Sarah Barrell: Don't feel pressured by screaming headlines
Sunday 20 February 2011
"Are you sure?" is the current question greeting news of a planned trip to the Middle East.
And by that I don't mean Gaza or Tunis but anywhere in the Near East. I got an "are you sure?" from my husband, my sister, and my editor when I announced I was off to Syria and Lebanon. My airline was, of course, more pragmatic. BMI, which flies to some exciting, if not edgy, near-eastern and pan-Saharan spots, advised me to register online with the Foreign Office, then sent me off.
And quite right too. Because unless you stop travelling altogether, that's all you can do. Unrest and terrorist attacks happen without warning the world over, but I'll admit that when I found out I was flying into the planned "Day of Rage" in Damascus, even I thought "are you sure?" – not least as I was pretty sure this would not slot comfortably into the City Break travel feature I was planning.
But a week later, having spent days wandering around the dark lanes of the souk in Damascus, I travelled by a bumpy cross-border road into Lebanon, and on to Beirut, and saw no hint of dissent. The only threat to my safety was from gross overeating – Levantine food can make gluttons of monks.
I did find that I was one of just four tourists wandering blissfully free around the magnificent Roman site of Baalbek, and among only a few more on the Corniche in Beirut. I'm not suggesting that booking into a warzone to avoid the masses is a sensible travel mandate but taking headlines at face value is risky too. Apart from denying yourself great experiences, any overreaction means the countries you were to visit will also lose out. Despite the Day of Rage turning out to be not even 10 minutes of tantrum, the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus was populated by just a handful of businessmen from the Gulf States; a wave of panic had resulted in cancelled bookings. While I might not feel huge sympathy for an international franchise, I did feel for my guide, a young entrepreneur who had recently ploughed family money into a new guesthouse. "I'm praying things calm down over there," he said of Egypt.
And, of course, that's often how unrest is: localised. There's nowhere better than Beirut to remind you of this. This city, that has been under fire on and off since 1975, is practised at uninterrupted normal service. During the recent crisis, its nightlife simply moved up the coast to Byblos and Jbeil. Where there is a will, at least to party, there is a way in Beirut.
On my last evening, an email from the FO warned of aerial manoeuvres. Not something you want to hear while in Lebanon. It turned out to be a courteous alert to Lebanese army planes buzzing routinely over the city that night. Gazing down from the rooftops of the new forest of waterfront hotels, tourists may have wondered if a historic grab for power was on the cards. But I can report that there was nothing but heavy traffic around Martyrs' Square.
For the latest Foreign Office travel advice go to: fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice
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