Brits abroad: The Cuban police taught me the hard way how to behave

You might not like it, but no one forces you to fly thousands of miles to upset the locals

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The Independent Online

More decorum in the Forum, less flesh in Fiji, and forget the idea of taking even a sniff of nasal spray into Japan: that is the message from the Foreign Office as it seeks to reduce the alarming rate of detentions of British travellers abroad.

At present a British traveller abroad is arrested every 90 minutes on average. A good way to draw attention to the many pitfalls is for the FCO to put out a jokey press release. It can point out some of the many laws that tourists may unwittingly break – and point a finger at the strange ways of Johnny Foreigner. No feeding the pigeons in Venice, and no swigging Coke on the steps of the Santa Croce in Florence, eh? What will those Italians think of next?

As a serial offender, detained for careless photography in Romania, thrown out of Honduras and guilty of various public transport infractions worldwide, I am tempted to join the chorus of derision about the ban on camouflage clothing in Barbados and chewing gum on public transport in Singapore. But those laws did not arrive on the statute by accident: evidently, those nations believe that they had a problem, and dealt with it.

You might not like it – but no one is forcing you to fly thousands of miles to upset the locals. If you take up the opportunities that the 21st century presents, then spend a bit of time finding out about your destination.

About a million Brits will visit the United Arab Emirates (which for most tourists means Dubai) this year. Some visitors seem to think that it’s Las Vegas on sea, while in fact it’s a reasonably conservative Islamic society.

Ten minutes up the road from Dubai airport, the Emirate of Sharjah bans alcohol completely, and indiscreet displays of affection or inebriation are frowned upon. Passengers in transit through the UAE under the influence of alcohol or with illegal drugs in their bloodstream may also be arrested.

If you go through passport control into the UAE your problems are only just beginning: it’s illegal to share a hotel room with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or “closely related” – and if you happen to be gay, homosexual acts are against the law.

Elsewhere, present and former Communist countries seem particularly hazardous. Inadvisable photography has landed me in police custody in Cuba, and taking notes for an article caused a kerfuffle in Nicaragua that required a large number of armed men to sort out.

In the US state of Washington, I was bundled into a Highway Patrol car while hitch-hiking; I am still not sure whether I was being given a lift to the nearest bus terminal, or simply a public nuisance being removed.

There is, in many countries, a thin line between an on-the-spot fine and a bribe. But traveller beware: learn the ground rules – and the capital crimes – of your destination, rather than hope that some king of touristic immunity will protect you against a sovereign nation’s laws.

Twitter: @SimonCalder