It's a big, wild world out there

If you circumnavigate, be circumspect, for merely sticking to the established itinerary is no guarantee of safety, warns Simon Calder

A trip to paradise - or hell?

United States

The World Trade Center bombing and Oklahoma City massacre were isolated cases of terrorism. You are much more likely to be one of the nation's three murder victims per hour as a result of criminal violence for economic gain. After the sharp decline that followed several well-publicised murders of foreign tourists to Florida, the state has bounced back this winter: prevention measures have reduced crimes against visitors by one-fifth in the past five years.

Before you sign up for that fly-drive holiday, though, bear in mind that you are much more likely to perish in a car crash than in an accident involving air, rail or bus transport. If you must drive, you might steer clear of Mississippi - the most dangerous state of all for motorists.

South Pacific

The image of this region as a peaceful scattering of palm-fringed, sun- kissed paradises has taken a battering with the protests in Tahiti against French nuclear testing. Tourists have not been harmed, but tourism certainly has been. Hotels are suffering from serious under-occupancy as French visitors stay away for fear of attack. Travellers from other countries are being deterred, too.

Two phenomena have come into play in the region. The first is confusion in travellers' minds about the precise location of the trouble. Can you honestly differentiate between Papeete, Vanuatu and Kiribati? (The first is the capital of Tahiti, the others are islands thousands of miles away). The other factor is that nearby destinations are seeking to prosper from Tahiti's instability. The last big political eruption, a coup in Fiji in 1987, led to competing advertisements such as "Golden beaches, coconut palms and no coups" (Queensland) and "War ended in the Solomons in 1945. Why risk Fiji?" (the Solomon Islands).

Australasia

According to a recent magazine survey, New Zealand is the most dangerous country in the world for British travellers. The statistical explanation for the high level of injury, of course, is the number of visitors who indulge in all manner of high-risk activity in NZ's great outdoors: whitewater rafting, wilderness hiking and skiing.

Across in Australia, the tourism authorities are launching a big campaign aimed at low-budget British travellers. It is aimed at redressing the harm done to the nation's image by the "backpacker murders" of hitch-hikers in New South Wales, uncovered two years ago.

A more bizarre strategy was revealed across the Torres Straits when the Papua New Guinea government announced it had "decided to use tourism to tackle a law and order problem". On the same day, an Australian engineer was shot dead in front of his family in the violence-torn capital, Port Moresby. So how exactly are we supposed to help? "Rapid and diversified tourism growth at the village level and in rural areas will assist in maintaining the political and social cohesion in the country." The government wants to increase visitor numbers by a factor of seven in the next five years, but there is little evidence so far that Westerners are rushing in.

South-East Asia

The biggest concerns among many visitors to the Thai island of Koh Samui, where Johanne Mashender is believed to have gone missing, is about the grade of the latest consignment of marijuana or whether banana pancakes are on the menu at the nearest beachside cafe.

Thailand has all the ingredients - climate, low prices and a "backpacker infrastructure" of cheap hotels and restaurants - to be a favourite among travellers. But the "been there, done that" mentality means that frontiers are being challenged, with sometimes fatal consequences. Across the border in Cambodia, three Western backpackers were murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1994. Last January, an American visitor to Angkor Wat was killed in a guerrilla attack. And if the rebels don't get you, the land-mines might.

January is peak season in the travel guidebook business, with new editions arriving in the bookshops by the rucksackful. But the most telling analysis of travel in the late Nineties does not suggest where to find a cheap flight or a cheerful hotel. Tourism, Crime and International Security Issues, published this month, is a clinical and chilling study of the global trend towards travellers becoming targets for political activists as well as opportunistic criminals.

To be a traveller in 1996 can be to court catastrophe. The screen-to- billboard travel marketing bombardment that has been with us since Boxing Day coincides with the Western hostages in Kashmir enduring half a year at the hands of separatist guerrillas. This disputed portion of India is but one of a growing number of destinations where political movements are discovering the value of tourism. Revolutionary movements can engage in bitter struggles for years without the world taking much notice. Capture a tourist, and suddenly the conflict can be plastered all over the Western media. The more important that tourism is to the national economy, the greater the bargaining power.

The risk of robbery is a more familiar and more prevalent threat to travellers. Most tourists carry the three Cs - cameras, credit cards and cash - that petty criminals thrive upon. Our horizons are constantly being extended by the travel industry to include yet more far-flung and invariably poor destinations. So it is no surprise that wealthy tourists can be seen by some predators to represent the fast track out of poverty.

The British backpacker Johanne Mashender, who has gone missing in Thailand, was sticking firmly to the established post-college round-the-world itinerary: North America, South Pacific, Australasia and South-East Asia. London is the world centre of cut-price air travel, and a circumnavigation can cost less than pounds 800. Thousands of Britons follow an identical trail every year. They avoid obvious danger areas: parts of North Africa and the Middle East, where foreigners are targeted, and know the risks involved in travelling in Latin America. Yet a close look at the most popular destinations shows cause for alarm, whether you travel on a shoestring or expenses.

'Tourism, Crime and International Security Issues', edited by Abraham Pizam and Yoel Mansfeld, John Wiley & Sons, pounds 40.

Stay at home for safety: five safe travel ideas in Britain in '96

Take cover in a Victorian fort at Rame Head on the south coast of Cornwall. The walls at Fort Polhawn are 8ft thick, and embrace eight luxurious bedrooms. Helpful Holidays: 01647 433593.

Follow in the full-stops of Lord Byron and DH Lawrence on a literary tour of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Four nights based at Dovedale in April cost pounds 199.

HF Holidays: 0181-905 9558.

Help the National Trust to carry out maintenance on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, a World Heritage Site. National Trust Working Holidays: 01285 644727.

Make friends on a personal development holiday. In June you can spend a long weekend in Sussex learning how to "create wonderful relationships".

Wisborough Cottage: 01903 742731.

Explore Shropshire's history - a three-night break based at Stourport- on-Severn, including guided excursions to English Heritage properties in the county, costs pounds 164. You must join English Heritage: 0171-973 3434.

Sources of help

The Foreign Office issues travel advice on 0171-270 4129, on BBC2 Ceefax page 564 onwards, and on the Internet at http://www.fco.gov.uk/. Specific advice for Turkey is available on 0374 500986, and for India on 0374 500935. The Independent's travel section carries a selection of risk updates each Saturday. The US State Department is another useful source of information: call 001 202 647 5225.

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