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Safe travel destinations?

When I am planning for travelling, especially to some more exotic destinations, the discussion is often steered toward the question - Is it safe? The underlying concern is the place maybe crime infested or perhaps an active target of terrorism. To the more experienced travellers this is often rejected as an undue concern. The standard rebuff is New York and LA has a higher crime rate than that of the destination.

Yet this question never goes away. People do not assess risk objectivity but base on some impression that can be very biased. Probability is such a thing that is hard for ordinary people to grasp rationally. In case of travelling, I find that the perceived risk is inversely proportional to the familiarity of the destination.

Consider New York, London, Madrid and Bali as examples. Each of them have subjected to multiple terrorist attacks. When Bali was bombed in 2002, some people discount it as an one-off incident. When it was bombed again in 2005, people are really scared and tourism plummeted. In case of New York and London, except the first few weeks after an incident, I have not heard anyone want to avoid them due to safety concern. Madrid sit somewhere in between. People perceive it as more risky than London but less risky than Bali. The perceived ranking or risk is roughly Bali > Madrid > London > New York.

Rather than base on any objective risk assessment, I think this is more a factor of familiarity. The ranking of familiarity for many outsiders are roughly New York > London > Madrid > Bali. Ask anyone in the world their impression on New York and London, they are likely to come up with hundreds of images - Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, multinational companies, the British royalties, celebrities and politicians, media and art references and their long and colorful history. This create an air of excitement that easily drown out the relative few violent incidents happened. On the other hand what do people know about Bali? Some superficial images of beach resorts and sightseeing spot? Unfortunately, for some people, the bomb attacks actually jump in front as their primary image of Bali. News of terrorism travel far and wide while domestic affairs receive little attention elsewhere. So the few incidents easily dominates outsiders' impression of the place.

The bottom line? Subjective risk is often very biased. The more familiarity you have with a place the less risk you will perceive.

2007.09.20 [] - comments



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