Mark Lammers planned his April trip to the Middle East in December 2010, months before the first government protests in the region took place. He watched nervously as the riots and regime changes of “Arab Spring” enveloped stops on his itinerary. Several travel companions dropped out.
“It was becoming my tour of countries with State Department Warnings,” said Lammers, a website manager from Seattle.
On the vacation itself, which included time in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Lammers experienced few problems. In the latter country, his group crossed the overland border in Jordan, just days before officials closed it to foreigners. Everywhere they went, people on the street were friendly toward Americans, he said.
“It was cool being there in this time of change,” he said. “People were very welcoming to us.”
Still, not everyone shares Lammers’ view. From Morocco to Syria, outbreaks of violence in predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East have led tourists to reconsider their travel plans. Many cruise lines canceled stops in Egypt for March and April, while tours in Tunisia are rerouting plans after the capital issued a curfew.
If you are undecided about an upcoming trip to the Middle East, here are a few pieces of advice that may help you decide whether you should go.
Hook up with a local: While Lammers often travels independently, he went on his Middle East trip with a local tour operator and he was glad he did. “None of us spoke Arabic,” he said, which limited their in-country information gathering to Al Jareeza English, the BBC, and CNN. The group did run into a roadblock on the highway to Homs; having a driver who knew the language and could make alternate plans made the situation less stressful, Lammers said.
Check travel warnings issued by other countries: It’s no secret that the U.S. State Department errs on the cautious side when it comes to travel alerts and warnings. Count me as one of the frequent travelers who prefers the more comprehensive and less alarmist alerts from the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk). The Australian and Canadian governments also have travel safety information websites for their citizens.
Read online forums for latest information: You can find threads on safety, travel warnings and up-to-the-minute closure information in several online travel forums, including TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, and of course, Frommers.com. What I like about forums is that you’re getting on-the-ground intelligence from travelers who have similar concerns as you. You can also talk out your fears with others, which could help you make your decision whether to go to cancel.
Stay away from obvious trouble zones: The U.S. State Department’s worldwide travel alert, issued last week after Osama Bin Laden’s death was made public, advises people to stay away “from mass gatherings and demonstrations.” Don’t go to riots to gawk and be aware of local customs and patterns; in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, protests have often taken place after Friday prayers. Follow curfew rules and keep your passport close. Be flexible and change your itinerary if an area gets hot.
Have a plan B: While his group didn’t have to significantly change their plans, Lammers wonders what they would have done if the situation in Syria would have deteriorated. “We could have flown to Amman from Damascus” instead of going overland,” he said. “But what if we couldn’t get to Damascus?”
Talk through your plans thoroughly, and think about worst case scenarios. And make sure you have the address, email and phone of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country where you’re traveling.
Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust dishes up travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World. Join her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter. or leave a comment below.