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Should You Go to a Country With a ‘High Threat of Terrorism’?

Some thoughts on scary phrases found in travel advisories

I’m sometimes asked my opinion on travel safety in different countries, such as today when I received an e-mail from a reader who is about to travel to Malaysia. Her questions about terror alerts made me want to cover this topic in this post. She writes:

“I have been reading about safety and got scared because there is a high alert for terrorism attacks. What is your opinion on that? Did you feel safe in Malaysia? Would you advice against traveling to Malaysia?”

Of course, it’s understandable when people want to research the situation after reading some potentially alarming things! It’s easy for travel safety reports to make you concerned… especially if you come across that dreaded t-word.

So I thought it might be helpful to add some context to what travel advisories often have to say. And while you can’t paint all countries with one brush, I’ll try to give a personal perspective.

Keeping some perspective

Let’s look at Malaysia as an example. I’ve been there twice, and while I heard of some isolated issues last year, I know it as a generally very safe country. Since I used to live in the UK, the UK foreign office travel advice is still my go-to source for safety information, so I also had a quick look at what it has to say.

One of the things their report on Malaysia says is that “there is a high threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.”

Terrifying, right? Even if you’re aware of the statistical probabilities*, a phrase like that could still send shivers down your spine.

But this kind of language is not unusual. For example, here’s what this same source says about the USA: “There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.”

That’s 100% the same thing.

Here’s a little riddle. What do France, Belgium, China, Burma, Israel, Thailand, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Morocco, Spain, USA, Singapore, Russia, Germany, and the Philippines have in common right now? You guessed it: they all have a high or general threat of terrorism, despite all being very different countries.

And these are just a few of the countries I checked. There are also tons more where there is an “underlying threat of terrorism” (a lower grade), including Croatia, Brazil, Argentina, Ireland, and many more. Yes, really… Croatia, a country that’s been thoroughly uneventful since about 1995, and where nowadays seemingly the only bloody or shocking things happen on the set of Game of Thrones in Dubrovnik.

So either the entire world must be a danger zone—and even Denmark a no-go area—or maybe there’s just a certain way to read these reports.

If there’s even just been a single threat or incident, even years or decades ago, there’s certain language that just needs to be included. Certain warnings are basically boilerplate.

There may be details beyond the boilerplate which could be cause for concern for you (depending on where you plan to go), but I think a general alert by itself shouldn’t make you freak out immediately.

More dangerous or just unfamiliar?

For many Western travelers, a country like Malaysia could be much less familiar than the USA or Germany. It’s easier to be scared or concerned about a country further away or that you haven’t been to before, so it might help to compare the advice to that of some countries you already know.

Another thing to look at is whether the advice is about certain isolated areas within a country, because this is often the case.

Here’s a map from the UK foreign office of areas in Malaysia considered safe right now:

FCO 312 - Nigeria Travel Advice Ed2 [WEB]

Well, that looks pretty green!

(The ‘see our travel advice’ notice refers only to some generic safety precautions for travellers.)

As you can barely see, it’s only a few specific areas on the eastern coast of Sabah that are of some concern. If you see a map that looks like this, you should still take normal common sense safety precautions, and maybe you should avoid the yellow bits in your itinerary. But then, simply hop on your flight and whistle your favorite happy tune—as the overwhelming probability is that things will be totally fine.

Sometimes a travel safety map shows bigger differences. Here’s a map of where it’s currently considered safe in the Philippines, accompanied by several warnings about terrorism. For me, this is still very straightforward: it just means you maybe don’t go to the southeastern bit. (I do also know travelers who considered the risk acceptable and went into the Davao region anyway.)

FCO 303 - Bangladesh Travel Advice [WEB]

By the way, I often can’t help but feel there is significant Western bias in these maps. If France hadn’t been such a ‘familiar’ Western country, it would surely have a map with a big red splotch over Paris and Lyon after the awful events there last year. Unlike the Philippines, it’s completely green. But I digress…

To be totally clear though, here’s a map of Libya. Would I go here? Fuck no.

FCO 312 - Nigeria Travel Advice Ed2 [WEB]

Of course, you don’t need to look at this map to know that travelling here would be a totally insane idea! No one wants to get caught in a civil war or say hi to Isis.

But as long as we’re talking about mainstream travel destinations where there is proper rule of law and a normal level of stability, you might want to take a deep breath before freaking out and cancelling your trip.

Of course, you should always make your own assessment (and we haven’t really discussed crime at all), but keep in mind that travel safety advisories are notorious for scaring the shit out of travelers even when they’re only trying to inform in an objective way. Your destination might well be visited by millions of people every year without any incident. Some countries are well and truly dangerous, but with a place like Malaysia… don’t sweat it.

Travel alerts and your insurance

By the way, if you do venture into areas with a known travel alert issued before your departure, your insurance may not cover you for any incidents there. This is a practical point to be aware of. For example, if I lived in the UK and went to any of the areas indicated orange or red by the UK government in these maps above, my insurer World Nomads would not cover any claims related to any travel there. That said, if you travel only in areas of a country with no particular warnings (like the green regions on the maps above), your insurance will normally still cover you. Look for an FAQ on your insurer’s site for exact details on this.

(* What these odds often ignore, of course, is that the odds could change dramatically by going to specific high-risk places. But it’s still a nice way to frame things.)

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1 comment

  1. Anna Reply December 11, 2016 at 12:57 am

    You are touching upon a very interesting topic, and I’m curious to see what other commenters will have to say about this… I agree with you about the Western bias thing, it’s true that being in a place that in generally considered safe (e.g., New York City) doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe there. But I also want to say that advisories against travelling to certain places aren’t always unreasonable, it is just the public doesn’t always know what is happening ‘behind the scenes’, so to speak. I’m just thinking about the facebook post I saw earlier today, where the poster said there had been talks about possible terrorist attacks in Istanbul. Not even an hour later, an explosion in Istanbul happened. Go figure.

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