Travel: You think going abroad is dangerous? Try staying at home

IS TRAVEL dangerous? I doubt it can possibly be as bad as staying at home but for some people at least the imagined risks of travel are getting out of hand. On Tuesday last week a Monarch Airlines flight to Alicante was beginning to accelerate down the runway at Manchester Airport when a passenger ran up the aisle shouting out that he was afraid of flying.

I dread to imagine the effect that this outburst may have had on all the other nervous fliers on board but anyway the crew were obliged to jump out of their seats to attempt to calm him. Amid this pandemonium, the pilot had to abort take-off and do a U-turn on the runway. The aircraft returned to its stand where the man whom I would already like to nominate as the least successful traveller of 1998 was taken away by police (Let us hope that some day he makes it to Alicante, perhaps by car - as long as he doesn't find out that more people are killed in European cars each year than European planes).

Theoretically you can be held responsible for the costs of delaying an aeroplane. Certainly the risks of suffering an unexpected panic attack on board are greater than the risks of your plane crashing. But are they as great as the risk of being attacked by bandits in Guatemala?

This was what happened to a group of American college students who were holidaying in that pleasant Central American country ten days ago. Their trip came to an abrupt end when their bus was set upon by gunmen who raped and robbed their victims. In the American media, Guatemala is now set to join Luxor as the place with the largest number of unemployed tourism workers.

Real or imagined dangers? We all know that flying is 20 times safer than catching a local bus though I might hesitate to join a bus tour of the Valley of the Kings right at the moment. As for Guatemala - I was about to dismiss the American reaction as a sad example of mass hysteria when I read that European diplomats have since stepped forward to admit that, well, actually, dozens of their tourists had also reported being attacked in the country last year. Perhaps Guatemala really is a place to avoid.

Another place where tourists' safety has been called into question is Cuba. The Pope may have plucked up courage to go there but there remains last year's bomb attacks on hotels. In the meantime most attacks are said to be the work of a man now behind bars so perhaps the country is safe once more.

But who knows where real danger ends and a bad image begins? What is certainly far more dangerous than to be the Pope in Cuba is to be a driver in Brazil, a country where 25,000 people are killed in road accidents each year. I knew Brazil had its dodgy sides but I would have felt cheated had I been killed there in a road accident rather than mugged in the traditionally Brazilian way on Copacabana Beach.

But wouldn't that have been typical. It is a cast-iron law of travel that the places which are supposed to be dangerous are in fact safe. Northern Ireland is - according to European Union statistics - the safest place in Europe. Your chances of being blown up there as a tourist (in other words) are about as high as of dying of sunstroke in Shetland right now. If you are still afraid to go to Belfast then you would also avoid the rest of Europe and you would certainly never do anything as crazy as skiing.

By the way, the Swiss city of Lucerne is introducing a novel way of reassuring visitors that it does not have the slightest crime problem. It is opening up a new hotel - in the local prison. This "historic" building will be made available while the current inmates are surreptitiously removed elsewhere. The prison will be aimed at low-budget guests who will enjoy an adapeted exercise yard as their leisure area. Nobody who has stayed there will ever again complain about hotel rooms being the size of cells. These rooms will be cells. And no doubt they will be the safest places in town.

FINALLY, let nobody accuse us of being behind the times. As of tomorrow, the travel section goes global. The text of these pages, and those of The Independent's Saturday travel pages, will be available on the World Wide Web. The address will be: www.independent.co.uk/travel. We're not planning to abandon our paper incarnation quite yet, I should add. But nevertheless we look forward to hearing any comments you may have. By e-mail of course.

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