Travel Troubleshooter: Advice for going to "forbidden places"
Bored with a "staycation?" More travelers opt for exotic locales once considered hostile or dangerous.
Tribune Media Services
When it comes to travel, forbidden is in.
Cuba, Iran and North Korea — long off-limits to most American visitors — might be added to the "allowed" list under an Obama administration. Other destinations that were considered too dangerous or hostile to Americans are becoming fashionable again, as travelers jettison boring "staycations" for something more exotic.
"People who love to travel will take their chances," says Glenn Strachan, a wireless communications consultant in Annapolis, Md. He's been to several "forbidden" places, including everyone's favorite no-no vacation hotspot, Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia when they were still closed to Americans.
"Had we been caught," he says of his visit to Cambodia years ago, "we likely would have been killed."
That's the thing about these verboten vacations: They can be risky. The State Department publishes a list of travel warnings at http://travel.state.gov that shouldn't be ignored. They range from Cote d'Ivoire, which is experiencing periodic episodes of political unrest and violence since a failed coup a few years ago, to the Philippines, where Americans are at risk from terrorist attacks.
Never mind the health hazards of vacationing somewhere that's off the beaten path. Or on the warpath.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes health advisories for most countries. If you're traveling to Somalia, for example, you should consider vaccines for yellow fever, Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies and polio. Going to Myanmar? Add a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis and take your malaria pills, please. "We very rarely tell people that they should not go to a particular country," says CDC spokeswoman Shelly Sikes Diaz.
So when they do, you might want to heed their warning.
Still interested in going off the grid on your next getaway? Here are nine tips.
1. THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS SAFE
Even if you decide to travel somewhere familiar — or at least government-sanctioned — there's no guarantee you'll come back alive. "Let's face it," says Joy Thrun, who owns Classic Travel, a travel agency in Okemos, Mich., "there is no safe place." Curiously, some of the destinations that are thought to be dangerous, including Israel, Nepal, Kenya, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Syria and the Philippines, are not as hazardous to your health as the government would have you believe, she adds. "I would not hesitate to travel there," she says. "They're wonderful travel destinations."
2. ASK AROUND
That's the advice of Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, and author of "Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil." "It's very interesting to compare the U.S. Department of State advisories with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office advisories and Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade," he told me, adding that the British ones are generally the "most measured." When he visited Afghanistan and Iraq a few years ago, he remembers the British advisories essentially saying, "This bit is really bad, this bit is probably OK, take care anywhere," he says. "They didn't simply say 'don't go."'
3. REMEMBER, YOU'RE NOT THE FIRST AMERICAN
Brandon Wilson, author of "Dead Men Don't Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa" says if you want to go somewhere forbidden, odds are other Americans have already been there. "Fortunately, there are some great fellow-traveler resources, such as blogs and forums, where folks can address your concerns," he says. "Tap into their knowledge and see how they may have skirted around the needless bureaucracy."
4. BRUSH UP ON CUSTOMS
A breach of etiquette may sink your entire trip, warns Martha Wharton, a vice president at TCS Expeditions in Seattle. For instance, if you're a woman traveling to Iran, don't forget to have a separate passport photo taken for your visa, in which you're wearing a headscarf. "Also, in Muslim countries, no alcohol is allowed, and in Burma, there is no cell phone or non-government controlled Internet access," she adds. "Such is the nature of expedition."
5. GOT MONEY?
Your ATM card and credit card may not work in a country that's "off limits." "It's pretty tricky," says Peter Frank, who edits the travel site Concierge.com. "Traveler's cheques are probably useless, and the last thing you want to do is carry around a big wad of cash. But depending on the destination, that may be your only choice."
6. MIND YOUR OWN GOVERNMENT
The biggest hurdle to visiting a "forbidden" place may not be that country's regime, but your own government. Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica, Calif., Middle East activist and blogger, says her trips abroad have left her with an FBI file listing her pre-invasion and post-invasion trips to Iraq. "It's not easy traveling to countries that the U.S. has deemed off-limits," she says. Among the challenges: securing visas, researching accommodations and getting wheels once you're in the country. "Some of these countries, like Iran and North Korea, require American tourists to have full-time minders, which really increases the cost for single travelers dramatically," she told me.
7. DON'T BREAK ANY RULES — PUSH TO CHANGE THEM
Another challenge in traveling to an off-limits country is making sure that you don't violate any laws, according to James Friedlander, the president of New York-based Academic Arrangements Abroad. Without the necessary permits, your trip may be illegal. "Many times, getting permission is possible through high-level cultural institutions or political contacts," he says. For instance, the U.S. government routinely allows academics and journalists to visit these banned countries. But the long-term solution is to push for these rules to be lifted. "With the change in administration in Washington, some regulations regarding travel to Cuba, for example, will be relaxed," he says.
8. HAVE A SECURITY PLAN
While many of these destinations aren't as dangerous as you might think, you still have to plan ahead and take certain precautions. Philip Farina, a San Antonio-based security expert, recommends you design a backup plan that enables you to get to a safe environment if you find yourself in danger. "This includes letting your friends and family know where you will be heading, checking with the U.S. Department of State and the Overseas Security Advisory Council to see who the danger-players in that country are, and how they operate," he says. Farina says you should carry a hidden kit containing a copy of your passport, emergency cash, a local phone card, a map of the travel region and the telephone number of a company that specializes in high-risk evacuations — just in case.
9. SHUT UP
You'll be tempted to tell the world about your Cuba vacation, but you might want to think twice. Not only could you face fines and imprisonment, but also your friends might take a dim view of your choice of destination. "I think that the biggest hurdles to traveling to a forbidden destination are the propaganda machine and the hostile, uninformed reactions of fellow Americans who really know nothing about the countries in question or about the laws regarding travel there," says Julie Schwietert Collazo, the managing editor of Matador Travel and a frequent visitor to Cuba. "There's also the fear that we're doing something terribly unpatriotic by going to these off-limits places. I don't think there's anything further from the truth."
Even if more countries are open to Americans than ever before — and even if more Americans want to visit these undiscovered destinations — it's still likely that large parts of the globe will continue to be free of Western visitors. At least, for now. That's the assessment of Babs Ryan, who wrote a book about globalization called "America's Corporate Brain Drain."
"Unfortunately," she told me, "the beautiful, history-rich Middle Eastern countries will still be ignored by most Americans. Even frequent travelers lump Muslims and Arabs into one category or are ignorant about the difference in cultures in that region."
And in that case, ignorance is not necessarily bliss.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. His syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column runs weekly online at seattletimes.com/travel and occasionally in print in Northwest Traveler. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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