The Risks of High-Risk Tourism

How to navigate risk when taking part in tours of higher-risk locations.

8 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 25 Sep 2023

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This essay was originally published in Dangerous Travels on 25 Sep 2023 and was updated on 09 Feb 2024

Some tour operators specialise in taking individuals and groups into higher-risk locations. I suspect a few of you reading this article will have been on these tours. I certainly have.

With the support of these tour companies, it’s possible to travel to pretty much any higher-risk country. Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, Somalia, and many other countries are all readily accessible to tourists.

In this article, I’ll share some thoughts on high-risk tourism and some practical advice for anyone considering going on such tours.

Travelling to higher-risk locations can be expensive

One of the first things to be aware of is that tours to higher-risk locations can cost a significant amount of money. Why? Because getting things done in higher-risk locations can be expensive. Trust costs money. At a practical level, there’s a benefit for tour companies to work with the same local guides and vehicle operators, even if that costs them a bit more. Like it or not, the tour operator will also need to pay off certain people at certain times. They may need to pay for access to specific areas. They may also need to pay local military or militia to provide protection for the tour group.

Getting to higher-risk locations can also be expensive. You’ll rarely be able to fly directly there. Typically, you’ll need to fly to somewhere else first and then get a connecting flight. You may not even be able to fly into some countries, requiring a border crossing. For example, most tour groups will access Syria via either Lebanon or Jordan (access from Jordan typically costs a bit more). Similarly, tour groups will access Yemen overland via Oman.

You’ll be visiting relatively safe areas

Even though you’ll be entering a higher-risk country, that doesn’t mean that the tour operator will be taking you to higher-risk locations within that country. The reality is that tourism within higher-risk countries is only permitted in lower-risk parts of the country. While you still need to be aware of the risks, it’s not as though you’ll be dodging bullets or ducking for cover from artillery barrages. Of course, you’ll still need to be mindful of your surroundings and be prepared for incidents.

Selecting a tour operator

If you’re considering travelling to a higher-risk location, one of your first priorities is to select a reliable tour operator. You may be literally placing your life in their hands, so it will be useful to know in advance that they have a strong track record of not getting people killed.

You’ll be relying on the tour company to do the following:

  • Make a sound determination as to whether it’s safe to travel to the country, given current events.
  • Make a sound determination as to whether it’s safe to travel to specific locations in the country, given prevailing threats and risks in those locations (just because a location can be accessed doesn’t mean it should be accessed).
  • Make the necessary logistics arrangements, including appropriate transport and accommodation.
  • Make the necessary security arrangements, including applying for the appropriate permits and clearances, and arranging protective security where necessary.
  • Respond to any incidents impacting the safety or security of the tour group.

Common sense will tell you to focus on well-established tour operators with a verifiable positive reputation. You might find it useful to read recommendations on travel blogs from people that have attended specific tours. I’ve certainly found travel blogs to be useful regarding who not to use. In addition to online research, I advocate engaging directly with the tour company to learn more about them.

Here’s a couple of questions you can ask the tour operator, listed in no particular order:

  • How do they vet their local guides and drivers? Do they have a process in place? Some won’t and will just go with a prominent company where people speak their language.
  • What types of vehicles do they use? Vehicles should be appropriate for the operating environment, particularly if you’re travelling over long distances or if road conditions are poor. The type of vehicles should also enable the group to maintain a low profile.
  • Have they conducted a risk assessment? If they do have a risk assessment, it may be excellent or it may be amateurish. It’s going to be hard to tell because they probably won’t share this document with you. It’ll be a case of “you’ll just need to trust us”. Maybe you can trust them, maybe you can’t.
  • What contingency plans do they have in place for different incidents? Do they have any plans at all? If they do, are the plans any good? Again, it’s unlikely they’ll send you a copy of their contingency plans (if they have them). Even if they did, depending on your background and experience, you may not be able to properly critique them.
  • What types of incidents have they experienced in the past, and how did they manage those incidents? The operator may decline to provide any information here.

A lack of willingness to provide information such as risk assessments and contingency plans doesn’t necessarily mean the company is incompetent. They may just think they’re protecting their intellectual property. But a conversation based around the topics above should certainly give you a sense of whether they’re taking these aspects seriously or whether they’re taking a cavalier approach.

It’s also worth focusing on the guides themselves. Are the guides local or international (or a mix of both)? Do the guides have the appropriate licences for the country in which they are working? Do they have advanced first aid training?

While the tour operator should be doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to assessing and mitigating risk, I’d suggest you consider the following points:

  • You can’t completely rely on your tour operator to assess the risk for you.
  • You can’t fully rely on your tour operator to support you if there is an incident.

You’ll therefore need to make an independent assessment of the risks and make sure you’re confident you’ll be able to manage those risks once on the ground. Similarly, you’ll need to be prepared to respond to any incidents that occur during your trip.

Balance these recommendations with a healthy amount of respect for the tour operator and an acknowledgment that they’ve probably been doing this type of thing for a while. However, the point is not to place your life entirely in their hands.

Aside from the tour operator, there are a few factors to consider when thinking about travelling to a higher-risk country as a group.

Challenges with group travel

Tours to higher-risk environments can attract an assortment of characters. Some people may already be experienced travellers and are seeking different experiences. Others may be thrill seekers deliberately looking for the rush that comes with doing dangerous things. Of course, there will be some people who are there to ‘tick a box’ so they can tell their friends how brave they are for travelling to a ‘dangerous’ place.

Each of these individuals will have a different risk tolerance. The bigger question is whether they actually understand the risks they’ve chosen to tolerate? It’s easy to not be afraid of something you don’t really understand and can therefore easily dismiss. At the same time, it’s easy to amplify threats in your mind where those threats don’t actually pose a significant risk in the specific context of your travel plans.

Within a group, the behaviour of some members could increase the likelihood of the group being targeted. A lack of understanding of social and cultural norms could result in an altercation that threatens the group’s safety.

You’ll also need to be prepared for the possibility that people in your group may respond unpredictably to incidents. At one end of the spectrum, some people may shut down and be unable to act. At the other end of the spectrum, some people may be stupidly brave, endangering themselves and others. If you have three or more people all doing different things during an incident, chaos will ensue. That’s probably not something you want to be part of.

For those of you that have been around the traps a bit, it’s important to recognise that you won’t be dealing with a team of seasoned operators, where you know the pedigree of each individual and can therefore automatically place some degree of trust in their judgement. In the case of a tour, each person in the group will have a different background and experience. Some people may have physical issues that prevent them from running. Some may be hyper vigilant and paranoid, looking for threats on every street corner. Others may be entirely dismissive of the risks. These factors can result in a high level of unpredictability.

A key point to note here is that risks aren’t dictated by people’s opinions. Rather, risks should be methodically identified, analysed, and managed. In the context of travel to higher-risk destinations, risks are managed through a combination of mitigation measures designed to minimise being noticed and targeted, and by being ready to respond to incidents. The personal opinions that group members have about the risks really don’t matter.

Another aspect to consider is the possibility that being with a group when an incident occurs amplifies the risk to you. Your decision making may be swayed by the group. You may also care for people in the group and may choose to go against your instincts to stay with the group because of your concern for their wellbeing. I’m not suggesting any of these approaches are wrong. Rather, you need to be aware of them and appreciate how they could impact your decision making and potentially your safety. Compare this with a scenario when you’re alone and can make a rapid assessment and take immediate action, without the need to consult with others or to convince others to move.

Before wrapping up, let’s consider a few other aspects relevant to tours in higher-risk locations.

Follow the instructions of your guide

It’s important that you follow the instructions of your guide. Don’t go off book. If your guide says don’t leave the hotel after a certain time, don’t leave the hotel after that time. In cases where you have the flexibility to walk around without a chaperone, speak to your guide beforehand and explain where you’re planning to go and ask them if they anticipate any issues. Always work with your guide rather than against them. If your guide says “no” to a certain activity, ask why. In doing so, you’ll learn more about your operating environment and the risks. You may also be able to negotiate a compromise. Above all, remain amiable and don’t lose your cool. A good relationship with your guide is essential for a good trip.

But, be prepared to act independently

Once on the ground, if you believe you’re being led into a dangerous situation, you may need to act independently to manage risk. Of course, it’s going to be difficult to determine when you’re being led into a dangerous situation, particularly if you’re not familiar with the operating environment.

Once you’ve been on the ground a few days and have had the opportunity to get to know your guide and your fellow travellers, you’ll be in a good position to assess their potential response to an incident. Even still, if an incident happens, be prepared to make your own assessment of the situation and act accordingly. Also be fully prepared for the consequences of your actions.

You’ll need to self insure

A final point to bear in mind is that if you’re travelling to a higher-risk location, you won’t be able to get insurance. You’ll therefore need to self insure. In this context, self insurance involves a conscious approach to avoiding and minimising risks, which also implies being conservative in your actions. In addition, self insurance means having the necessary plans and associated resources to get yourself out of trouble. For example, having the necessary equipment to communicate, having access to trusted local contacts (outside of the guiding company), and—of course—access to cash, without which your options will be extremely limited.

Wrap Up

Tour companies provide a great way to access high-risk locations. However, working with a tour company doesn’t eliminate risk. It also doesn’t eliminate the need for you to conduct your own risk assessments and plan your own risk mitigation measures.

Once on the ground, follow the instructions of your guide, and be prepared to act independently if needed. Also be aware of group dynamics. You may decide, as I have, that it’s safer to travel to higher-risk locations alone.

Thanks for reading.

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