Writing About Travel And Terrorism Is Hard

brussels festival

Last week I wrote a blog post about decisions I made relating to travel and terrorism, but then I did something I actually have never done before. I erased it. It was there, all scheduled to post and at the last minute I deleted it. Why? Because I had missed the mark, even though it was an honest and open post it still seemed tone-deaf to me and so I find myself here today in front of my computer trying to once again broach this dicey topic. But I realized what the real problem here is, writing about travel and terrorism is so difficult because there is no one right answer, instead what any of us travel pundits can do is offer maxims and seemingly benign advice without really getting to the heart of the matter, which is fear.

Sad New World

We were promised flying cars, self-lacing shoes and hoverboards, but instead 2015 is a cacophony of chaos, both in our personal lives through our electronic tethers, and on the global scene through so many acts of violence in so many forms that surely no one can keep count. This is the new world in which we live and there’s no longer any going back to the simpler times of just a few decades ago. Thankfully though, on the whole violent acts are rare, so rare that I have a better chance of getting hit by lighting tonight than I do being caught up in a random and public act of violence. But those statistics don’t really matter. It’s one thing to understand a fact on an intellectual level, but once our emotions become involved those rational thoughts are immediately cast aside.

Eiffel Tower Paris

Well-Intentioned Advice

I have lately read a lot of articles online and in print by prolific travelers, so called experts who all advised not to change travel plans due to terrorism. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but what I and those travel pros lose sight of is that the majority of people don’t travel the same way writers and bloggers do. Most people don’t visit 13 new countries in a year; most people don’t visit any new countries in a year. Thirty percent of Americans own a passport. Of those, a significant percentage need it just for work purposes, such as getting in and out of Canada. I think of the overall US passport holders, it’s probably safe to say that fewer than a quarter of them will actually use that passport in any given year. What we as travel writers forget I think is that travel is a scary proposition for millions of people out there. It’s easy for us to lean back and say nonchalantly that it’s safe to travel, not to cancel travel plans and to go ahead and visit areas of concern. We have a different comfort level than most other people.

That’s not to say that the advice is wrong, I agree with everyone who says we should still travel to Paris, Brussels and any number of other cities that are now deemed to be more dangerous than normal. The issue as I wrote a few sentences above is that logic doesn’t come into play here, it’s all about our emotions and how comfortable we feel while traveling. A smart person can, for example, look at everything that’s been going on in Brussels and reason that it is still a safe place to visit. But then a few facts creep into their head, such as the fact that the city was in lockdown for several days in November and that the Belgian authorities announced they don’t have a good handle on the security situation. While the odds of something happening while one travels there is exceedingly low, the normal traveler would look at the situation and perhaps ask themselves why take an unnecessary risk? Not just of terrorism, that’s extremely unlikely, but of a trip interruption. Most of us take vacations that are a week to ten days in length as a maximum. It would destroy a trip to be in a city that is under a lockdown situation. Sitting holed up in a hotel room, unable to use public transportation or visit any tourist sites just isn’t a good time. That’s what we as travel professionals miss when we examine these situations. We think of our own experiences in these cities and we don’t want them to suffer, so we advise everyone to continue visiting them. But it’s just not that easy.

train italy

It’s Complicated

The modern world is complicated; perhaps as complicated as it’s ever been. I like to think of the travel experience as a happy go lucky, halcion induced activity but it’s not. Travel necessarily involves politics, economics and a whole host of other disciplines. It’s about seeing the world not as we want it to be like, but to see the world as it truly is – warts and all. When we lament that a destination doesn’t look “authentic” or is “changing too much” those are selfish statements. We want places to look like the postcards and when they don’t, we get upset. But traveling the world is not a visit to EPCOT. The world is in constant flux and when we travel around it we see new cities and countries as they truly are, and not just the Pollyannaish snippets that so many travel magazines seek to promote. We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t talk about the real world complications of travel because ultimately it’s that dulling of the shiny veneer that makes travel so worthwhile in the first place. If we weren’t surprised by what we find in real life, we’d never leave home. We’d just be content to stare at calendars all day long. Seeing the world for what it really is can be a positive experience, but not always.

I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this except to say that in this situation there is no one solid piece of advice that will work for all travelers. By definition, terrorism is meant to scare us and deter us from living otherwise normal lives. What’s going on now around the world is horrible, but I think that we as travel writers and bloggers have an obligation to be honest with our readers. Would I go to Brussels or Paris right now? You bet, but I also understand why some other folks may be hesitant to do just that and rather than judge them for that, I just wanted to take this opportunity to let them know they’re not necessarily wrong. By that I mean our travel experiences are impacted significantly by our own feelings and emotions. If someone visits Brussels who isn’t comfortable about being there, they’re going to be miserable for the duration of their trip. There’s no sense in that, so while I would advise everyone not to change their travel plans, I also advise them to listen to their own hearts and to do whatever it is that makes the most sense for them personally.

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

5 Responses

  1. Leah Walker

    You took the words right out of my mouth. I couldn’t have said it better, Matt. Living in Paris, I’m frustrated by the constant messages I receive asking if it’s safe. I tell people that they’re more likely to get hit by a taxi than get caught up in a terrorist attack. It’s still disconcerting to see armed military in places like Gare de Lyon and Le Defense, but life goes on, and that includes travel. Like you, I have a different level of travel confidence, and like you, I travel more than most of the population. I understand people’s reluctance, but still encourage people to keep traveling, especially to my beloved Paris.

    Reply
  2. chau

    I agree with you. I left for Mexico two weeks ago, just days after two surfers went missing and their van burnt en route to the same city I was going to. It’s scary to think about, and I even thought about canceling my trip, and I know for many – they might have. There is something fearless (or dare I say, reckless) within us travelers that pushes past that comfort level and still precedes. I’m happy to say I was happily surprised and found the city to be more beautiful, friendly and warm than I expected. I try to tell friends not to focus on the fallen crumbs on the floor, but admire the cake on the table. Well written article!

    Reply
  3. Walter Christen

    Excelent post. Really put it in real terms. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Kirsten

    What Leah said!

    Matt, I’m so glad you wrote this and expressed what I am sure so many of us are feeling.

    Reply
  5. lora

    I lived in Paris about 30 years ago (yes I know I’m a lot older than most people on this:). People forget that there have always been terrorist attacks in Europe..by different groups. People make statements about how the world is changjng..and yes the Internet has brought it to a new level. But nothing has changed in 30 years. I remember the bomb in Marks And Spencer in one of the busiest shopping areas of Paris ..we had to take a different route home. I remember being in Athens airport at 22 years of age with soldiers everywhere because of a bomb threat. We didn’t hear about it as much then ..people didn’t have as much access to news .

    Reply

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