Dangerous travel: What's the attraction?

Under the cover of dark, armed intruders jumped the fence surrounding the compound in Sudan, ordering the aid workers inside to lie face down as the men rummaged around for valuables.
Richard Poplak poses in front of a gun shop in the Swat Valley in Pakistan in 2007. ((Courtesy of Richard Poplak))

Under the cover of dark, armed intruders jumped the fence surrounding a compound in Sudan and order the aid workers inside to lie face down as the men rummaged around for valuables.

"I heard them and met them before they advanced too far," recalls Mike Fark, a Doctors Without Borders operations manager. "Then it's a point of managing expectations."

Fark's oddly administrative language and matter-of-fact recollection, for most, would seem to belie the dangers of the attack at the aid agency's Shariya town compound, where staff worked to offer primary health care to locals.

The Toronto-based aid worker, who has dealt with more than his fair share of armed robberies, hostile checkpoints and even staff deaths in his eight years with Doctors Without Borders, believes that while such situations aren't "a lot of fun," they are manageable.

Traveller or tourist?

Dean MacCannell, author of the 1999 book The Tourist, a sociological study of tourism, distinguishes between travellers and tourists.

"Travel, in the sense of adventure and discovery, implies selecting one's own route, using the same modes of transportation as used by the local people, and working out one's eating and sleeping arrangements on the spot rather than in advance."

But he notes: "The traveller would be hard-pressed to find a place anywhere in the world that is not already set up in advance to accommodate him."

"You move slowly, you move carefully, you co-operate and you provide them with what they are looking for," says Fark, 35. "Don't put up resistance. Don't give them opportunity to be more hostile."

Aid workers are often required to travel to some of the world's most hostile countries. They sometimes arrive when the nation is at its worst, struggling to deal with a disaster. Other jobs that require risk-taking travel include journalists, security officers, military members and diplomats.

Countries in turmoil

But what drives people like Fark to visit countries in turmoil or enter vocations requiring them to do so?

Tourism research often focuses on the patterns of the masses, with few studies delving into the domain of the intrepid traveller. Those studies that do cite wanderlust, freedom, achievement, ego, solitude, spirituality and self-reliance as reasons for adventure travel.

Unlike typical tourists, frontier travellers shirk tours in favour of independent journeys. For Robert Fletcher, a professor at Costa Rica's University for Peace who studies the topic, adventure travel has a clear definition: "It's uncertainty, novelty, and, I'd argue, it's also suffering."

"The more suffering it contains, the more we tend to consider it adventure," says Fletcher.

Richard Poplak, a Toronto and Johannesburg-based author, whose passport "literally looks like a terrorist passport," knows all about the discomfort that comes with trekking through unwelcoming environments.

The 37-year-old writer has been feeding his travel bug for more than 15 years, travelling to places like Afghanistan, Yemen, post-war Lebanon and Libya. He recently spent months in Muslim countries to write The Sheikh's Batmobile, a look at how American pop culture is consumed in the Islamic world.

A bombed out theatre in Kabul, taken in 2007, serves as a reminder of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. ((Courtesy of Richard Poplak))

Poplak has experienced his share of dangerous encounters: including drunkenly stumbling through the streets of Kabul, thinking his life was over at a secluded military area in Syria and a car crash in Oman so bad the vehicle "disintegrated" around him. "Overall, I think I've been remarkably lucky," he says, but cautiously adds, "Touch wood."

The writer often spends at least a third of each year abroad and is in the midst of organizing his "next dangerous trip," which will bring him to a slew of African countries including Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Sudan.

Curiosity drives some travellers 

Whereas aid worker Mike Fark says he's motivated by the challenging and satisfying job of helping people in grim situations, Poplak says curiousity drives him.

"I'm just trying to put together the puzzle pieces of the world in a coherent manner so I understand things," said Poplak. "I'm not interested in travel being a comfortable experience."

Both, however, deny any risk-taking tendencies.

Poplak remarks that he's endured his worst injuries from bicycle accidents on the streets of his hometown of Toronto, "arguably the safest place on the planet." For the author, safety depends largely on how a traveller presents themself abroad.

"I've learned how to take up no space and be completely unmenacing," Poplak says. "Any self-confidence and lustre that I have here I do not take with me on the road.

"The more colourful you are the more of a target you become, be it for robbery or just random violence."

Fark agrees, but says there's a misconception that travel to hostile countries is always a risky endeavour. It's not as dangerous, he says, when you have a support network behind you, such as an aid agency, which educates you on the risks, trains you on mitigating them and can rescue you if you're in a bind.

"In some ways, you're safer working as a doctor in Afghanistan than you are as a backpacker on your own in Thailand," says Fark. "When you're travelling on your own, no one is looking out for you."

Before going on a mission, all first-time Doctors Without Borders employees must undergo security training, which includes scenario simulations and information on how to handle situations such as illegal checkpoints or armed victims demanding care at a facility.

No safety net

Independent travellers jetting off to the edges of the world in search of their next unique adventure have no such education or safety net. Typically, they rely on no one but themselves. 

The closest safety net for the independent traveller is often a guidebook. Among the stalwarts of the guidebook industry is the Lonely Planet, a company that is increasingly recognizing that profits need not be limited solely to products aimed at mainstream backpackers. The company is producing guides for such dangerous locales as war-torn Afghanistan, where the ongoing battle between international military and insurgents rages on.

"Although tourism could potentially be a big earner for a peaceful Afghanistan, that time isn't coming any time soon," said Paul Clammer, author of the Afghanistan guidebook. "Instead, we make it clear that the book is aimed at the many people visiting Afghanistan for professional reasons: aid and development workers, business people and so on."

Clammer, who is currently in Haiti updating the Lonely Planet's guidebook for the disaster-stricken country under the same principles, says business travel is an enormous industry. He believes responsible guidebooks can play a role in informing travellers who visit countries for any variety of reasons.

Foreign tourists contributed $1 trillion US to export income around the globe in 2009, or close to $3 billion a day, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

But as tourism increases in leaps and bounds — with international tourist arrivals expected to double from last year's 880 million to 1.6 billion by 2020 — there are fewer unexplored corners of the Earth.

Fletcher says GAP Adventures has succeeded in doing what many tour companies have failed to do, which is sell package trips to independent travellers who normally pride themselves on their autonomy and authentic travel experiences.

He notes that many tourists subconsciously seek out adventure travels with a veneer of peril.

"Even though they think they've embraced the danger, on a deeper psychological level they think they're safe," says Fletcher.

A Switzerland-based company may be about to ratchet up the risk factor for organized tours.

The most dangerous places

Author and filmmaker Robert Young Pelton, famous for his The World's Most Dangerous Places book, is pairing up with Babel Travel to offer organized tours for travellers helping them enter, work in and learn about countries in turmoil. Pelton says further details aren't yet available.

Discovering places like Old Sana'a, Yemen, is one of the rewards of travel to risky locations. ((Courtesy of Richard Poplak))

"The world has changed and countries like North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. deeply affect us since terrorism has no boundaries. It is important for people to understand and to contribute," says Pelton.

Although he has never taken an organized tour himself, he has travelled to many of the world's high-risk areas, including watching the siege of Grozny in Cechnya, embedding himself with insurgents during the Iraq War and getting inside the CIA hunt for Osama Bin Laden in tribal areas.

On his website,, which helps those travelling to high-risk areas keep abreast of the latest information, there's a world map with countries colour-coded, ranging from a "vacation with grandma" to "could be your last trip."

"Everyone takes risks. You are statistically more likely to trip in your bathtub and die than be blown up in a war zone," says Pelton.