Backpacking: How safe is your trip?

Recent news stories have rekindled concerns about the security of people travelling the world. How justified are our fears? Mark MacKenzie reports
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The Independent Travel

Of all the coverage of the tragic murder of Katherine Horton in Thailand on New Year's Day, much has concentrated on the idea that violent crime has turned that country into a "paradise lost" for young backpackers. A letter to one newspaper even suggested that for parents to allow their children to travel independently overseas was "like sending lambs to the slaughter". So is budget travel any more dangerous than it was 10 or even 20 years ago?

The short answer is no. According to a Mintel survey, last year more than 220,000 young Britons, more than 10 per cent of them teenagers, undertook some form of independent travel abroad. Recent government research suggests that a third of 16- 30-year-olds have been on, or intend to take, a gap-year break and the independent travel sector is believed to be worth close to £2bn annually.

Foreign Office statistics suggest that while most will enjoy a trouble-free trip, about 25 per cent of gap-year travellers report bad experiences, although these include theft and illness. Recent crimes against tourists in Thailand certainly make for grim reading. Last week, Thai authorities reopened the case of Kirsty Jones, the 23-year-old who was strangled in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai in 2000. In 2001 Darren Hinchcliffe fell to his death in mysterious circumstances from the roof of a Bangkok hotel. And in 2004, two backpackers, Adam Lloyd and Vanessa Arscott, were shot dead close to the bridge over the River Kwai.

But for all the gloomy headlines, the most recent United Nations survey on international crime trends hardly paints Thailand as a hotbed of murder. With the exception of major war zones, of those countries whose murder rates are particularly high - the statistical standard being total murders per 100,000 of population - Thailand fails to make even the top 10. South America, a favoured destination with backpackers, heads the list with Colombia in first place with 61, and Venezuela fourth with 31. Africa has only one top-10 entry: South Africa, in second place with just under 50. Thailand appears at number 14 on the list with eight. Australia, where headline-grabbing cases include the killing of Peter Falconio in 2001, comes in a lowly 43rd, with 1.5, three places above the UK's 1.4.

Despite this, the need to alert travellers to potential dangers is not lost on the industry. STA, the world's largest provider of budget and independent travel for the student and youth market, sends 500,000 people abroad from the UK alone. According to Anna Bacon, the company's UK retail marketing manager, the independent sector is uniquely placed to advise customers. "All our consultants must have travelled independently in three continents, excluding Europe, before we employ them," she says, "which means they can offer first-hand advice. In certain parts of Africa or South America, for example, we would advise people to take a tour but when something happens, the market is quite resilient."

As part of its duty of care to customers, STA also recommends the various gap-year safety courses now available.

The market leader is Objective Travel Safety, an organisation whose courses have expanded from training journalists and NGO workers for trouble hotspots to offering gap-year preparation courses, which it has done since 2002. "The fact is, it's no more or less dangerous than it was 20 years ago," says Charlie McGrath, the managing director. "Statistically, the further off the beaten track you are, the safer you are."

Last year about 1,000 people attended Objective's basic courses, which cost £150, and which focus on key hazards. "Road-traffic accidents are by far the most likely cause of injury," says McGrath. "In South-east Asia, the World Health Organisation is predicting an increase of 150 per cent in RTAs based on the projected increase in car use. When people jump on a bus they don't smell the driver's breath for alcohol. In terms of disease, everyone's heard of malaria but few of dengue fever. The other major threat is from the sun; melanomas which develop later in life can be the result of damage done on gap years."

McGrath concedes that while countries such as Thailand and India have a reputation for scams, of greater concern is the lack of awareness of the deteriorating political situations that exist in certain countries. Mostly, it is common sense, he adds. "In Swaziland, it's malaria you have to watch for whereas at the Rio carnival the threat from violent crime is reasonably high."

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