Media Hype and Travel Fear
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, ItalyRome 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!
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.
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.
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.