people living their normal everyday lives just ‘down the road’ or even within those areas that receive such bad press. Remember that luckily for the human race, the vast majority of people on the planet are helpful, kind, hospitable and proud of their countries. Oh, and just for another perspective, have a look at foreign office advice from other countries and learn how “dangerous” other nations think of us!
I work as an expedition guide, safety consultant and production manager. In short I keep people safe and happy so that they can achieve their goals. Click here to find more about me and what services I can offer.