'I'm still going to Asia’ – The real vs imagined danger of travelling to ‘high-risk’ zones

Not everyone can take regular holidays abroad. For most South Africans, travelling overseas is a big luxury. A holiday is planned - it’s not usually a spur of the moment, impulse-decision that just ‘comes to you’. Which makes cancelling a trip more heart-breaking when you consider the cost of losing deposits.

(Never again decline travel insurance).

Amid coronavirus chaos (COVID-19) that is plaguing parts of Asia, we asked Twitter whether any of them have cancelled upcoming trips or reconsidered their plans to visit Southeast Asia, while this epidemic persists. The biggest percentage of tweeters (50%) said they changed their plans, opting for other ‘safer’ destinations:

That is, avoiding all travel to 11 countries that form part of Southeast Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, East Timor, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Vietnam. Many are taking this route, side-lining Asian travel – trading Vietnam for Morocco, and Japan for Switzerland, says The National Geographic.

When in fact, very few COVID-19 cases have been identified outside of China mainland, according to Business Insider. 

Granted, travellers are now faced with hard travel decisions. The New York Times reports that though hard data on cancellations of flights, hotels and activities are still scarce, tour operators, travel insurance brokers and even airline employees are disclosing that numbers are, in fact, dwindling.

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And it’s not just destinations and airlines that are affected. Cruisers who booked their spot on the Diamond Princess expected a cruise of a lifetime, not to be quarantined. The National Geographic humorously adds to this narrative, saying passengers “were likely looking forward to hanging out in a hot tub, not a hot zone”.

So why book a cruise for your anniversary when you can just stay home and have your freedom? 

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But what are the ethics involved with travelling to epidemic-stricken areas and disaster zones? 

When there's a terrorist attack, this question always plagues my mind: Why avoid an entire country, or in this case a subregion of a continent, because of an incident?

Travelling to a place where people have experiencing significant trauma, is questionable, but avoiding travel to say Cape Town because of the Marikana massacre (2012) or scrapping travel to the whole of Turkey after the 2016 Atatürk Airport, Terminal 2 attack, is just nonsensical. Yet tourists cancelled their trips to Turkey in bulk.

It's like a stock-market crash: One pulls out, and all comes crashing down. 

Travel writer, Matt Hershberger explains the ethics of this type of travel avoidance beautifully, saying terrorists attack morale, not people.

“Istanbul receives millions of visitors every year — the Grand Bazaar alone is the most visited tourist attraction in the world, with over 91 million visitors per year — and your odds are still extraordinarily low of getting caught up in a terrorist attack.”

It's a perceived all-consuming fear that grips people. Not at all based on real danger. 

Similarly, with the coronavirus, Japan has experienced a massive dip in tourism numbers, even though most of its cononavirus cases were found on board the Diamond Princess. In response a group of Kyoto shopkeepers launched an ‘empty tourism’ campaign in an effort to lure people back to their historic - now empty - streets. CNN reports that posters to promote the campaign showcase how travellers could technically have the district's most-visited spots all to themselves. Imagine having the Kyoto's Sagano Bamboo Forest all to yourself? Doesn’t sound too dangerous, now does it?

In the end, safety first. For sure. But base decisions of safety on fact, rather than fear.