Don’t go there: the destinations you need to avoid

Every day Australians jet off to where they could be killed, imprisoned, kidnapped, robbed or fall victim to other harm. But what are the most dangerous places on the planet and which destinations should be off your travel plans?

Hardly a day passes without a conflict breaking out in various parts of the globe. The focus right now is on Syria, Egypt and the Ukraine, but Central Africa and Iraq are other conflict zones where disputes between different ethnic and religious groups have escalated into all-out war.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) warns against travel to Egypt, following the imprisonment of an Australian journalist, citing “current instability”.

Etihad has suspended flights to Peshawar in Pakistan due to an ongoing security risk.

Danger junkies

Danger doesn’t always stop intrepid travellers though. For some it’s an added attraction.

Terrorism and civil war haven’t stopped certain tour operators from promoting travel to areas officially deemed off limits. Take Kashmir, for example. For some, it’s a Shangri-La – for others, a contentious conflict area between India and Pakistan.

Afghanistan has never been high on travel wish lists, but that has not put some operators off conducting tours. Among them is Untamed Borders and Wild Frontiers, both operating out of London.

For a brave breed of travellers, only the world’s most unstable regions will do. Warzone Tours caters to this obsession – even the website of this US travel operator features explosions and a gun battle.

Iran, a favourite with Traveller’s own Ben Groundwater who said he felt extremely safe there, is another country on DFAT’s ”reconsider your need to travel” list. However, tours are still on offer from Intrepid, G Adventures and others, along with Egypt.

Intrepid’s Amanda Linardon said destinations like Iran are beckoning adventurous travellers.

“We may go to places perceived as no-go zones, such as Iran, that are not really dangerous,” she said.

“If a situation becomes volatile, we will cancel or reroute tours in line with travel warnings and advice on the ground.”

Australia’s leading adventure travel operators – Intrepid, Peregrine and Geckos Adventures – all report an increase in demand for countries once considered dangerous that are slowly shaking off their bad reputations. Small group tours in Iran, Colombia, Central America, West Africa, Ethiopia and Georgia have recently surged in popularity.

“Algeria has the potential to be the next Sri Lanka or Burma – countries that were also off-limits to most travellers and where tourism is now booming,” says Linardon.

Don’t go there

For most of us, the daily grind of war automatically catapults some places right to the top of the Do Not Travel list. Baghdad has been unstable since the US invasion. Until recently, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu was considered the world’s most dangerous city. Al-Shabab militants still stage random attacks there. No amount of US intervention and troops on the ground has made Afghanistan and its capital Kabul, any safer – on the contrary, it’s still one of the world’s most dangerous spots.

Thailand – in particular Bangkok – was something of a no-go zone earlier this year until a May 22 military coup put an end to seven months of street protests. In mid-2012, an Australian woman was killed in a bag snatch in Phuket. Around 50 Australians die every year in Phuket due to motorcycle accidents, drugs, drink spiking or natural causes. These events only put a minor dent in the numbers of fun-seeking Australians heading there. Though 122 Australians died in Thailand in 2013, it remains as popular as ever. DFAT advises to ‘Exercise a High Degree of Caution’ due to the possibility of civil unrest and threat of terrorist attack, including Bangkok and Phuket.

Dicing with death

Latin America is on most tour brochures, despite being one of the places you’re most likely to get murdered; 40 per cent of the world’s murders occur in this region.

According to one study, 40 of the 50 most dangerous cities are Latin American, including a number in Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras and Mexico; such as popular Chihuahua. Ciudad Juarez in Mexico is one of the most violent places outside of a war zone.

Brazil just staged the World Cup, but you’re advised to exercise a high degree of caution there because of its high levels of serious crime, including muggings, armed robbery, express kidnappings and carjackings, common particularly in major cities like Rio.

Violence can occur between gangs and drug cartels sporadically, so it’s not a region you want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Not that you need to be in Latin America for that to happen.

Surprisingly risky

Anywhere on the planet can be just as dangerous, as shown by the random deaths of Australians overseas in what are normally considered safe destinations.

Random shootings are reasonably commonplace in the good old gun toting US of A. Just last week An Australian girl was shot in the face during a New Orleans gun streetfight.

Another Australian, college baseballer Christopher Lane was shot dead in August last year in Oklahoma in a random drive-by shooting by teenagers on a “killing spree”.

A number of US cities also make the top 50 most dangerous cities list, led by New Orleans at 17th, along with Detroit, St Louis, Baltimore and Oakland.

Who knew that Mumbai would “explode” in 2011? An underlying threat lurks in Sri Lanka, despite recently making its way back onto travel itineraries. Even the Philippine island of Mindanao was off-limits due to Muslim insurgency activity, until recently.

Something as simple as a bag theft, taking part in an extreme sport or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can place tourists at risk.

A number of tourists died river tubing in Vang Vieng until Laos authorities moved in and closed down the river bars in late 2012.

At one time New York was considered a crime risk. Similarly Italy, where bag snatching was once rife. Violence, muggings and robberies are still commonplace in Capetown and Durban in South Africa.

Kidnapping hot-spots

There is an ongoing threat of kidnapping in many parts of the world. Australian woman, Fiona Wilde, was kidnapped while visiting north-eastern Ecuador bordering Colombia and Peru.

DFAT’s travel advisories specifically warn Australians of kidnapping threats (for ransom, political reasons or by pirates) in a staggering 35 countries including: Colombia, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Kenya, Peru, Pakistan, Tunisia, and the Philippines as well as the Indian Ocean, particularly around Somalia.

In South America, terrorist groups kidnap for ransom. Colombia has one of the highest rates of kidnapping in the world, often perpetrated by groups such as the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in rural areas. Foreigners, including children, have been kidnapped and murdered.

Humanitarian workers and tourists in Kenya have also been kidnapped by militants and held in Somalia.

A number of foreign nationals have been kidnapped In Syria. Ongoing conflict puts the whole of Syria, including Palmyra and Damascus with its amazing bazaar and crusader castle, off bounds.

A conscience choice 

Sometimes it’s not danger so much as conscience that dictates where we travel. Some destinations are deemed not only dangerous but also questionable. There are calls to boycott travel to Egypt because of the imprisonment of an Australian journalist. Many editors will no longer publish stories on the country; others will stay away to register their objection.

It was only in 2012 that Burma came back strongly as a mainstream travel destination after years languishing on travel editor’s blacklists. This year The European Council on Tourism and Trade will hand Burma the “World Best Tourist Destination Award” for 2014.

Last week in this paper, former minister Peter Reith called for Australians to stop going to Egypt. “Apart from anything else, the security situation in Egypt is only going to get worse as the government killings promote retaliation….So Aussies should not go to Egypt because it’s not safe”.

The World Press Freedom index highlights other countries that have journalists locked up, including: North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Yemen, Laos, Brazil, India, Russia, Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Mali, Oman, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Japan and Malaysia. According to the Guardian the top three countries with journalists in jail are Turkey, Iran and China. Should we boycott these too?

Reconsider the risk

Some places are probably best avoided altogether.

DFAT, through its Smartraveller website issues a stern DO NOT TRAVEL warning for 11 countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Niger, Mali, Chad and Central African Republic.

Reconsider Your Need To Travel is the next highest warning level (Egypt, Ukraine and Iran are on it) followed by Exercise A High Degree of Caution. Indonesia (including Bali) is on that list, along with Thailand.  So surprisingly, is Costa Rica, a current favourite of the eco-travel set.

Just watch an episode of What Really Happens In Bali to see why Bali is dangerous. One Australian dies every nine days in Bali from incidents including drink spiking, violent crime, bike accidents and other fatalities.

Despite its safe reputation, even Australia can provide a “deadly” holiday with more than a few incidents of tourists succumbing to accidents. In comparison, however, it is probably a safe bet.

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