Should Unrest in the Middle East Disrupt Your Travels?

Last Updated Jan 27, 2011 7:10 PM EST

Recent events in Tunisia and protests in Egypt have prompted questions about about travel in the region. Should you be worried? Should you cancel your trip?

My answer: a qualified no.

That's also what I told fellow travelers when there were street protests and fires in Bangkok last year.

Smart travelers -- and folks who are as streetwise in Cairo as they might be in Cleveland -- know that there are always some parts of a city less desirable than others, for visitors and even for the folks who live there. But that shouldn't stop us from going there.

In countries so dependent on travel and tourism -- Thailand and Egypt being two good examples -- the foreign exchange and cash flow driven by travel and tourism is so huge that it becomes an economic imperative for stabilization at times like these.

Americans are not targeted in Thailand. And despite staggering murder rates in Mexico, nor are Americans at serious risk there. (In fact, I am headed there tomorrow). The countries with the highest per capita murder rates in the world are, perhaps surprisingly, safe for Americans, if only because citizens of those countries are killing their fellow citizens.

Caveat (some) traveler
That said, symbols and buildings of the American government are often targeted, so a little common sense goes a long way, especially when the political unrest has an anti-American element.

The absolute last place I go when the you-know-what hits the fan: The U.S. Embassy. The U.S. State department always gets angry when I say this, but I cite my experience traveling to more than 150 countries, not to mention historical fact. At the first sign of any trouble, the U.S. Embassy is the very first building to be shuttered and barricaded.

If you need assistance, head for the British, Canadian or Australian embassies. When I've done that, the Commonwealth countries have always been helpful, and in life-or-death situations they have consistently protected foreigners, not just their own citizens.

So, should you be wary about about street protests in Cairo? Yes.

Can you go to Egypt and never even see protests? Yes.

I just returned from Cairo and Luxor last month, and despite growing political dissent (following the most recent elections), economic reasons to welcome travelers and tourists still rule. If the situation changes, so do the protocols of travel. We adjust. But street protests in Cairo do not constitute a war zone. To look back at Bangkok again, if you look at visuals from those days of protest and map out the exact area affected, you'll see that in that huge city, it was an area of just about six blocks.

But unless and until the situation on the streets escalates wildly, you'll still find me in Egypt, Mexico and Thailand, among other places . . . like Cleveland.

Bad trip?
If you're more cautious than I am about the Mideast right now, let me know. Tell me if you've canceled or changed travel plans in the past becauses of reports on civil unrest (or natural disaster)? Did that turn out to be the right choice?

Photo credit: Flickr user ephysimon
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