Travel Security: Keeping it in Perspective

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The dramatic disappearance and murder of US solo tourist Sarai Sierra in Istanbul and the recent gang rape of a Swiss female tourist in India have brought attention to the darker side of travel.  In the wake of these incidents, in particular the Sarai Sierra case there were numerous ill-informed comments by columnists and bloggers calling Sierra foolish for traveling solo as a woman to a predominately Muslim country.  Many of these comments were made by people with little or no experience traveling overseas.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Sarai Sierra incident here is a very brief synopsis:  Sarai Sierra a married mother of two from Staten Island, New York made a trip alone to Istanbul, Turkey to engage in her photography hobby.  This was Sierra’s first overseas trip.  While in Istanbul she stayed in a rented room in a less-desirable section of the city.  She made side trips to Amsterdam and Munich – these side trips caused much wild speculation in the early days of her disappearance.   Throughout the trip she kept in regular contact with her family in the US.  The day before she was supposed to leave Istanbul and return home she reportedly planned to take photos at the Galata Bridge, a prominent landmark.  She never made her flight back to the US and her disappearance got wide media attention in the US and Turkey.

There were many theories immediately following her disappearance, many of them ridiculous:  She had been snatched by human traffickers; she was a drug mule; she was a spy; she was being held by someone she met on the Internet; she had spent tens of thousands of dollars on the trip despite her modest background.   These stories were fueled by the side trips that she made to Amsterdam and Munich, the fact that the only camera she brought for her photography was a smart phone and the fact that she seemed very trusting of strangers she met on the Internet.  In the end the sad truth was much simpler.  It appears Sierra ventured into an area frequented by drug addicts and homeless people to take photographs of the city’s ancient walls and was attacked and bludgeoned to death.  Her alleged attacker, a homeless man was subsequently captured in Eastern Turkey trying to flee across the border to Syria.

While it’s true there were some things that Sierra did that were ill advised and she may have been too trusting of people she didn’t know well these factors did not directly contribute to her death.  The decision to go into a dangerous neighborhood by herself did.  She did do some things right like maintaining regular contact with her family and home and keeping them aware of what she was doing and where she was going.  While we don’t seek to blame the victim there are valuable lessons that can be learned from someone else’s mistakes and missteps so we owe it to ourselves to study incidents like these, to analyze them and determine how we might better protect ourselves by doing some things differently.

Istanbul is a city I am somewhat familiar with having done several security assessments and other tasks there over a period of years as well as vacationing there so I have seen it from several perspectives.  Like any other big city Istanbul has its share of crime and its share of scam artists who will take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.  There is a low level threat of terrorism from an assortment of leftist and Kurdish separatist groups which doesn’t pose much of a threat to the average traveler.  Istanbul does have a reputation as a crossroads for human trafficking but again this activity is unlikely to affect a tourist.  In the wake of Sarai Sierra’s disappearance there were plenty of derogatory comments in the media about her traveling to a hostile Muslim country alone.  Istanbul is actually a very secular city and while there are cultural differences western dress and behavior is accepted and the population can hardly be described as hostile.

In the India incident a Swiss woman and her husband were on a cycling trip in Central India and decided to camp overnight in a forest area in Madhya Pradesh.  Later that night the couple was attacked by a group of men with sticks.  The husband was beaten and tied to a tree and the woman was gang raped.   Indian police later criticized the couple’s decision to camp in that location.  While the police criticism was very insensitive it underscores both the need to consider security implications and also the problems with reliance or confidence in local police authorities.

The important thing to remember when thinking about travel security – whether it be as a solo traveler, a female traveler, a couple, a family or whatever is to keep things in perspective.  There are many misguided, misinformed people, albeit some with good intentions that are engaged in fear-mongering and exaggeration of the threat.  On the other side of the coin there are those who disregard travel security advice as paranoia.  It’s important to walk the middle ground.  Learn about the threats that exist at the location where you are going.  Look at them in the context of your trip and what you plan to be doing.  Take prudent and reasonable steps to mitigate the risk and plan for worst case scenarios so you are prepared should things go wrong.

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