Is Traveling Getting More Dangerous?

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Back in June, two Canadian sisters from Quebec died in their Thai hotel room from mysterious causes, and it was recently reported the women may have died from DEET poisoning. In case you’re unfamiliar with DEET, it’s an effective mosquito repellent commonly used in areas with malaria and other mosquito-bourne diseases. Unfortunately for humans, it’s also a neurotoxin, meaning you have to be extremely careful with it. After seeing the CBC news article reporting the autopsy findings first on my Twitter, I posted a link to the story on my personal Facebook page, with a note about how important it is to be cautious with alcohol when abroad: it’s easy to let your guard down after imbibing in a few, never mind the risk of having something slipped into your drink (which can happen at home, too – I’ve seen it), or the increased risk of injury when you’re drunk. I’m not saying don’t drink — we all know Geoff and I don’t follow that particular gem — just be cautious. There’s comfort in having a sealed bottle of beer that you can open yourself.

"Angkor Beer"
When in doubt, choose beer.

A Facebook friend commented on my post. This woman is no stranger to travel: she’s lived on multiple continents, and has traveled extensively throughout those regions. In the past ten years or so, she’s stayed mostly in Canada, having gotten married, and started a career and family. Her comment — and I’m paraphrasing — was something like this: traveling today is so much scarier than when I used to do it.

My initial reaction was surprisingly visceral, and all my go-to arguments about whether its safe to travel came up: the 24-hour news cycle necessitates more content that previously would have gone un-reported; more people are actually traveling than before; more newbie travelers are going to countries known for being party destinations, treating other countries as international extensions of Las Vegas. Besides, you’re just as likely to get injured or killed at home, right? After I ran through the arguments in my head, I realized I’d never actually looked at the numbers. Maybe traveling is getting more dangerous.

So I did what any reasonable person would do, and I asked the Interweb. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) is the Canadian governmental department that provides consular assistance to Canadians overseas and, as such, are the keepers of the relevant statistics. While not overflowing with relevant data, they do have a report from 2010 available on the website, as well as statistics summarizing the number of times Canadians sought consular assistance annually between 2006 and 2010. While not quite the time frame to which my Facebook friend was referring in her comment, I deemed these numbers to be enough to establish whether there is a recent trend of increased danger/scariness when it comes to travel (you may be realizing at this point that I’m not a statistician).

According to DFAIT, Canadians traveling abroad has increased from 2006 to 2010 by 24 percent. To me, that means if traveling is really getting more dangerous, then the number of Canadians seeking consular assistance for scary things (assaults, death, kidnapping) should increase more than proportionally to the increase in people traveling (i.e. the number of Canadians seeking consular assistance for scary things will increase by MORE THAN 24 percent over the same period). Let’s look at the Consular statistics on Canadians abroad:

  • Assaults — In 2006, 190 Canadians sought consular assistance abroad for assault. In 2010, that number was 206. That’s an increase of 8.42 percent.
  • Deaths — In 2006, there were 908 consular incidences of Canadians deaths abroad. In 2010, that number was 1156. That’s an increase of 27 percent. Some of this increase is related to Haiti, which experienced a devastating earthquake in 2010.
  • Whereabouts and Well-Being — In 2006, 788 consular cases were related to the whereabouts or well-being of a Canadian abroad. In 2010, that number was 726. That’s a 7.87 percent decrease.
Not included in these statistics? Stupidity. Photo by .v1ctor. via Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution License).

It’s kind of hard to put these numbers in perspective unless you know how many Canadians are actually traveling abroad: in 2010, Canadians made roughly 56 million visits abroad. If we look at the number of Canadians seeking consular assistance in relation to the number of Canadians traveling abroad, the chance of being assaulted, kidnapped/going missing, or dying abroad in 2010 were between 0.000003678 and 0.000020642, which is the same as between 0.4 and 2 people per 100,000 (I think – as previously mentioned, I’m not a statistician). To put that in perspective, the National Centre for Health Statistics reports your chances of dying from skydiving and dance parties (Ed: WTF?) to be about 1 in 100,000, scuba diving  to be 1 in 34, 000, and cars to be 1 in 6,700.

From which I can only conclude this: traveling is about twice as dangerous as dance parties.

These Bhutanese dancers have no idea how much danger they are in. Photo by Joseph A Ferris III via Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution License).

I’m not trying to make light of the need to stay safe when you’re abroad – I’d agree you’re more vulnerable to danger when you’re in an unfamiliar place, and I’ve read countless tales of scary stories by other travelers, like when Jodi of Legal Nomads escaped a hotel fire in Myanmar or when Kate of Adventurous Kate was shipwrecked in Indonesia (you should go read those articles right now! Don’t worry about me, I’ll wait!). But the thing is — as the famous and oh-so-eloquent saying goes — shit happens, and it seems that you’re just as likely to die from some freak accident or disease or crazed gunman or dance party at home as you are abroad. Look at what happened to Candice of Candice Does the World recently. Or check out the stories of a few RTW travelers, like Married with Luggage, about why they decided to leave the comforts of home: loved ones got sick, and they realized that, although most of us hope to be among the lucky ones that make it to a ripe old age, it’s not a guarantee, so you might as well figure out what makes you happy and make it happen. Maybe that’s travel, maybe not, but the point is…oh gawd, I think I might just be rambling now…you got the point, though, right?

Note: I take no responsibly for incorrect numbers. In fact, I’d be entirely unsurprised if many of these numbers are in fact incorrect because the truth is, I really suck at math. And also chemistry, but that’s a chat for another day. 

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