Jim Eagles: Rewards far outweigh risks

When three bombs exploded in the previously peaceful Jordanian capital of Amman last month, several acquaintances were quick to panic on my behalf. "Didn't you go there recently?" they asked. "Were you nervous? I bet you wouldn't go now."

Yes, I did go to Amman about a year ago; no, I didn't feel nervous while I was there; and, yes, I would happily go again. Jordan is a fascinating country and - notwithstanding the recent bombs - a very safe one.

The same questions were raised four months ago when three bombs exploded in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheik. And my answers were the same. Egypt may be diseased, dirty and demanding but it, too, is a fascinating country.

Sure, there is an element of risk in visiting such places, but it's pretty minute. In the past 10 years about 50 million people have visited Egypt and in that time about 50 tourists have been killed by terrorists.

In other words if you go there you've got about a one-in-a-million chance of being blown up.

By contrast, if you buy a Lucky Dip your chances of winning division one in Lotto are one in 383,838.

Certainly, some people do win Lotto, and true, you might be one of the unlucky few to be caught up in a terrorist attack.

Then again you might also be unlucky enough to die in a car crash driving to the Coromandel - especially if you have to take the killer stretch of road between Mangatawhiri and Maramarua - but you can't give up everything worthwhile because there's a faint possibility of disaster.

And a visit to the Middle East is very definitely worthwhile.

This is the cradle of civilisation, where people were erecting magnificent palaces and temples which still stand today, long before Maori discovered New Zealand or the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain.

It's an extraordinary experience to actually see the Pyramids and the Sphinx - structures I've been reading about all my life - and to realise that people have been looking and marvelling at them for 4000 years.

The Middle East is also the birthplace of several of the great religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which spread out across the world, hugely influenced our culture, and are still practised by millions of people.

Whether you are religious or not it is intensely moving to realise that you are standing on the hilltop from which Moses viewed the Holy Land for the first time or beside the pool where John the Baptist baptised Jesus.

These are certainly places you must see if you want to enjoy some of the greatest wonders the world has to offer. They are surely on every traveller's list of places to see before you die.

On the other hand, you don't want to die seeing them, so it does pay to be sensible.

A good basic rule is to act pretty much as you would at home: avoid wandering down mean streets late at night, don't flash lots of money in front of people who don't have it, be a bit circumspect about going alone to lonely places and be careful about wandering off with strangers.

If you want more specific advice about places to avoid, or at least to view with caution, a good place to start is the travel advisories on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's website.

The ministry takes a highly precautionary approach - for instance, it still warns of the risk of terrorist action in the United States and most of Europe - but only in the most dangerous places does it recommend not actually travelling.

For instance, its latest advice for most of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iran is basically the same: "Be security conscious. Avoid crowded/landmark places. Possibility of terrorist action."

The Ministry also suggests keeping clear of demonstrations and avoiding hotspots like the Sinai area of Egypt, northern Syria, Lebanon's Israeli border area and the Beka'a Valley, Iran's border areas and the towns of Zahedan, Zabol and Mirjaveh.

Not surprisingly the Ministry strongly advises against travelling to Iraq, although some intrepid adventurers have visited and escaped alive. The Ministry's view is: "Security situation remains dangerous and violent. Hostage taking. Those New Zealanders currently in Iraq should depart."

It also recommends New Zealanders should defer non-essential travel to Israel although I know of a number of people who have visited recently and had no problems.

The Ministry says there is: "Continuing high risk of terrorist attacks. Avoid crowded and landmark places. Avoid areas bordering Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Only travel on established roads as border areas with Lebanon, Syria and in the West Bank are mined. Care should be taken at crossing points between Israel and Jordan."

The advice for the occupied territories of Palestine, namely West Bank and Gaza, is even firmer. "We advise against all travel."

As for Saudi Arabia, the Ministry recommends, "Defer non-essential travel."

Ironically, one of the few places in the Middle East where there is not even a caution, is that former pariah state Libya, which shows you how quickly things can change.

So, unless you're a real adventure junkie, avoid Iraq and Palestine, and be very careful in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but don't avoid the Middle East.

Go there, behave sensibly, savour the experience ... and buy a Lotto ticket before you go.

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