The safe traveller's guide : TRAVEL

The sites are magnificent, but isn't the Near East dangerous? Nick Tren d advises
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The Independent Culture
WITH THE end of the civil war in Lebanon and the opening of the Israel-Jordan border, the opportunities for independent travel in the Near East are greater than they have been at any time during the last 20 years.

However, travellers would still be wise to keep up to date with the extremely fluid security situation. Although it does not consider travellers to be at significant risk in Israel or Syria, the Foreign Office (FO) Travel Advice Unit is currently issuingspecific warnings for visitors to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.

Overall, the FO seems most concerned about visitors to Lebanon. Although there has been no significant fighting for the last three years, it says that "travel outside the main towns on a purely individual basis is still not advisable''. It recommends organising internal travel and accommodation before departure and "strongly advises" registering with the British Embassy on arrival (tel: 417007). The southern suburbs of Beirut, south Lebanon and the north and west of the Bekaa Valley - especially the area around Baalbek and Hermel - should be avoided by the independent traveller.

Michael Haag, however, had no difficulties during his visit there (see page 56). Jim Smith of Jasmin Tours, a Middle East specialist company which offers tailormade trips to the Lebanon, thinks that FO advice can be over-cautious. Although he does not believe that travellers should ignore it altogether, he has "no qualms about anybody going to Beirut or anywhere in Lebanon'' (except the south), even independent travellers. He has recently organised trips to see the cedars, up into the mountains, to Tyre, Sidon and the ruins at Baalbek. These went ahead without any problems except for being stopped at an occasional road-block by Lebanese or Syrian security forces, which Jim Smith finds more of a reassurance than a threat. He does, however, urge caution around Syrian military sites. Organising travel locally is not particularly difficult; Jim Smith thinks the country's infrastructure is now better than it was before the civil war.

Travel in Syria and Jordan is fairly problem-free, although the FO advises caution in Jordan: "Avoid crowded and downtown areas, be vigilant in public places generally''. It also suggests that travellers check locally with the consular section of the British Embassy (tel: 823100) for the very latest information.

According to Peter Crane, the Middle East operations manager for Explore Worldwide (a tour operator which specialises in geting off the beaten track), it is now possible to cross into Jordan from Israel between Eilat and Aqaba, thereby avoiding the need to go via Egypt. But he says travellers won't be able to visit Petra on a day trip from Israel because the border closes too early in the day (at 2pm) for the journey back from Jordan. This is thought to be a deliberate attempt by Jordanians to stop Petra being swamped by trippers (the entrance fee to Petra has also soared from £1 to £20 in two years). Travel within Jordan, according to Crane, is "very straightforward - it's the most developed country in the region after Israel. The governme nt controlsthe transport system, which is well organised, though pretty expensive.''

There's more advice from Shona Oldfield of the independent travel agency STA Travel, who has recently returned from visiting Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Encouragingly, she found little difficulty with local bureaucracy. She crossed the Jordan-Syria and the Syria-Turkey land borders without any trouble, and got her Jordanian visa overnight in Cairo and her Syrian visa overnight in Amman. Travelling into Lebanon would have been more difficult; when she inquired about trips to Beirut from Damascus, she was told she would be unlikely to get a visa. She also reports that it is still a bad idea to carry an Israeli stamp in your passport or even to mention that you have visited Israel, especially in Syria.

Shona Oldfield found travelling in Syria particularly rewarding. While there can be some unfriendliness from local people towards tour groups, she says, "individual travellers in Syria are unlikely to face any threats or difficulties". Generally, travelling by bus was easier and more efficient than she had expected, and as a lone woman she encountered only a few minor hiccups (although she advises all women to dress modestly throughout the region). Peeping Toms in the showers were one problem, as was th e need to pay more for her accommodation - as the only woman in most of the hostels, she couldn't stay in shared rooms and usually had to pay for two or three empty beds as well as her own.

The only publishing company with useful books for independent travellers is Lonely Planet. Its Middle East on a Shoestring (£11.95) is up to date, but it doesn't go into very much depth since it covers 13 countries including Afghanistan and Turkey. Jordan and Syria, a Travel Survival Kit (£8.95) is rather more detailed, but slightly dated.

The latest information on individual countries is available from the Foreign Office Travel Advice Unit by phoning 0171-270 4129 (fax: 0171-270 4228), or on BBC2 Ceefax page 564 onwards.

TRAVEL NOTES GOING TO LEBANON: Campus Travel (0171-730 8111) offers Heathrow to Beirut flights for £242 return. Middle East Airlines (0171-493 5681) has flights for £299, plus £10 UK departure tax and £20 from Beirut; this is a Pex fare which must be paid at time of booking.

TOURS: Jasmin Tours (01628 531121) offers a seven-day tour visiting the main sites for £869; trips are roughly monthly, mainly in spring and autumn. Three nights b & b in a three-star hotel, available now, costs £299. British Museum Tours (0171-636 7169)

has various trips to Lebanon and Syria: a seven-day tour departing 24 March with Professor Michael Rogers includes visits to Byblos, Baalbek, Anjar, Sidon. Price, £1,048.

GOING TO SYRIA: Moonlight Travel (071-490 1490) provides flights from Manchester/London and Stanstead to Damascus starting from £209 return, available until the end of March. In Style (0784 240392) offers flights to Damascus starting from £260 plus £10 UK departure tax.

TOURS: Specialtours (0171-730 3138) offers a 13-night tour around historic Syria for £1,985 per person. Cox and Kings (071-873 5003) runs several tours in the region, including a seven-days Highlights of Syria tour for £945. British Museum Tours (0171-636 7169) has an eight-day trip to Syria for £1,048.