The recent escalation in tensions between Iran and the surrounding countries has people questioning the wisdom of travelling not only to Iran and Iraq, but also to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that could potentially be caught up in the unrest. If you're a traveller wondering whether to cancel or carry on, here is some expert advice from security professionals, tour operators and frequent travelers about how to decide - and to prepare.
Making the decision
It's important to understand that the Middle East is not a monolith, says C.K. Redlinger, a former US government security contractor who lived in the region for 12 years. While there may be some cultural similarities among certain countries, each has its own government, beliefs and customs. The same is true when it comes to levels of safety and security, says Redlinger, now president of MissionX, a team of Special Operations veterans who advise TV and film productions on military portrayals and organise extreme adventure vacations, including some in the region. So to make an informed decision about moving forward with travel plans, you must research the specific destination.
While MFAT issues its own travel advisories - from "Exercise increased caution" to "Do not travel - via its SafeTravel.govt.nz website, it can be worth checking the travel notices of other international bodies.
K. Campbell, a military intelligence veteran and senior consultant at Blue Glacier Security & Intelligence, believes too many people focus their trip planning on airfare, hotel reservations and activities, while neglecting to research safety. He suggests all travellers - note just Americans - visit the US State Department Travel Advisories website and also "spend a few minutes doing your own general internet search on safety and security in that country."
The State Department Travel Advisories website is a free resource that assigns levels 1-4 to every country in the world (with level 4 being "do not travel") and updates them as situations change. While it's run by the US government and is geared toward American travelers, Redlinger says the site can also be a resource for non-American travelers because it identifies reasons for each advisory and highlights crime trends, conflicts or unsafe areas. Travelers can then decide whether the risks listed are of concern for them.
"It's a great starting point," Redlinger says. "From there I would broaden my research and see what else the current news is saying about that location." He also suggests consulting friends and family that have visited or lived in the location because the "reality on the ground is often different from what you see on TV."
Shivya Nath, global traveller and author of "The Shooting Star," has safely traveled to countries tagged with advisories over the years - including Myanmar, Pakistan and Iran - and knows firsthand that media reports are only part of the story. Political agendas can skew the information you find; to get a more complete picture, cross-check your research using a variety of international and local sources. In addition to reading news from outlets around the world and comparing travel advisories posted by other countries (such as New Zealand's SafeTravel website and the Government of Canada's Travel Advice and Advisories), Nath urges travelers to "find local perspectives."
Like Redlinger, she recommends tapping your own network to find friends that live there or have visited. If that's not an option, Nath suggests contacting an in-country travel agency and connecting with locals through social media to find out what things are like on the ground.
"I look for people who are based there and maybe share my interests," she says. "I reach out and try to have a conversation about whether it's a good idea to travel there, what regions they would recommend, and so forth."
If, after you've done this research, you believe it's best to cancel an already booked trip but don't have travel insurance that covers cancellation, contact your travel agent or operator to discuss. If you booked the trip on your own, reach out to each property and service provider to evaluate your options. Some credit cards also offer trip cancellation coverage, so if you paid with your card, call the card company to inquire.
Preparing for the trip
If you're moving forward with your plans, here are some key safety-related steps to take before you pack your bags.
Obtain travel insurance, if you haven't already. Cory Sobczyk, vice president of business development at travel insurance provider Arch RoamRight, says there are three types of coverage travelers should look for: medical, including evacuation; cancellation (the "cancel for any reason" protection is recommended); and security/political evacuation. Many travel insurance policies don't automatically include security/political evacuation - in fact, unrest and acts of war are often listed as exclusions - so you'll need to inquire specifically about this coverage when searching for an insurance provider. Policies vary; read thoroughly before purchasing, and if in doubt, speak to an adviser who can help you choose. And don't wait until the last minute to purchase coverage. Although it may still be available at that point, some benefits - such as "cancel for any reason" - are only offered within a limited window of time from your trip deposit date.
New Zealanders living and travelling in the Middle East and elsewhere are encouraged to register on SafeTravel, the official registration facility for the New Zealand MFAT. Remembering to share your details before travel can help MFAT relay important information to New Zealanders abroad and account for your wellbeing as part of a "consular response" to any overseas emergency.
Make a note of whether embassy or consular services are available in the country you're visiting and how to contact them in an emergency. The MFAT Safe Travel website has a list of the most appropriate contacts by country should do if they find themselves in a crisis event. Print this out to refer to if needed.
Be sure your passport is up to date; having six more months of validity is a good standard for international travel. Prepare copies of it and other travel documents, such as your itinerary and in-country phone number. Take a set of copies with you and leave another with family or friends at home so they know your intended route and how to reach you.
If you booked through a travel agency or operator, check with them to see if the trip is a go, what measures they're taking to ensure safety and whether they have pre-departure tips. Ask if they have eyes and ears on the ground and emergency plans in place.
A trustworthy operator will be happy to, as the founder of Space Tourism Guide, Valerie Stimac, says, "open up a channel of communication," answer questions and keep you informed. Stimac hasn't made any changes to her upcoming Jordan "Stars to Mars" tour, but she'll continue to keep a close eye on the situation and advise her guests with the help of the Jordan-based operator she's working with.
Another tour operator, experiential travel company Pelorus, monitors governmental risk reports, enlists the expertise of private consultancies that provide risk assessments, and conducts reconnaissance trips to the destination before clients. According to Pelorus founder and former British Army reconnaissance regiment captain Geordie Mackay-Lewis, Pelorus also adjusts its offerings and sometimes forgoes destinations for a period of time if the team has determined safety is a concern. While the company continues to operate in the Middle East and North Africa, it is advising clients against travel to Yemen (mainland), Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. Mackay-Lewis recommends anyone considering travel to the region "conduct their own due diligence and talk to their embassies before planning any travel."
During your trip, there are several things you can do to protect yourself.
"Don't advertise that you're American," Campbell says. This means not carrying or wearing American flags and other overtly American-identifying apparel and paraphernalia.
Adam Gonzales, a security specialist with experience in the Middle East and CEO of Silent Professionals, a company that helps vets find employment in global private security, suggests that Americans invest in a passport cover that does not have an American emblem on the outside. Study up on customs, laws and clothing for your destination before you depart so you can keep a low profile on the ground. This isn't simply about style; it's about respect and safety. Disregarding cultural norms and laws might do more than offend locals - it could land you in jail or put a target on your back. Even when travelling to countries that aren't in conflict and may be "Western-friendly," you should know the culture and laws and try to "blend in as much as possible to keep yourself from being a target," Gonzales says.
Stay plugged in to local and global news. Avoid demonstrations, large gatherings and heated debates. Choose hotels that have a security presence and tour operators with a solid safety record. Vary your routine. Leave the flashy jewelry at home. And, Redlinger says, stop staring at your phone.
"Walking around with your head down, looking at your phone is giving an invitation to opportunists," he says. "Practice 'situational awareness.' Walking with your shoulders back and your head up, paying attention to what's going on around you, keeps you from being a target."
Putting your phone away and engaging your senses has the added benefit of keeping you in the present moment so you can also connect with the place and people in front of you - and remind yourself why we travel to begin with: to experience and understand life beyond the familiar.
"As travelers, we need to remember that people are not their government or their politics," Nath says. "Travelling opens your mind to the world beyond what we see in the media."