Media Hype and Travel Fear 25


If you watch and believe everything on TV, you’d be certain that the world is a scary place. Too scary to go see. Too scary to leave your own house, much less your own country. I don’t watch much TV, and I’m not very good at being told what to do or what to believe, so I decided to go to four places that the media would have you believe are the some of the most chaotic places in Europe right now. I wanted to see for myself if the travel fear is justified.

Rome, Italy

Rome is chaotic on a quiet day, but what about Rome right now? There is the Jubilee at the Vatican, attracting teeming hoards of pilgrims. Terrorism threats loom. The public transit system is falling apart. Rome is falling! Well, they have been saying that for about 1700 years but the city still seems to be chugging along in its own, unique way.

I was just there a couple of days ago and it seemed quieter than usual. The Jubilee has not had the effect that the media would have you believe. In fact, tourism is down, apart from pilgrims. The pilgrims have little effect on typical tourist sights, even the Vatican Museum, because their aim is to see St. Peter’s. Local guides report that the Vatican Museum sees few pilgrim groups and that the crowds, which can be ghastly, have not been as bad as in previous years. The projected pressure on the city for Jubilee hasn’t materialized, at least not in the way that was expected. Pilgrims are staying in religious guest houses for the most part and tend to eat there too. Restaurant owners have reported to me that they are struggling this year as fewer mainstream tourists are coming.

As for threats of terrorism, the city has really stepped up their security, which needed to happen anyhow. Lines are a little slower getting into museums and attractions as the security guards are being more careful than in the past. I’d gotten used to seeing the guys at the bag scanning machines staring at their phones and not the X-ray screen, so I’d say that this is a needed improvement.

Public transportation is still a mess, but the train stations are taking more care to check tickets and keep out gypsies. It feels much safer than it has in the past. Taxis, though, are so inexpensive in Rome that I tend to use them more and more these days, adding ease and peace of mind to my days.

Overall, Rome has tightened security. Jubilee hasn’t made a big impact. From my perspective, Rome is calmer now than in a long time. And they just elected their first female mayor! Yay!

Athens, Greece

We have all seen the images. Refugees from Syria and the surrounding areas, arriving on desperate boats to Greece. Images of drowned children, of starvation and sadness. The implication by some news media sources that terrorists are amongst the refugees. Plenty of warnings and insinuations that Greece is unsafe and teeming with dangerous, angry migrants. This all set on a background of financial and political instability. It must be a scary mess there, right?

What did I find in Greece two weeks ago? None of the above. I found a lovely, sunny city, full of youthful energy. The sound of street musicians, the smells of souvlaki and falafel. Stunning ancient sites with few tourists. It felt like a real vacation. Athens is not exactly without poverty and urban decay, but no more than any big European capital. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and as a solo traveler I never felt threatened or unsafe in any way, even if my hotel was in a more…..um…..colorful neighborhood.

What of the refugees? I looked for them. I have seen some families quietly traveling through Italy on the way to Northern Europe and was surprised that I saw nothing like that in Athens. So, I asked around. Didn’t see anyone on the streets, or if I did, I didn’t notice. I spent a day at the beach and it seemed as peaceful as could be. A taxi driver told me that there were some refugees still in Athens, but that the majority of them had gone elsewhere, Northern Europe mostly. He said that the sports stadium had been converted into a transfer point of sorts, and that not many came into the city center.

The tragedy is real and continuing, but the way it looks on the ground, to the average visitor, is not what the TV shows us. The quiet tragedy is for the Greek people, who already deal with economic crisis and uncertainty without global events making things harder. Many Greeks work in tourism and rely heavily on tourists who won’t be coming this year because they are afraid.

As a tourist, I found a warm welcome. There was an appreciation for my business and my interest in what is going on. The taxi drivers were all so friendly and chatty, as were the local guides and hotel owners. The major sights were practically empty. The Acropolis was busy, but nothing compared to what it should be at this time of year. No lines. No hassle. It was my own Athens, all to myself. And as a woman traveling alone, I felt absolutely no concern or fear about wandering any part of the city. My only fear was of getting lost on the subway since I can’t speak Greek!

I will absolutely return to Greece, maybe even this summer with my young son. It was fantastic, inexpensive, full of the kindest people, proud of their culture and happy to share it.

Paris, France

The tragic terrorist incident in Paris recently has put all of Europe on alert. The event was shocking and scary. I suspect that the decline in tourism this year in Europe generally is a direct result of that event. Additional to that concern, Paris is hosting the Eurocup soccer match this summer, a huge event in Europe. That seems like an ideal target for troublemakers of all stripes. It must seem crazy to go to Paris. I’m a little crazy, that’s true, but I’m more set against the media trying to make me afraid of my world. Paris was a part of my plan for my year, and go there I did.

Paris, like Rome, is a big, busy city on any day of the year. The French, however, have always been dealing with terrorism. This is not a new issue for them and they know how to make the city feel secure. On my recent visit, the security was astonishing. I’ve never seen a police presence like it anywhere, ever. The French are leaving no room for error, especially during the Eurocup. A huge police presence can make you feel uncomfortable, but it depends on how you look at it. The way I see it, I feel much safer when there are eyes on the street and security checkpoints.

The Eurocup Fan Zone is seriously locked down, security-wise. You go through several searches and police lines before getting in. When I got in, the park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower had virtually nobody in it! There were far more guards than spectators. It’s a shame. All that did was push the rowdy fans to local bars.

Paris was fine, my tour group did all of the normal activities and had a great time in the city. It’s always crowded and busy. There have always been police patrolling the streets and Metro. Security is much tighter, but that had little impact on my visit. The Eurocup visitors have added a fun, international energy to the city and everything feels more festive than usual. Media myth debunked, again.

London, England

I arrived here in London on Sunday, just two days after the UK voted, in an unprecedented referendum, to leave the EU. The effect of that vote will be massive, and not just for the people of the UK. It will determine the future of Europe as a whole. The EU could unravel.

Here in London, the news has been grim. The stock market plummeted. The value of the pound reached lows not seen since my first visit here as a child 30 years ago. The government has actually collapsed, with no real leader at the head of the ship. The public is deeply angry and divided over a referendum that was misleading and brought out the very worst of human instincts. It is ugly. And to kick this country while it is down, their soccer team was whooped by ICELAND, a country that doesn’t even have a professional team! Their coach is a dentist! The biggest upset and embarrassment in modern sporting history. That may not seem important to us, but I cannot understate the importance of Eurocup soccer here in Europe. It is like the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series combined.

Against this atmosphere, I’ll bet that the images coming from London are scary. There are reports of racist graffiti and sentiment. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that the U.S. news is making it look pretty scary.

As I sit here at Pret a Manger, drinking my coffee and looking at the Tower of London, I can tell you that it’s business as usual for the average tourist. The line to get in is madness, as usual. The city is packed, every sight, every street, as is usual for this time of year. As I look out, there are people from every part of the world, probably the most international crowd you will find anywhere in the world, and nobody is being bothered or harassed, no travel fear to be found.

The mood here is palpable, though. If you start listening to people in the pubs, the Brits are reeling. It’s a confusing time. Some are angry, some are scared, some want a do-over. But in that typically British way, they are taking this punch to the face in their stiff upper lip way. No doubt that there will be protests and demonstrations in the coming weeks, but civil unrest isn’t really their style. I feel perfectly safe here and am looking forward to bringing my baby son here in a few weeks to go on a Dr. Who tour.

The news here is bad, I am fully against the decision made by this country. I’m an optimist, though, and believe that all bad things have their silver linings. The pound is way down, making travel much more affordable and British products cheaper. And from a purely selfish perspective, as a citizen of Northern Ireland, I’m giddy at the possibility that my dad’s homeland could be reunited as a result.

Media Hype = Rubbish

I am here, on the ground in Europe. I cannot believe the things I see in the news, because so many of them are exaggerated or overblown. I’m a careful and thoughtful traveler, no doubt, as I have the responsibility for 26 souls on each of my tours and I’m always looking out for safety.

In my view, Europe keeps trucking along despite the storms that blow through and so does tourism. These four cities can be seen as very dangerous, but the truth is that American cities are equally dangerous, but for different reasons. I’m not saying that you should be cavalier and ignore world events, but I am saying that I’m here. I’m safe. I went to these places in the past three weeks. The things on the news don’t show the whole reality.

I’m having a great time. Come and join me.


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


25 thoughts on “Media Hype and Travel Fear

  • Grant McWilliams

    Two years ago 43 students went missing in Mexico and people protested in the capitol. We were flying down to Mexico City around Christmas time and the news was showing the national palace doors on fire from a fire bomb and protesters in the streets. I kept telling myself that the news blows these things up and it’s really not as bad as they make it but even then we nearly canceled our trip.

    What we thought we’d see was peaceful protesting and people with signs. We had planned on just staying clear of them.

    What we saw was nothing. Yes, nothing. We couldn’t find a single sign of any turmoil anywhere. The ONLY time we could tell that anything had happened was the National Palace was closed to tourists. That’s it.

    The news made it look like WWIII was happening.
    Reality was that people protested for ONE day, the news filmed it and reran it for weeks.

  • stephanie klakring

    Wonderful post! We are currently on a four week Europe trip with our two young boys and have not felt fearful even once. Unfortunately the media (particularly in the US) makes Europe sound like a dangerous place and this keeps many people from experiencing so many amazing things. One of our family values is to travel and expose our boys to other cultures. We want them to be global citizens that see people from all over the world as real people, living real lives, thus eliminating the “us vs. them” mentality. Thanks for sharing your boots on the ground observations!

  • Veronica

    Great blogs. I’ve already shared severals from you… May I ask, what camera do you have or recommend to get those beautiful pics? Merci beaucoup.

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      I just have an iPhone 6. It’s all about taking lots of pics and looking for composition.

  • Mindy

    Great article! Just returned from Paris last week and I felt the same way. Entirely safe. I liked the police presence and the soccer fans provided a festive atmosphere. The French, as always, were lovely and gracious at every turn.

  • Christine

    Hello Sarah,
    Words cannot express how encouraging and timely your post is for me. I am traveling with RS again in October on a Heart of Italy tour and realize I have to take the metro to my hotel, that is assuming I successfully make my way from the airport to the termini station in Rome:) Just thinking about it makes my heart pound wildly. Fear is crippling and I refuse to give in to it. Life is too short to spend it in my small comfort zone. Thanks again.

  • Don Seery

    Just got back from 2 weeks in Italy and the experience was one of my best! I’m always surprised at the number of people who think that it is “dangerous” to visit Europe, I usually tell them that I feel safer walking down the street in Paris or Venice or Barcelona then I do in my hometown in the USA. Now is a great time to visit Europe and I plan to a frequently as I can!

  • Nathan Allison

    I just returned from Athens and Rome with 50 students and parents in a group that I led. We had a great time and felt safe the entire time. Thankfully the parents of the students that went understood that the media hypes up the fear. I am grateful to have the opportunity to take students overseas, so they can see the world first hand and not let fear take over.

  • L. Minniear

    We currently are in Bordeaux. It’s very busy here because of the soccer matches and the security presence is very visible….bag checks everywhere and armed police. That actually makes me feel very safe. We love France and traveling in Europe and pay little attention to the sensational stories reported in the media.
    Thank you for debunking those overblown reports!
    Keep on traveling my friends!

  • Linda Shore

    We just got back from a 20 day trip to Europe (our first time) and found Paris to be chaotic.We were there during the EuroCup games, transit strikes & student protests. A few times we inadvertently got too near some footballer shenanigans & dodged police enroute. We narrowly missed the police smoking out students protesting in the Metro near the Paris catacombs. It was a little challenging to stay away from the various activities.
    We were also surprised to find the tremendous amount of cigarette butts in Paris & Rome. Sad.

  • Joan

    Thank you Sarah for a well written and timely report full of good info.

    May I suggest Roma as a more genteel and accurate term for the future.

    Have Fun!

  • Benford Samuels

    We just got back last night from a week in Athens and the islands as well as Istanbul. Could not agree more with your observations. Incredible trip with no fear just stunning views and interactions with wonderful people who are dealing with financial struggles that are compounded by the loss of tourism. Selfishly it was a great time to visit because of the lack of other tourists, no lines. Globally, I have a new found respect for the troubles of those living and trying to work there caused by a radical “few”. So grateful my family had the opportunity to experience.

  • Theresa

    Thanks, Sarah; preach! Members of my extended family will enjoy their first Rick Steves (VFR) tour next week. As thoughtful, engaged citizens they are excited to experience another part of our world, a different country and new cultures. My travel to London with a sister this September has been in place since the beginning of this year. We all are aware of the many complicated situations on our planet and choose travel as one of the ways we participate fully in our own lives despite fear-inducing media ‘coverage’ of events.

  • Memory Rush

    Recently returned from Greece following a stay in Athens and a smaller city to the north, Alexandreia. Day or night I felt safe on the streets–never once did I feel threatened. Good article–one point of clarification however in regard to the refugees in Greece. It’s important to know that ever since the EU-Turkey agreement in March of this year as well as the border closures that occurred in former points of access, many thousands of refugees have been unable to “go north” as they had hoped, Though they are not nearly as visible in Athens now, many have been transferred to various refugee camps scattered throughout Greece, and unfortunately the majority will be unable to leave for a long time to come. My experience as a volunteer in one of these camps was transformative. The brave & resilient people I met in the camp, were among the most generous, loving people I have ever known. I highly recommend a volunteer experience such as this for anyone considering a visit to Greece.

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      Thank you for that info, volunteering is an excellent idea. Do you have any contact information on how you went about that?

  • Tom A.

    For those of us who are perhaps more adventurous, less cautious, less afraid, the best times to travel are when events have occurred that chase away tourists and lower the costs of airfare, lodging, etc. Perhaps the very recent Brexit events will scare away a good number of people from visiting the UK this summer, which might cause prices to drop even more (especially if the British Pound loses more value compared to the U.S. dollar), which might entice me to book a trip for sometime in the next three months or so!

  • DizzyLiz

    We spent a week in Paris the third week of May. We were fortunate enough to be there the week before the terrible flooding. I must say that I did not notice a huge police presence anywhere except at the plaza near the Musée national de la Marine in the Trocadero. (I’m sure it was far greater, Sarah, when you were there during the Euro Cup.) All sites were busy, but not terribly crowded. There was a security line at each site, but we were able to see everything without long waits with our Museum Pass. The weather was lovely, the city was beautiful, the food was excellent. It was a wonderful time to be in Paris!

  • Gail McKelvie

    What a wonderful post, Sarah! My brother and niece are now cruising on the Aegean, but were in Italy first, and from the blog my brother is writing, had a wonderful time. Same goes for the land portion of their trip in Greece. We always assume that what the news media spouts is fact. It’s so nice to have a fresh perspective from someone who is on the ground seeing things for how they really are. Thank you!

  • Lynne

    Sarah,

    We are in Istanbul right now and you’ve basically written what has been going through my head all day. The merchants in the tourist areas have seen their business drop by 85% according to one gentleman.

    We have never felt unsafe for one moment and we’ve walking dozens of miles in the past 3 days. There is a festival in Sultan Ahmet square every night to celebrate breaking the daily Ramazan fast. Families are picnicking. The weather is hot, but with breathtakingly beautiful breezes (we don’t get that in Atlanta)! The airfare is cheap (new Turkish Air routes from ATL), hotels are cheap, the food is delicious and the people are welcoming.

    We’re having a great time! I hope people will ignore the media hype and join us!

    • Kim

      We’re planning a trip to Isranbul in March. It would take a lot scare us off, but I’m glad to hear from sane voices. Our friends here in the states are horrified we haven’t cancelled our plans …

      • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

        I heard the same thing when I went to Turkey last year…

  • Laurel Barton

    Amen, Sarah! Living in Rome the biggest threats are trash not being picked up and buses that never arrive. We can at least avoid the second by walking more, and summer weather hasn’t been too bad (yet). We’ve been to both Paris and London several times in the past few months and felt perfectly safe. In fact, we celebrate the lack of trash and the excellent public transportation systems there! We appreciate that security has been increased in all 3 cities. Of course, the Euro to dollar exchange rate has been good and has only gotten better, as has the Pound to dollar. It is a great time to travel!

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