The transcontinental region of the Middle East has often confused people whether it belongs to Asia, Europe or a region by itself. Theoretically, the Middle East is a geographical and cultural region located primarily in western Asia, but also in parts of northern Africa and southeastern Europe. Therefore they can be regard as all of the above. That being said, politically and geographically, they are mainly regard as part of continental Asia.
So the ultimate question I constantly hear from everyone, was “is it safe to travel to the Middle East now?” I have came back from an epic trip to the Middle East recently with 4 other childhood buddies and brother to the amazing “Cradle of Civilization”, where many of the religions and traditions help defined the modern civilizations today. Epic, Amazing, Stunning are all understatement to describe our truly magical experience in the Middle East. Many people asked me “how was it?”, “why would you want to go? Isn’t it dangerous”, and some ridiculously commented “Is it a suicidal trip?”, most asked the 101 question “Is it safe to travel to Middle East now?”. To be honest, the pressure of booking my trip and thought of cancelling my trip was running through my mind everyday since the day we decided to visit this sensitive region during a troubled period.
Well, these are general questions that require not one but a multitude of answers. People have been worrying and concern lately about how safe it is to visit the Middle East now. The Middle East is a region very much in flux, there are countries that are very stable and others that may present some changes and challenges abruptly. I would not hesitate to plan a trip to the Middle East anytime, the only thing you need to do is to always be attentive to new developments, and situations which can change easily. More importantly is to stay away from troubles. You are there as a visitor, not to be busybody or interfere the locals affairs.
So in case you are considering to visit the Middle East, I have decided to put up some of the reasons why you should and why it is safe to travel to the Middle East now, and yes right now! You probably have many reasons why you shouldn’t visit, so this may provide you another perspective (realistic & actual experience in December 2015) that may balance your equation for consideration. Note: I am NOT saying that you must visit and it’s 100% safe now, these were my personal experiences and merely a honest review why you should travel to the Middle East now.
#1 Heightened Security
For everyone who wants/needs to travel to the Middle East for any reason, the main concern will always be security. First, you need to know Middle East is a region consist of mainly Asia, Europe and Africa. There are 22 countries in the Middle East and just like anywhere else in the world, there are safer countries to visit, also more dangerous places or restricted places. It really depends which part of the Middle East you plan to visit. If you dissect the region, besides the trouble areas i.e. Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the rest of the places are pretty okay in terms of security. In my opinion, the safest area currently are the smaller nations in the Gulf State i.e. Bahrain, Oman, & United Arab Emirates. The rest of the area are pretty much safe to travel but you must be vigilant and always look out for news updates and stay away from trouble areas.
I gotta admit, just like most of us, I was concerned about my safety prior my trip, but I was immediately at ease when I arrived in the airport i.e. UAE, Jordan & Egypt airport. Obviously, airport security was heightened due to the recent problems (since the Russian jet incident). It’s precisely now or whenever situation is tensed up, the security is on high alert, it is then the best and safest time to visit.
On the other hand, this can be a double edged sword. I felt safe with the increased in armed forces and security on the road but this also lead to human traffic jams in the airport, or checkpoints. Sometimes, it caused some delays, and at times, I also felt intimidated by the guns, rifles and pistol from the guards. Whatever it is, the trade off is worth it for safety reason. People are generally very friendly and appreciate your presence, we didn’t encounter any crude and rude soldiers during our trip.
The general travel 101 tip, just like anywhere else in the world, travel at ease but always vigilant to the surrounding. Avoid protest or crowded area (except for tourist spot, where security are heightened), you should be fine. 🙂
#2 Lesser Tourist
The tourism industry in the Middle East may have reached a tipping point. It doesn’t look good at all, certainly in the short term. There’s absolutely no queue to attractions, museums, monuments, or basically any tourist spot.
Those gloomy words are backed up by eyewitness evidence shown in my photos. All across the region, even in areas untouched by violence and problems, you can see empty hotels, not a single soul at the beaches, beauty spots and ancient cities. We had the amazing historical and archaeological Petra in Jordan to ourselves, the Pyramid of Giza, temples and monuments in Luxor, with no other tourist but only us! There are shells of unfinished hotels on the road between resorts and hundreds of river boats all tied up and disused in Egypt. Tours and flights are cancelled frequently due to the low visitors rate and have tremendously affecting the livelihood of the locals there. The people are experiencing a serious economy downturn and no one (the world) seems to care about.
If you want to ride on the any of the animal transport system be it a camel, donkey or horse, there are a lot of vendors to choose from so you can be picky about it. It may sound exaggerating, but this is the current situation in the Middle East now. Yes, it’s depressing to look at how bad it is in the Middle East. Everywhere is just you and the locals, in hotel, shopping mall, and tourist attractions, many are the locals or students in the museum for educational purposes. It’s disheartening to see many people missing out these great places to visit.
#3 No Photo Bombers
Whenever I travel, I always wish I could fight the crowd and remove the people especially when taking photos of the scenery. Beating the crowd by waking up early, getting super wide angle lens so to get a better photo than others without photo bombers haha or patiently (often impatiently) waiting for people to kindly “remove” themselves from the scene is always tedious and complicated. haha
If you visit the Middle East now, you have all the museum, monuments, beautiful scenery ALL by yourself. And it’s absolutely free! LOl You don’t have to fight any crowd, or wake up early to be the first or use super wide angle lens (fish eye lens, not my personal favourite) to take photos without “noise”. haha That’s another good reason why you should visit the Middle East now!
#4 Competitive & Cheaper Options
Generally, the cost of living in the Middle East varies across different countries. I find most of the things are cheap especially in Egypt, Palestine and Oman. However, expenses are very high in certain countries such as Jordan, UAE and Israel though. So it really depends where you go. One of the advantages of visiting the region now is that you have many options and choices. Generally, I don’t encourage people to pre-book everything. Make some plans to wander around the city and find cheaper deals. You need to bargain hard and you will be surprised that it will come to the point people under cut each other just to win you business.
Times are bad, please do it at reasonable level and don’t be overboard. The rule of thumb is to pay for a service or product that you think it’s valued for. Do not bargain so hard for everything and ended up you realised you are merely bargaining for that few bucks. Many locals livelihood depends on tourism and you, so do it moderately.
Please also go with a reputable tour agency if you are booking for tours. You certainly do not want to risk your life at the mercy of some random strangers who offer you services. It’s always better to check the reviews from online portals i.e. Tripadvisor.
Have you ever wish you have priority or be treated like a VIP in a visiting country? Well, your wish may come true if you visit the Middle East now. Obviously there are lesser tourist, so you are like a precious VIP coming from a foreign land. The good point for this is that you will have special treatment and attention from the locals. Whatever you wish to do, there is almost an immediate attention from the guides or locals dying to sell their services to you.
#6 Celebrity Life in the Middle East
When we came to the Middle East, the locals were very friendly and almost everyone was very hospital towards us. Some came to us and shake our hands, thanking us for visiting their country. Many, suprisingly approached us for photos. My initial thought was, they probably didn’t come across Asians (I guess) before, nevertheless, we found ourselves surrounded by many locals for photos like celebrities. LOL
Now I finally understand how tough the life for celebrity to appear in the public! haha
When traveling in Egypt, the locals were overwhelming, friendly and nice. Many people would use their own means to take picture of you, or politely ask for a picture with you. Yes, just for an opportunity for picture, be it selfie, wefie or snapshots of you. From children, teenagers, boys, girls, their parents, the teachers, the security all lining up to take pictures with you. haha
At some point, we felt a little harassed and it went out of control, because whenever you are, people just want to take a photo with you. At temples, at mosque, at archaeological sites, at shopping malls, at the museum, at the street, when doing grocery, when eating ice cream (yea, literally), non stop requests. At some places, our guide and the security gotta come and help us to get out of the situation! Exaggerating as it sounds, it was fun interacting with the locals, but scary at times. haha Sometimes, I wonder where will the photos ultimately be! Maybe I should google “Asians in the Middle East” and check if our photos appear! haha #justkidding
However, looking at the innocent request, it’s not because we are famous, but the fact that probably they loved to meet foreigners and seldom see Asians, or maybe like our guide told us, many countries in the Middle East is crazy over Kpop (Korean Pop) now and somehow we like look kind da “same”, so such simple request can put a BIG SMILE on the locals, why not? Probably this is the only thing we could do. 🙂
As funny as it sound, it was an amusing and great “celebrity” experience, interacting with the locals. It made us feel at that level of cultural exchange, we are able to see a different side of the Middle Eastern people where media and propaganda blinds the world. The people are genuine and wanting to come close to you and know you are personal level. A human touch where I don’t feel it in anywhere else except in the Middle East.
#7 Amazing History & Cultures
We all know the Middle East is the cradle of civilization, the home oldest cultures and civilizations. From ancient Egyptians, Assyrian Empires, to the Turks, Crusaders, Mongols, and later the Ottoman empire, the Middle East housed many fascinating reasons to visit.
Sadly, currently there are numerous deliberate destruction and theft of cultural heritage. Many artifacts are stolen, ancient worship temples were plundered and destroyed, valuable items were looted and smuggled for money.
It’s extremely depressing as more and more of historical sites have fallen. If history and cultural is your thing to visit, be sure you packed your bags and do it as soon as possible, before any major damaged due to situation changes. Or the situation may worsen and hindrance your access to the sites. Do it while it’s still kind of safe to visit the Middle East now.
On a serious note, I believed visiting the Middle East is to help the local people. The lower visitor rate has contributed to more problems arise in the Middle East. Lesser tourist will contribute to higher unemployment rate and poverty will create the circumstances that recruitment for the extremist and encourage such activities to increase. It’s a vicious circle and unfortunately, it has reached an alarming level.
“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
The good thing is, many tourists and travelers (like us) build up loyalties and friendships that can trump any amount of media negativity, despite the advice from the foreign affairs. Never underestimate these small human contacts as it may help diminish the power of xenophobia and hatred. With the power of social media and internet technology that connects the world, this inspired me to write this article. To share what I saw and experience in the Middle East. What is important is that we travelers gather the sort of knowledge that only comes from first-hand experience, not through the media.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
For most people, a little adventure is welcome as long as risks are carefully considered. Memories such as these make me optimistic that one day these wonderful places will be sufficiently peaceful for normal human interaction between strangers from different cultures to happen again. The Middle East trip was an amazing one for us. I never felt more safer in the Middle East as compared to some major cities in Europe and America. In this era, I believed things happen anywhere and anytime. You can’t be more prepared and you can’t be complacent. If worries hindrance us from fulfilling our dreams to travel, our hopes to visit and lower our trust to interact, it’s definitely a great pity and misery in life. We might have fallen to the ideology of the extremist, that is to create fear, distress, doubts. racial separation, religious disharmony and opening up a path for them to disintegrate human mankind.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.” ― John Lennon