for National Geographic News
Few are venturing to the conflict-ridden Middle East these days. Just 104,675 Americans visited the region between January and May of 2002a drop of 19 percent from the same period last year, according to government and industry figures.
Yet not all of the Middle East is a war zone. The region is vast and diverse, with 24 countries, and the danger is not widespread like most people believe. So, you shouldn't let a few hot spots scare you away, says Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows. Here's why.
Would you travel to the Middle East tomorrow, if you could?
KB: Absolutely. I'd jump on a plane and go to Jordan in a heartbeat; it's one of my favorite places in the world. Another place that would top my hit list would be Turkey, which the World Tourism Organization predicts will have a 10 percent increase in visitors next year, one of the biggest growths in the industry.
Still, many are avoiding the region entirely. Are these fears justified?
It depends on where you're going. This is a huge region and you can't judge it uniformly. Yemen, Libya, and Iraq should be avoided, but why not go to Egypt, which has tightened security considerably, since tourists were attacked en masse a decade ago? Now is the time to see the country's amazing treasures without the tourist hordes. It's prudent not to go to Israel right now, but if you're an adventurous soul and if you're careful in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, there really is no reason to avoid these places.
Each of us has to determine what we're comfortable with. The moment you leave home, whether it's to cross the street in Washington, D.C., or to get in a plane and go halfway around the world, there's some element of danger. That's actually part of what makes traveling so excitingthere's a sense of the unexpected, not knowing what's around the corner, though no one is advocating that you purposefully put yourself in harm's way.
Is the U.S. State Department a good resource for helping us gauge situations, or is it overly conservative?
Virtually every country in the Middle East has been on the U.S. State Department's travel warning list during the past 18 months. Does that mean that every place in the Middle East is hostile to Americans? No. So, there's no question that the State Department takes a very conservative point of view on this. I would first gauge your own level of enthusiasm for going to places that are on the list. Then I would spend a lot of time looking at Middle Eastern newspapers; many of the English ones have online versions. That's where you're going to get the real flavor for what's going on. Also, talk to people in the embassy and network to find locals or folks in America who have contacts in the country you're interested in.
Once we're there, how can we help protect ourselves?
Obviously, don't dress like a tourist. You want to stay away from hotels that are frequented by Americans. The idea is to look as inconspicuous as possible and stay away from areas where lots of tourists congregate. One thing I would not do is travel in any of these areas where squadrons of tourists, you know, climb on a bus and go from one place to another. That's just asking for problems.
Is independent travel out of the question?
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