“But is it Safe?” Traveling in the Middle East

“You’re going where?!?” Even those who greeted my plans with excitement would soon pause, look at me carefully, and ask, “But is it safe?”

So how safe is it to travel in the Middle East, specifically the countries I went to: Israel, Jordan and Egypt? It depends.

According to the Government of Canada website, both Israel and Jordan are rated as “exercise a high degree of caution,” with recommendations to avoid certain areas, such as the Gaza strip, refugee camps, and areas near disputed borders. To put it in perspective, this is the same level that is applied to Mexico, a country where Canadians go all the time. Although I’m sure when I planned my trip Egypt had the same threat level, by the time I left the recommendation was “avoid all non-essential travel.” That may have been due to the IED attack on a bus near the Pyramids, two days before my departure, that left 4 tourists dead and many more injured.

And yet, in my month of travels, I never felt unsafe. Uncomfortable, yes, but never in any real danger.

Much of my discomfort came from the sight of guns. I’m not opposed to them in principle (I fired my first gun at age 5) but in Canada, unless you are with a hunting crowd, you never see them. In the Middle East, soldiers, police and even museum guards carry very visible weapons, or large bulges under their suits from their concealed carry. (No discrete pistols here- look up the MP5-PDW.) And of course there are checkpoints, particularly around the occupied West Bank in Israel.

At Edfu, Egypt
Giza, Egypt
In Cairo. Our guide on the left, our security man in the middle

Other than that, there was only one time that I was very uncomfortable: in the back, back room of a shop in the Luxor souk, when my uncovered blonde hair apparently overcame the protective power of my wrinkles, and a surprisingly young man felt that a kiss should be part of our negotiation. A strategically placed elbow got me out of that situation (note to self- wait for the item of a different size/colour/quality to be brought to you out in the front of the shop). But generally, as another female member of our group stated in the debrief, it was no more uncomfortable than walking in parts of any Canadian city. And although most of the women in our group had felt uncomfortable at some point or another, usually walking down a street with bare legs and uncovered hair, none of the men ever felt any discomfort at any time.

I feel like the three countries I visited need to be treated separately. In Israel I never felt in danger, although I could see that things might not be comfortable for local residents. All of the protective measures seemed to be aimed at their own citizens, or rather, residents, as they do not allow citizenship to Palestinians of the occupied West Bank. I actually felt safer in the Palestinian refugee camp we visited than in many other places we were. I’m not saying that there is no risk, as you never know when hostilities might break out, when rockets might fly. But traveling with a tour group means that you won’t accidentally fall into a dangerous situation.

In Jerusalem
Checkpoint in the West Bank
Along the security barrier, West Bank, Palestine

Jordan was, in my opinion, the simplest and safest of the countries. Despite a Canadian being killed there two years ago, it seems to be safe for tourists, and very welcoming.

In Egypt, the military presence was the most obvious. Our tour guide had to constantly check in with the police, letting them know we were there. There was an armed guard with us on the bus at all times. It may have been, as our guide suggested, that they were simply bored, but we were escorted for over an hour between Cairo and Alexandria by two pickups full of armed men.

Our guide in Egypt checking in with the tourist police

Hotels and tourist sites in all 3 countries have security measures such as metal detectors, baggage scanners, and vehicle checks with dogs, mirrors or hand-held explosive detectors. Driveways have barriers to prevent direct approach.

At the Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan
Entering the lobby of our hotel in Amman, Jordan

As a tourist, on a guided tour, I came to realize that most of the armed presence was to protect us. Tourism is important in the Middle East, and they don’t want it impacted. We were often greeted by exclamations of “Welcome to Jordan/Egypt! Thank you for coming!” (Not what I expected the car full of young men to be shouting out the window, to be honest.) Children came to strike up conversations and practice their English. Young people shyly asked if they could take a selfie with me. Despite being, at many times, the only blonde in hundreds of people, I never felt threatened.

Selfie in Alexandria
I complimented his haircut before I asked to take his picture! In Jordan
I always asked before taking a picture- in Safeway in Amman. We had a great conversation comparing Safeways!
They helped me with my shopping, then asked for a picture together

I’m so glad I went, not just for the sights but for the people I met. And if you chose to avoid this area because it might not be safe, where would you go? These days, a terrorist attack is as likely to happen in France, or London, or Toronto, as in the Middle East.

So if this is on your bucket list I would certainly encourage you to go.

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