In the wake of a tragedy, destinations are hugely beholden to the public perception of how safe it is to travel there, regardless of the reality on the ground. But the United States — which has experienced more mass shootings than there are days in 2019 — is unfairly exempt from that struggle.
If you type in the phrase “Is it safe to travel to…” in the Google search bar, it’s instructive to see what countries come up in response: Sri Lanka, Turkey, Hong Kong, Tunisia.
Unsurprisingly, these are all destinations which have, in recent weeks or months, experienced some kind of civil unrest or terrorist incident. Whether or not these locations pose any material threat to travelers is somewhat irrelevant. In the wake of terror incidents or civil unrest, their SEO becomes their destiny.
But perhaps what’s more instructive is what doesn’t show up on that list. Rarely are you likely to find a country like the United States. A country where, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 253 mass shootings in the country since the beginning of 2019. That’s more shootings than days. Two of those occurred over the weekend in less than 24 hours, first in El Paso, Texas followed by Dayton, Ohio, leaving 31 dead.
Of course it’s true that sometimes, destinations truly are unsafe to visit and officials should warn accordingly. But much of the time, rebounds in tourism after a tragedy are dependent not on conditions on the ground — but rather the perception of that destination’s safety. That is largely shaped by news reporting on local officials’ guidance, but increasingly, by social media as well. And yet even in our thoroughly globalized world, there is an inherent unfairness in how we determine what countries are “safe” to visit in the wake of a tragedy.
Take the Dominican Republic, which, after a slew of incidents where American tourists have died in hotel accommodations in the past year, has had to fight hard to remind travelers that there has not yet been any connection established between their deaths. When the FBI releases its forthcoming findings on the nature of those deaths, it may be the case that the destination suffered a drop in flight bookings due to nothing more than confirmation bias. By then, though, the perception of its danger level may already be set.
Or take Sri Lanka, where 250 people died in a horrific terrorist incident in April. With tourism down 57 percent in June year on year, the industry is taking steps to rebound its industry, including implementing visas on arrival. And thankfully, it seems to be working. But its recovery has still been dependent on downgraded threat levels from officials and the tone of international reporting (which, unsurprisingly, hasn’t always given the full picture). It’s hard not to notice that it’s a place fighting against a perception that others don’t have to face.
Indeed nowhere is this seemingly infinite benefit of the doubt more evident than in the U.S. It’s a useful thought experiment to imagine what the State Department, which doles out travel advisories for seemingly minor threat levels (including a level two warning for much of western Europe due to terrorism), might say about the threat level of visiting the U.S. after a weekend where there were two mass shootings in 24 hours — and another just a week before.
Unlike, say, an advisory for Turkey — which, at level three, advises travelers to “reconsider travel” and stay away from regions near the Syrian and Iraqi border — there is no rhyme or reason to where the threat of a mass shooting in the U.S. lies. The consequences of America’s failure to end gun violence can manifest anywhere, at any time. And sure, while the statistical likelihood of a traveler being caught up in a mass shooting in America is low, is it any lower than that of a terrorism attack in Turkey or western Europe?
It’s true there have been some acts of diplomatic resistance in the wake of the weekend’s shootings. In what are perceived to be somewhat retaliatory moves, Uruguay and Venezuela both warned their citizens about travel to the U.S. It’s also true that U.S. is currently losing market share of global travel under the Trump administration, though the causes of that loss are less down to a perception of safety, and more down to conscious policy decisions that some foreigners perceive as actively unwelcome.
So who is to blame for all this? Of course, there are legions of Americans who desperately want stricter gun laws, and the State Department is not in the business of issuing travel alerts for its own nation. But to be an American is to indulge in a kind of identity-forging belief that it is “the greatest country in the world” — even when, say, it’s the only country in the world that suffers mass shootings to this degree. Our failure as Americans to grapple with that, to hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold other countries when deciding “what’s safe” — and perhaps even inject a hearty dose of humility into that calculation — is where we fall short.
On a global scale, the unfairness — and indeed, the subtle racism — of what destinations we deem “unsafe” is a huge political force in the world of travel today. It means some destination marketers have to battle against travel warnings and sensationalist reporting, while others simply don’t. As the journalist Lisa Ling wrote on Instagram over the weekend, Americans who expressed concern about her choice to bring her young daughter on a trip to Guatemala should hear what Guatemalans think about the safety of taking their children to a public event in the U.S.: “They never fear that their kids are going to be shot up at a mall or festival.”
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Photo credit: A flower tribute in El Paso, Texes after a shooting claimed 22 lives. Associated Press