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article imageHikers in Iran demonstrate dangers posed by adventure travel Special

By Michael Krebs     Dec 19, 2009 in Travel
The Iranian government may decide to go ahead with an espionage trial for three American hikers who mistakenly crossed into Iranian territory. Adventure travelers may be taking on too much risk.
The video request from an American mother to the Iranian leadership to release her daughter in time for Christmas is powerful and heartbreaking. Her daughter was one of three hikers captured by the Iranian military after they wandered into Iran on a poorly marked and remote trail.
While the incident certainly has international diplomatic consequences - with Iran pledging to put the hikers on trial for espionage - it also underscores the dangers associated with adventure travel, a growing trend among experienced travelers who find many traditional destinations boring or otherwise unappealing.
The Iranian example may establish a question of whether adventure travelers concern themselves with the political climate of the country they are exploring. I posed this question to Mary D'Ambrosio, founding editor of Big World Multimedia - publisher of Big World Magazine.
"I would say, rather, that adventure travelers sometimes tempt fate," D'Ambrosio said. "Stepping into politically or militarily risky territory has become a new form of adventure. As many first-world citizens have had more opportunities to travel over the past generation, nearly every inch of the globe has been explored and mapped -- so "adventuring" means going where and how fewer have gone before -- including into politically dangerous territory."
Given the situation on the ground in Iran and the dangers that face adventure travelers in other seemingly unfriendly countries, there may be an emerging trend for thrill seekers and adventure travelers that could very well lead to unintended and tragic results. But are there trends in adventure travel that allow for a more positive experience?
"The trend I like most is the one that advocates engaging with local and ordinary, rather than tourist culture, and making a contribution while there. The not-for-profit organization Room to Read, which builds schools and libraries in villages in Asia and Africa encourages donors to visit the schools they sponsor; groups like Global Volunteers and VolunTourism give travelers a chance to help on projects during their vacations. That's why a travel magazine like ours created a Twitter list of developing country thinkers: We want to do our part," Ms. D'Ambrosio said. "A trend I like less is the more-gonzo-the-better trip: climbing mountains backward, naked or rope-less; swimming in dirty or inhumanly icy waters -- those are really publicity stunts."
However, there will always be people who gravitate to the more dangerous path - plotting a purposeful plan to visit a country with an unfriendly government or an openly hostile population.
"Think about why you are doing it," D'Ambrosio cautioned. "And ask yourself whether the risk justifies the adventure. Are you going to learn about or experience something that will be useful to someone, or to yourself? Or are you needlessly endangering your life, and the lives of your travel partners, for a gonzo experience? Foreign correspondents in war zones make those judgement calls daily: does going up the road for that story justifying risking my, or my team's, life? Sometimes yes; very often, no."
She also believes the risk-oriented adventure traveler should prepare for the worst.
"I had a first taste of this at 24, when I went to Nicaragua, then in the midst of a civil war," she said. "I was a daily newspaper reporter, writing about Latin American issues, and wanted to experience the war up close. While it was an important -- even life-changing -- trip, and I'm glad I did it -- I was completely unprepared. I found myself in the jungle with a florescent orange backpack, cardboard boots and having left inadequate word behind about my plans."
It is also smart to be resourceful. There are services that the U.S. government offers its citizens should those citizens wish to travel in a country perceived as dangerous or hostile for Americans.
"Beyond the standard State Department Advisories which unfortunately not everyone takes so seriously, because sometimes they can be colored by political factors, it's a good idea to check in with the local U.S. mission on the ground-- be it an embassy, a consulate or a lone representative. If there's no U.S. representative, ask for a briefing at the embassy of another Western or U.S.-friendly country. You can get a good information briefing about which areas to avoid, and firsthand, detailed tips about provisions, dress, and who to trust or not. Consider asking for an official letter of introduction, which may help during a stressful moment, and leave your itinerary and contact details behind," Ms. D'Ambrosio advised.
American travelers may also want to consult studies to help determine a dangerous destination. General education and top-line familiarity on the makeup of a given location can help prevent a bad decision.
"It's partly common sense: It's plain dumb to blunder, unprepared, into any country with which we are at war (Afghanistan), or one where there is little sense of functioning or authoritative government (Somalia, the Sudan)," D'Ambrosio explained. "Those three, and of course Iraq, would need to be near the top of my list. But other countries more Americans are likelier to visit can be dangerous too, because of a rising risk of running into profiteering kidnappers. Nigeria, Colombia and Mexico come to mind. The first two are on the State Department's Advisory list -- but Mexico, which depends heavily upon U.S. tourism, and with which we have substantial trade ties, is not. That's what I mean about the Advisories sometimes having a political cast."
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