Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Travel is everyday diplomacy, with the potential to build economic and cultural bridges when politicians can’t. That’s especially true for countries afflicted by war, terrorism, crime, disease or unrest—or countries hostile to the U.S. For travelers, the risks can be significant. But so can the rewards: seeing some of the world’s most breathtaking sights while boosting local economies and fostering cultural exchange. Here are six countries that offer both adventure and uncertainty. The decision depends on you.
An exotic-animal sanctuary thrives amid human unrest.
Kenya is one of Africa’s premier safari destinations. The Masai Mara National Reserve is home to “the big five” animals that top any safari-goer’s wildlife wish list—lions, elephants, rhinoceros, leopards and buffalo—as well as other camera-magnet animals like hippopotamuses, giraffes, zebras and crocodiles. In October and July, millions of animals travel through this area in herds to adjacent reserves in a spectacle called the “great migration.” Other reserves to witness the animals include Amboseli National Park and Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is home to more black rhinoceroses than any other region in East Africa.
In recent years Kenya has been the scene of horrific terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and its affiliate Al Shabaab. The most violent incidents include mass shootings at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Center in 2013 and a 2014 explosion at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. In 2014, the Peace Corps suspended its operations in Kenya due to security concerns, and the U.S. Embassy relocated some of its staff out of the country. The British government warns against travel to several areas, but pointedly excludes safari destinations, noting that 117,000 Brits visited Kenya in 2014. A decision not to go does likely hurt both locals and the animals in question, which, if unsupported by tourists, become easier prey for poachers.
Abercrombie & Kent CEO Geoffrey Kent grew up in Kenya, and the company has a long history of providing safaris in its own permanent luxury tents that bring visitors in safe proximity to animals, in comfort and style. Contact: 888.611.4711, abercrombiekent.com
South America’s most promising economy has an image problem.
Cities like Bogotá, Cartagena and Medellín bring to mind drug violence, but Colombia has changed a great deal for the better. In Bogotá, the colorful La Candelaria neighborhood includes one of the best museums in Latin America, the Gold Museum, displaying 36,000 pieces of the metal that brought Europeans to the area in the first place. In Cartagena there’s the Caribbean and its spectacular beaches, and in fashion-forward Medellín, you can tour the urban revival in Comuna 13, a neighborhood whose gang violence once made it one of the most dangerous places on earth. And in Colombia’s coffee country you can explore unique landscapes that include monster ferns and huge wax palm trees.
Although travel stories about Colombia usually include phrases like “shedding its unsavory past,” not everything about the bad old days is mere memory: The U.S. State Department still maintains a travel warning for the country, although it’s at pains to note that the security situation is much improved. There are still incidents of gang violence and kidnappings, often narcotics-related, but they mostly occur outside of Colombia’s major cities. In 2013, for example, a Swede disappeared under suspicious circumstances while attempting to cross the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama—an area frequented by traffickers. The U.S. Embassy advises travelers to travel between Colombian cities by air, and never by road at night. Common sense prevails here, says Jonathan Lansdell, manager of expeditions for tour operator Butterfield & Robinson. “We’re not looking to provide an overnight glamping experience in Colombia,” he says. “But we’re also not going to hire a private security firm to accompany us when there’s absolutely no need.”
Butterfield & Robinson’s eight-day Colombia tour includes cycling on Bogota’s ciclovia, a permanent bike path that’s been there since 1970, and boutique hotels like Sazagua Hotel Boutique in the coffee country. Contact: Butterfield & Robinson, Jonathan Lansdell, manager of expeditions, email@example.com, 416.864.3248, butterfield.com
Glorious beach resorts coexist with extreme economic unrest.
Quintessential beach vacations on the Aegean, world-famous cuisine in stuck-in-time villages, exotic nightlife—the Greek appeal isn’t hard to understand, whether it’s sipping local wines in Crete or windsurfing off Psarou beach in Mykonos. That’s before you even consider the whole cradle-of-Western-civilization angle in Athens, the Acropolis and the Parthenon, or a crop of new hotels that offer a modern take on the classic Greek aesthetic, such as the Iconic Santorini, a 20-suite hotel carved out of a volcanic caldera cliff in the village of Imerovigli.
Obviously, the Greek economy is in crisis. But even at the height of the economic turmoil this summer, the effects on travelers were minimal. Though Greeks’ access to cash was restricted, foreigners were able to withdraw as much as they liked from ATMs, or could secure cash from their hotels. Although there were concerns that credit card processing and the transportation infrastructure would fail and fiscal chaos would ensue if Greece abandoned the euro, none of those scenarios transpired. With a bailout plan in process, such breakdowns seem unlikely. On the other hand, austerity measures instituted under the bailout terms, including a higher value-added tax, threaten to raise hotel and restaurant prices—something the Greek hospitality industry, which desperately needs tourism spending, is anxious to avoid.There is an even greater crisis to consider if you’re going further afield to the Dodecanese islands, often combined with excursions to Bodrum, Turkey: Because only a narrow channel of water constitutes the border between the two countries, this region has become an entry point for thousands of migrants fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the island of Kos, home to the Asklepion, the remains of Hippocrates’ sanatorium—the origins of the medical profession—refugees have been sleeping on beaches and in town squares.
Vibrant history and culture persevere despite modern totalitarianism.
Until recently, Russia was one of travel advisor Cox & Kings’ most popular destinations in Eastern Europe, says president Scott Wiseman. Little wonder, given St. Petersburg’s imperial-era treasures such as the Hermitage Museum and the palaces of Catherine and Peter the Great. Meanwhile, Moscow beckons Western travelers with its “New Russia” consumerism paired with history ranging from its exalted ballet productions to the imposing remains of its communist past. Visits to the Kremlin, Red Square and Lenin’s Tomb remind one that the Cold War is far from ancient history.
Memory of past conflict has evolved into something more ominous following Russia’s military occupation in Ukraine and Crimea. As a practical matter, tensions with the U.S. have created more difficulties for businesses and nonprofits operating in Russia than for leisure travelers. The MacArthur Foundation closed its Moscow office due to a Russian blacklist in response to U.S. sanctions; and it’s widely believed that a string of McDonald’s in and around Moscow were shut down for months due to anti-American muscle flexing rather than alleged sanitary concerns.For vacationers risk is more a perception than a reality—as long as your itinerary doesn’t take you to the areas near Crimea, Chechnya or the North Caucasus, which are in active conflict. Moscow and St. Petersburg have been targeted by Islamist terrorists in the past 20 years, but the last major incident in Moscow was in 2011, a suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. The question is really not whether one could go to Russia now, but whether one should.
Cox & Kings monitors the situation on the ground in Russia to modify any itineraries and vets hotels with a 27-page checklist relating to safety and security. Contact: Lisa Lesperance, European destination manager,firstname.lastname@example.org, 323.557.1833, coxandkingsusa.com
From the pyramids of Tahrir Square, the sweep of human history.
Whether you’ve formed your visions of Egypt from the Bible, Shakespeare, Elizabeth Taylor or Indiana Jones, this is the place to realize the fantasy—floating on the Nile, visiting the Saqqara and Giza pyramids, gazing at the Sphinx, taking in the awe-inducing tombs and temples of the Valley of the Kings. From the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, which displays King Tutankhamun’s tomb artifacts, to Tahrir Square, where the 2011 Arab Spring gained momentum, the sweep of human history is on display here.
Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has experienced political instability; leaders have been variously removed, installed, elected and sentenced to death. While anniversaries and new developments are met with protests that travelers can avoid by monitoring U.S. Embassy advisories, the terrorist threat in Egypt is not insignificant. A major terrorist group in Egypt aligned itself with ISIS in 2014 and regularly targets Westerners and tourist destinations. Mindful of the importance of tourism to its economy, Egypt maintains heavy security in tourist areas, but attacks still happen: This summer, a car bomb destroyed a government security building in Cairo.Some travelers engage private security to travel with them. “That’s something we can accommodate,” says Richard Harris of Abercrombie & Kent, which has been organizing travel to Egypt since 1982. “We also have guests who will send private security details ahead of them to check a place out.”
Abercrombie & Kent’s focus on exclusive access to popular attractions reduces exposure to crowded places. For instance, its Nile cruises occur on private yachts ranging in size from four to 40 cabins, all of which access attractions via private dock. Contact: 888.611.4711, abercrombiekent.com. Pinkerton offers travel security, including concierge services that provide safety recommendations on attractions, accommodations and restaurants. Contact: email@example.com, 800.724.1616, pinkerton.com/travel-protection-security
A cultural epicenter at the dawn of a new era.
You’ve probably never considered vacationing in Iran, but “it’s a slam-dunk destination,” says Stacey Sullivan, luxury travel manager at Absolute Travel, who has arranged trips for Americans to Iran without incident since 1999. The country formerly known as Persia has a rich history with a disproportionate number of historical and archeological sites for a country its size, and many more than its neighbors. (Iran has 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites; Iraq has four, Jordan five and Israel nine.) Among these are the ruins of Persepolis, which date back to 518 BC, and the Tabriz Bazaar, one of the most important trading stops on the Silk Road, both near the present-day city of Shiraz. In the increasingly energetic city of Isfahan, there’s the Meidan Emam, an early-17th-century square lined with graceful arcades that features a palace and two mosques. Isfahan is also home to the country’s best hotel, the Abbasi, which first opened 300 years ago.
The Iranian landscape offers rugged mountains, the Caspian Sea and a pleasant climate, especially in the fall and spring. There’s also very little street crime. Tourism has increased in Iran in recent years—it’s been a focus of President Hassan Rouhani—but it has mostly been regional tourism, so the chances of running into a crowd in any tourist spot is low.
You’ve probably heard of Iran’s state-supported “Death to America” rallies. They exist, but they are increasingly half-hearted, and travelers to the region typically find the Iranian people welcoming. Still, the United States does not have diplomatic or consular relations with Iran (though the Swiss Embassy in Tehran has an American Interest Section that can render extremely limited assistance). Americans are not barred from travel to Iran, but the U.S. State Department counsels “careful consideration” for nonessential travel: The Iranian government has detained some U.S. citizens. The risk is higher for Americans of Iranian descent because Iran does not recognize their U.S. citizenship. At present there are four Americans either detained or missing in Iran; of these, three are Iranian American, and the fourth is a CIA contractor.
While detention is an extremely unusual outcome for a vacationer to Iran, there are other factors to consider: You’ll need a visa, and unless you know an Iranian who will take legal responsibility for you, the visa will require you to either be on a tour or retain the services of an Iranian guide, who will be with you at all times. Women need to wear head scarves and a belted coat called a māntow, but a burqa isn’t required.
Finally, there are no international hotels in Iran—the options are all local. This may soon change: Rotana, a UAE hotel firm, has projects under development; and the French Accor Hotels group is expected to be an early entrant to the market should the U.S. nuclear deal pass, lifting Western sanctions. But for now, downgrade your accommodations expectations. “Hotels are not going to be the highlight when you go to Iran,” says Sullivan. And be prepared to go alcohol-free during your trip.
Absolute Travel will handle your visa and book your itinerary, which will be vetted by a travel security company. Contact: Stacey Sullivan, luxury travel manager, firstname.lastname@example.org, 212.627.1950, absolutetravel.com; Abbasi Hotel, Bakhtiar Haddadi, general manager, email@example.com, 031.32.2260.1019, abbasihotel.ir