On Thursday 17th August at 16:50, a white van plowed into tourists and locals who had been enjoying the beautiful surroundings of Las Ramblas, Barcelona. At time of writing, 16 people were killed, more than 100 injured. It has shocked the world; a world which has become uncomfortably used to dealing with tragedy. Among the dead are citizens of Spain, Italy, Germany, America, Canada, Argentina, UK/Australia, Belgium, and Portugal. The hurt are reported as being from Ireland, the UK, France, Australia, Pakistan, Venezuela, Algeria, Peru, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Ecuador, the USA, Argentina, Romania, Cuba, Austria and the Philippines. A vast number of these victims were people enjoying travelling the world and experiencing another culture, before their lives were brutally taken from them.
It is the latest in a series of attacks on areas which are popular with visitors – Tunisia, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Stockholm, and London have all seen attacks in the past two years. It is something that strikes a note of worry into the heart of even the most experienced travellers, the thought of something happening far from home. This weekend, I waved off my boyfriend as he departed on a trip to Berlin. Just a few hours before, my boyfriend, as stubborn and defiant in the face of terrorists as they come, admitted that even he was feeling a bit nervous at spending time in a place that had been a previous target.
He is not alone. Condé Nast Traveler magazine reported in 2016 that after the Paris attacks, hotel occupancy fell by 21% the Saturday after the attacks, and by 23% the next day. The Metro newspaper in the UK reported that London sites, previously experiencing a surge of visitors thanks to the Brexit-inspired collapse of the pound, were now seeing less overseas visitors in the wake of the Manchester and London attacks.
And I have my own experience of this. My boyfriend and I were in London on 3rd June, visiting Borough Market and London Bridge only a few hours before the attacks there which killed 8 people and injured 48. We were both truly shaken by the thought of having been so near to potential disaster – my boyfriend had disturbing dreams for weeks afterwards. I’m a regular traveller through London, yet had to be escorted on the Underground as I was too scared to be by myself.
Yesterday, I was on the Underground by myself. I was not afraid. It will not stop me from travelling. It has actually encouraged me to travel more, to go out and do the things that the people who lost their lives cannot do, and to carry on their spirit of adventure.
We should not be put off from visiting these destinations. The media whips us up into a frenzy of panic, suggests to us that these places are “dangerous”, that we shouldn’t visit, that everyone there is going to hurt you. This simply isn’t true. Check out any blog, any travel guide, and you’ll see the accounts of people visiting all of these “dangerous” destinations, and feeling completely safe, welcomed by the locals. Yes, you have to be careful, and take advice, but the world is not out to get you.
However, when you have anxiety, it’s sometimes difficult to tell yourself that.
Travelling with anxiety can be a challenge at the best of times – we convince ourselves that everything will go wrong, that our plane is bound to crash, that an accident will befall us, that we’ll get caught up in a terror attack; the thoughts may be irrational, we may be completely aware that they’re irrational, but it can feel like there’s no way to stop them, until they worm into your brain and poison everything you were looking forward to.
Stop. You don’t have to think like that.
And here’s a few ways you can help yourself.
1. Accept uncertainty, and the emotions that come with it.
Sadly, we can’t do anything to guarantee that nothing will happen to us when we’re away. But the same goes for everyday life; being away from home doesn’t necessarily make you any less safe. And it’s okay to feel scared by that – it’s a loss of control, and if there’s one thing that I’ve noticed about my own anxiety, it’s that I really don’t like losing control of my own situation. But rather than fight against it, accept it – don’t accept the possibility that something will happen to you, but accept that uncertainty is sometimes unavoidable in the pursuit of something amazing. Everyone feels uncertainty at times, but it shouldn’t prevent you from living your life the way you want to live it.
Instead of focusing on the things you can’t control, focus on the things you can control. There are so many things in travel which are entirely at your own schedule – your flight times, your hotel, the trips you take, the places you see. You’ve selected all of these things because you’re comfortable with them – and you’ll be fine. Travel has a way of throwing unexpected curveballs; embrace them, learn from them, accept them for what they are, and you’ll be better prepared for them in the future.
2. Stop negative visualisation.
One of the worst things you can do with anxiety is visualise a negative situation before it’s even happened – I myself have visualised various disasters happening to me, from plane crashes to terror attacks to poisonous insect bites. You start to imagine news reports, crying relatives, your own funeral. It becomes so realistic in your mind that it becomes reality; you can’t visualise your trip turning out any other way, and you cancel it. Stop that – visualising is really easy to do, and it’s utterly destructive. The most important thing to remember is that none of the things that you’re imagining have happened, and the chances are that they won’t happen. This goes for anything, from terror attacks to missed flights or buses. Stopping yourself from visualising disaster is one of the most important skills that you can teach yourself. And the best way to stop yourself from negative visualisation is…
3. Do lots of positive visualisation.
This is probably your most important and effective tool in dealing with any kind of travel anxiety, but especially if you’re in fear after seeing news reports of terror attacks or natural disasters. Turn the news off. Deliberately block yourself from running over the things you’ve seen in your mind; they’re horrible, tragic events, but you cannot imagine yourself in the position of being there. Take a total news break.
Eventually, find somewhere you feel safe and happy, somewhere you can really relax, with no distractions – nothing more than comfortable background noise. You don’t have to do any particular pose; just do what is comfortable for you. If you want to do a bit of yoga, that’s great. If you just want to sit on a chair, that’s great too.
Close your eyes. Now you’re going to imagine the place you’re visiting – not the airport, not the flight, not hectic bus journeys, just you in the place you want to be, wandering in total relaxation, doing the things you’re planning to do. You may be visualising the beach, or a souk, a temple, or a historic ruin, or just relaxing in a hotel. That is your journey. That is what is going to happen. At this point, I like to open my eyes, hold out my cupped hand, and visualise everything that I was worried about pooling in my hand, becoming an ugly little tangled mass of anxiety. And then I literally throw it out the window, and watch it disappear.
If you’re going about your day and you feel that negative visualisation come back, stop it sharply, and replace it with your memories of your positive visualisation. Feel the sun on your skin. Smell the citrus groves, or the spice markets. Feel the peacefulness. And throw the worries out of the window.
4. Take a friend.
Sometimes, if you really can’t face the idea of going somewhere on your own, if it’s coming to the point that you feel like you’re going to change your mind or cancel, consider taking a friend or loved one with you. No, it’s not ideal – if you’re a solo traveller or really set on becoming one, then it can be a compromise, and feel like a failure. But there’s no harm in taking a slower path; you can still be a solo traveller on future trips, but the important thing is that you conquer those fears as soon as possible, and if that means compromising for one trip, then it’s worth doing.
Choose your companions wisely – if you’ll feel safer with someone you know or trust, ask around your friends and family to see if anyone’s interested in accompanying you (the chances are that someone will be delighted to come with you). If you don’t know anyone who’s interested, or if you’d rather meet a new travel friend to push your boundaries, you have loads of options to find a buddy. Lonely Planet’s forum has a whole section devoted to it; even Reddit has a subreddit for travellers to find companions. Do your research, find a website that is likely to have suitable travel buddies for you, and make as much contact with your chosen buddy as you can. Make sure you share similar interests or habits; you could even spend a weekend visiting somewhere together before you take the leap into anything bigger. Be comfortable with your choice. Go and have a great time, with no disasters, then come back and plan your solo trip if that’s what your long-term goal is. And if you want to keep travelling with a companion, that brilliant; you get someone to share all the fun with!
5. Focus on supporting destinations.
Following the devastating terror attack in Sousse, Tunisia, in 2015, the number of visitors from the UK dropped by a staggering 90% – 5,980 visitors in the months of January to April 2016, in comparison to 84,225 the year before. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against travelling to Tunisia; travellers staying away was recommended, and the tour operators stopped offering trips to those destinations.
Holidays to Tunisia are now back on the menu at Thomas Cook and other tour operators, but how did it affect Tunisia itself? In 2016, the Financial Times reported that Tunisia had been dealt a severe blow to its tourism industry, a critical source of income, investment, and employment. The Tunisian dinar hit record lows, and the impact was felt in the banking sector, with loans unable to be paid.
Similarly, Paris saw 1.5 million less visitors in 2016 compared to 2015, at a cost of 1.3 billion Euros. Mr Frederic Valletoux, head of the Paris region tourist board, declared that Paris tourism was experiencing “an industrial disaster.”
However, we shouldn’t let terror attacks dictate to us where we travel, and we shouldn’t allow local populations, some dependent on revenue from tourism, to suffer from the actions of others. France is still the most-visited country in the world, with roughly 83 million visitors per year. Tunisia’s economy is expected to recover in time. Bali, a destination which saw terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005, has seen double the amount of visitors than it previously received a decade before.
Don’t let previous incidents stop you from visiting somewhere – if fear starts to get the better of you, focus on the good that you can do for a local community by supporting it. Don’t stay away from Barcelona or Paris, Sousse or Turku; help them rebuild and grow again. Consult travel advice, avoid areas which are not recommended, keep yourself as safe as you can, but help, share, and love.
And if you wondered, the chances of being killed in a terror attack are 1 in 25 million. Don’t be scared of the world; it’s waiting for you to come and explore it.
What are your thoughts on this? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.