The horrific murder of 298 innocent people aboard Malaysia Airlines MH17 over Ukraine instantly made the skies over that former Russian republic unsafe to traverse. Until the moment the missile exploded into the 777 fuselage, travelers on MH17 were confident of their safety, as I would have been had I chosen that route from Amsterdam to K.L. Watching the first bodies arrive at Eindhoven Airport was unbearably sad, as was reading this story in the Singapore Straits Times.
A few days later rockets landed close to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, and suddenly it wasn’t safe to fly to Israel.
How quickly the places that we take for granted are safe aren’t. These incidents made me reflect on countries around the globe I’ve visited as a businessman or as an interested traveler that I would not go to today…or at least not until things settle down politically.
I was already committed to a trip to Egypt in early 1998 when 62 people, mainly tourists, were massacred at Luxor in November, 1997. I went anyway because I had to; on arrival, I found Egypt’s tourist and business environment to be as dead as Adam’s housecat. Our two kids, ages 15 and 11, have been asking my wife and me for several years to take them to see Egypt’s antiquities and rich history. No way I would expose my family to the political uncertainty that exists there today.
Ditto for many places in the Middle East and Central Asia (Afghanistan or Pakistan? No, thanks!), nor do I wish to conduct business in Russia these days.
My wife and I traveled extensively in Thailand several times B.C. (before children) and always intended to make that beautiful country, with its wonderful people, great climate and scrumptious cuisine, a high priority location to take our kids to visit. Now, though, Thailand’s current political upheavals make us unwilling to expose our children to potential danger.
In 1992 I was fortunate to travel over a great deal of Venezuela in the company of someone who knew the country and its people well, albeit sometimes in rustic accommodation. We camped, for instance, under the tropical stars (and amid the mosquitoes, more numerous than stars), on the banks of the incomparable Orinoco River and fished its delta for the aggressive Caribe Piranha, which we grilled and found delicious. I came to love the country and its people, but I wouldn’t go to Venezuela now.
When I lived and worked in South Africa, I traveled often to surrounding countries in Africa’s Southern Cone on business and for pleasure, including to Zimbabwe. I found Zim to be enchanting, even its most mundane corners, and the people warm and always welcoming. Then, as now, Robert Mugabe ruled with an iron hand. But in 2014 economic conditions are so desperate and political oppression so pervasive that I would not risk a trip to Harare or Vic Falls.
Some countries seem always to have been dangerous, and they remain so. I would love to visit Congo and the Central African Republic, but many African nations’ politics are too unsettled, certainly including those two nations. I have friends who’ve worked in the oil and gas industry in volatile African places such as Angola, but they had 24/7 security forces protecting them with machine guns, and they had to live in razor-wire-encircled compounds reminiscent of Southern prison farms.
Perhaps the world’s poster child of chronically unsafe countries is Somalia, yet I have friends who lived there when the family was posted to Mogadishu in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps in the sixties. It was not a hardship post then. Because of Somalia’s unique position directly on the horn of Africa, it has the longest coastline on the continent at 1,880 miles. But we’ll probably never get to experience the surf there or to make a deal to import its seafood, frankincense or myrrh.
Of course there are a few places, like Myanmar (I prefer its original name, Burma), which I visited when it was unstable in the early nineties, that are now okay to visit. Burma was cheap then, too. Now, however, Myanmar has become fancy and sterile by my standards of adventure. It’s lost its real-world charm. Just check out some of the “Roads Scholar” tours to get an idea of the deluxe accommodations on offer. Still, for business purposes, the country’s openness and safety are positive for the Burmese people.
Mozambique, Laos, and Cambodia–places I’d never go 20 years ago–are now also business and tourist destinations that have moved to the list of safe places. Like Burma’s turnaround, that’s a good thing.
Yet new or increased political volatility continues to depress business travel to more and more countries. Honduras began to destabilize in 2009 and is now lawless. Neighboring Guatemala and Nicaragua are dicey, too. Even traveling to parts of Mexico is not wise. No one knows whether our neighbor to the south can sustain its law and order.
I wonder, Is the list of lost places growing faster than the list of safe ones?
For reference, here is the list (current as of July 25, 2014) of places U.S. carriers are either prohibited to fly or warned may be hostile:
PROHIBITED – Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Ukraine
POTENTIALLY HOSTILE – Afghanistan, Congo, Egypt Sinai Peninsula, Iran, Kenya, Mali, Syria, Yemen