Advice for Women Travelers:
Some of the most astounding, exciting travel destinations are in developing countries. By "developing", I mean countries that might not yet be full (or even partial) democracies, where the infrastructure (roads, trains, electrical systems, plumbing, etc.) aren't as good as "developed" countries such as those in North America, in Scandinavia, in Western Europe, Japan, etc., where poverty may be pervasive and even extreme, where crime and pollution may be pervasive, and where women may not have equal rights, nor equal access to education, employment and life choices, as men do.
Standards of living and safety vary hugely among developing countries. I believe that some are, per current political and cultural conditions, off-limits to women travelers, particularly those from the USA (such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iraq), while others are wonderful destinations for such (Egypt, Jordan and many former Soviet-bloc countries in Eastern Europe are some of my favorites).
Also, the infusion of cash from travelers to developing countries is vital to their economies, so by traveling to them, you are actually providing direct help to the people there, in addition to treating yourself to a unique travel experience.
Consider this excerpt from: "The Missing: Why Americans need to rediscover the world" from the book Planet Backpacker by Robert Downes:
Over and over, I found the Middle East and Asia brimming with backpackers from Australia, France, Germany, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Brazil, Holland, Russia, Britain... but amazingly few Americans. I’d scan the registries of guest houses and hostels, finding pages filled with visitors from other countries, but few signatures from the U.S.A... As months passed by, it made me wonder if Americans are simply afraid to travel in the Third World, imagining terrorists hiding behind every espresso machine outside our borders... So, who cares? I did, because it bugged me that my countrymen weren’t part of the action out in the great beyond... Compared to their backpacking cousins from Europe or Australia, Americans are groping in the dark when it comes to understanding what the world is really like. We lack the kind of personal travel experience that no amount of reading, web-surfing or trolling the Discovery Channel can replace. Millions of couch spuds in America have seduced themselves into believing that the stagey episodes of Survivor -- which don’t involve an ounce of risk -- are actual adventures.
You do NOT have to backpack to visit a developing country, nor do you have to go with a highly-structured tourist outfit that will keep you behind high walls and tinted bus windows. There are hotels for a variety of budgets in most developing countries, and a variety of ways to travel through that country. Do what makes you feel most comfortable in terms of safety but, please, by all means, GO.
I choose country destination possibilities based on natural and historic sites that I have seen pictures of or heard described and now want to see for myself. But if the incredible statue or gorge or temple or cliffs are in a developing country, how do I decide if the destination is appropriate for me, as a single woman traveler (I don't always travel with my husband, and even if my husband is with me on a trip, I may want to go somewhere that he doesn't).
Here's how I decide for myself what developing countries I might travel to:
I also have to acknowledge that countries, including Germany, often issue travel warnings about cities in the USA, supposedly a fully-developed country, because of high crime rates, the targeting of tourists in particular for robbery, and hot-button political situations that could/have lead to riots. And so far, we've been robbed in just one place: Berlin (pick pocket in a bar). There's crime and safety concerns in EVERY city on Earth! It could be (and has been) said that every country is developing.
- Guide books and online forums
I know I sound like a broken record, or that I work for Lonely Planet (I don't!). But 90% of the time, the authors of the LP guides know what they are talking about, probably because they listen to what other travelers tell them, in addition to writing based on their own first-hand experiences. They also offer a lot of female-specific advice. The Rough Guides are also good. Basically, if a guide book exists for a developing country or region you want to visit, chances are it's reasonable for you to think about traveling there -- but, ofcourse, read the book first! You want to find out if women may walk around alone in the day, take public transport without a male escort, book a hotel and not have to push a bureau against the door, etc.
- Testimonies on the Thorn Tree and other online forums are good ways to further research destinations, but posts have to be taken with a grain of salt: don't base a decision just on one testimonial -- look for corroboration. Also, many of the posts are male specific: a guy may have had a great time in a particular country, but not be aware of just how hard it is for a woman to travel there, how she should dress, what places are absolutely off-limits because of safety or culture, etc.
- US State Department Travel Advice
List the risks of every country (except the USA, ofcourse). Please note that there are risks associated with EVERY country. After the bombings in November 2006 of hotels in Amman, my partner and I discussed whether or not we still wanted to go to Jordan for my 40th birthday the following January; after a few days of thinking about it, we still went, despite the warnings on the US State Department web site, and we were fine (we took into account the usual safety of the country and the kinds of hotels where we would be staying). If you do travel to a developing country, consider registering with this site as well regarding your trip, in case you need to be evacuated.
- Embassy Web sites
I have a look at both the US embassy site for the country I want to visit, and, that country's embassy web site for the USA. The content and tone on each gives me lots of indications as to how much that country is used-to travelers, and the most common issues travelers to that country face.
- The News
I type the name of a developing country, or city in such, that I want to visit, into a news search engine, such as Yahoo News, every few days for a month or so. What comes up? If there are constant stories of, say, attacks by right-wing youth on foreigners, or corruption among the police, or civil war, or mistreatment of women, I will probably want to rethink a trip to such an area.
- Reports by International NGOs
If a country gets continually blasted by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch for its treatment of women, foreigners or ethnic minorities, I'm probably not going to go there, no matter how beautiful the scenery. A negative report doesn't automatically take a country off my list, but if I see a substantial, pervasive, negative political trend in a country that I don't want to support with my tourist dollars, I'm not going.
- Packages by Travel Agents
Here in Germany, travel agents advertise special deals to other countries in their shop windows and in train stations, including developing countries. I figure that if they are pushing packages for a particular developing country I want to visit, it must be safe enough to do so. Package tours can make a foreign traveler feel much safer in a developing country, as they take care of everything -- where you stay, where to shop, where to eat, etc.
- Blogs by other travelers
The web is packed with first-person accounts of travels to every country on Earth. These are highly personal, prejudicial accounts, and sometimes, that's exactly what I'm looking for. However, I also have to keep in mind that their experience won't necessarily be mine, and that one person's torment (lack of a hot shower) wouldn't be as big a deal for me. Again, many of the posts are male specific: a guy may have had a great time in a particular country, but not be aware of just how hard it is for a woman to travel there, how she should dress, what places are absolutely off-limits because of safety or culture, etc.
- Other Women Travelers
Because I have worked in development, and because I have a lot of very adventurous female friends, I know a lot of women, including women from the USA, who have traveled to developing countries, and I tend to ask them a LOT of questions about their experiences. However, again, I also have to keep in mind that their experience won't necessarily be mine: I have two friends who loathed Morocco when they visited more than 10 years ago because they were continually harassed and threatened on the street, while another friend who visited in 2005 said she had no problem at all and is ready to go again. That friend who visited Morocco more recently would not be a good person to ask about St. Louis, however, as a hotel employee attempted to break into her room while she was touring there.
Hearing from other women travelers is essential when deciding whether or not to go to a developing country, because men simply do NOT face the same risks that women do in such countries. Men will often talk about the ease of traveling somewhere without realizing that, for a woman, traveling in the same manner might be dangerous or even impossible.
- Infrastructure & Sanitation Standards
All of the aforementioned should give me enough information to know if there are at least marginally safe and relatively easy-to-use trains, buses and taxis to get me where I need to go, if I'll be able to drink even bottled water, if there is good, safe food to eat, etc.
- Ease of online trip planning
If I am considering a hotel in a developing country, and find that it has its own web site or is mentioned positively on travel review sites, I'm more inclined to stay there than a place that doesn't have such. If I can find official information about trains and buses in English, however general, I'm going to feel even more comfortable about going to that country. The more official information I can find online about a country, sponsored and maintained by the country's government and/or businesses, the more I'm going to feel like that country can take care of its visitors -- and, therefore, ME.
If you are from the USA and are not an experienced traveler, particularly if you have NEVER traveled outside the USA, then I strongly urge you NOT to travel to a developing country (that includes Italy) -- not yet, anyway. Get experience traveling to developed countries first!
When all is said and done: do what is right for YOU. Don't let a person bully you into traveling to a country you don't want to, or talk you out of a trip you have researched extensively and feel isn't a risk any more than walking out your front door.
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traveling is not only wonderful, but important to your
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