“Are you scared yet?” asks Don ‘Big Don’ Staton of Big Bend Overland Tours as the Rio Grande river comes into view, marking the southern limits of one of the least visited national parks in mainland USA and the country’s border with Mexico.
He’s being sarcastic. Before us looms the sheer 1,500ft face of Saint Elena canyon, a far more effective blockade than Donald’s much-trumpeted wall.
Due to industrial damming, the once mighty river is now a mere trickle and, in places, one can easily wade from Mexico to Texas. After a particularly contentious election campaign, this is a fact that scares the bejesus out of some locals: “Oh, I’d love to go to Big Bend National Park,” says a Texan travel representative from one of the state’s cosmopolitan cities, “but I’d be worried about running into an illegal immigrant.”
With terror attacks, global conflicts and health scares dominating the headlines, travellers are becoming more cautious — but not necessarily more knowledgeable. In truth, the vast, scorching Chihuahuan Desert, which straddles both Mexico and the US, is border enough in itself.
Shaky geography has a lot to answer for. Tour operators in Kenya reported a dramatic drop in visitors due to health concerns over the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, despite the closest outbreak being over 3,000 miles away; London was closer to the epicentre of the outbreak than Nairobi was.
Meanwhile, Zika virus has, at time of writing, affected around 50 countries and territories across Latin America and Asia, causing widespread panic and confusion. Some would-be travellers are simply staying home.
It’s the threat of terrorism that has, predictably, impacted on Middle Eastern destinations. Jordan, which neighbours both Syria and Iraq, saw a 23% fall in visitors in 2015, while Egypt’s tourist numbers plummeted by 40% in the first quarter of 2016. At this year’s Arabian Travel Market, tourism marketing representatives from both destinations confirmed that, as Europeans and Americans are avoiding the whole area, the industry is now focused on increasing ‘domestic’ tourism from neighbouring Arab countries.
Britain is seeing a rise in ‘staycations’ after a spate of terror attacks in nearby France and Belgium, but some international tourists are steering clear of the UK for the same reasons:
“You hear of terrorism in one part of Europe and the perception [is] that other parts of Europe are also dangerous,” says tourism lecturer David Beirman, from Sydney’s University of Technology.
Although international tourism grew by 4.4% (an extra 50 million travellers) in 2015, global travellers are increasingly looking beyond Europe for their holidays.
Interestingly, Stephanie Loeber from Massachusetts attraction Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, doesn’t feel the 2013 Boston Marathon attack negatively impacted on tourism: “Visitor numbers have gone up and up. If anything, the news coverage of the way we came together as a city put Boston even more on the map.”
Indeed, the US has seen a healthy rise in tourist arrivals, with 75 million international visitors last year alone. Roger Dow, CEO of the US Travel Association, says: “Our responses to threats in today’s world should be informed by intelligence and continuing to engage our friends and allies. We stand our best chance to achieve security when travellers, and indeed all of us, choose freedom over fear.”
It’s impossible to insulate yourself from risk, and there’s no reason not to travel abroad if you take sensible precautions. Read Foreign & Commonwealth Office advisories and remember that terrorism is a global threat that could strike practically anywhere.
In the words of Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
Which countries are travellers avoiding?
Brits are staying away from the Middle East, as well as traditional holiday favourites such as Egypt’s Sharm El Sheik and Tunisia, in the wake of terror attacks that targeted tourists.
So where is safe to travel?
Cautious travellers might want to consider under-the-radar destinations with western standards of healthcare, such as New Zealand, Iceland and Japan, which are all seeing a boost in visitor numbers. These island nations have no borders, and do relatively little to upset anyone.
What do I need to know about Zika?
While symptoms are mild, pregnant women are advised to avoid travelling to Zika-affected areas as it’s believe the virus can cause serious birth defects.
How do I know if it’s safe?
Check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website for travel updates, and remember that while advice errs on the side of caution, they’ll make it very clear if you should avoid travelling to a specific destination.
Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)