Just How Scared Should A Tourist Be?

On Sept. 18, 2001, exactly one week after the 9/11 terror attacks, I flew from Connecticut to Albuquerque with my mother for a week-long tour of the Southwest.

I could not count how many people expressed amazement or horror that we took that trip, which we had been planning for months. (You’re brave. You’re crazy. It’s dangerous.) And yet logic suggested to us that we were not brave or crazy and it was not particularly dangerous because the terrorists who launched the attack were dead and air security was suddenly everyone’s top priority.

That came to mind today when I read an entry in the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog about  a story that suggests business is just fine for sightseeing helicopters after a fatal collision with an airplane over the Hudson River. European tourists, especially, seem undaunted. Are these tourists applying the same sort of logic my mother and I did? Or are they some combination of brave, crazy and uninformed about the news?

It’s hard to say. But there is a particular advantage that can accrue in these cases for budget travelers who logically assess risks and refuse to succumb to irrational or exaggerated fears.

These travelers can take advantage of a certain dynamic: when fear suppresses demand, prices fall. When the fear is rational and proportionate, the risk probably isn’t worth the savings and the trip is likely to be ruined by anxiety. But when the fear is irrational and disproportionate, the deals can be attractive.

So while helicopter tours may not be offering discounts, Mexican beach resorts are.  Their business has been terribly damaged by fear of swine flu and drug violence, both of which are scary but neither of which pose a clear or present danger in the resort areas of Mexico.

Have a look at the Mexican vacation packages promoted right now on TravelZoo or keep an eye on the deals in Arthur Frommer’s blog if you want to see what I’m talking about.

Of course, risk is ever present in this world and the avoidance of all danger is hardly a realistic or even desirable goal for anyone, especially anyone who likes to travel. There are still dangers in Mexico, from the bacterial to the criminal, as well as in helicopter  tours of New York City — and in virtually any other place or pursuit.

The most fulfilled travelers know that it’s best to understand these risks and evaluate them logically. Ignoring them is foolish. Surrendering to them automatically is terribly limiting.

Of course, nobody is obliged to take risks that frighten them. It’s simply a matter of not letting other people’s fears and one’s own emotional reactions get in the way of what we want to do. 

Take my intense discomfort with revolving doors, which is as real as it is irrational. (When I was a child I was also terrified of escalators, which I got over — until a few years ago when I saw an elderly man fall on an escalator at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I freaked out.) I’ll avoid a revolving door whenever I can in favor of a standard one with a hinge, but I’ll go through one if it’s necessary to get where I want to be.

So, back to Sept. 18, 2001, on a Delta flight to Albuquerque. Was I scared? Not really. I think my mother and I were both tense, as were most of the people on the plane. We’d all survived a terrible national trauma we were feeling it. Yet I’ll always be glad we made that trip, which was wonderful in all the ways we had expected and in some we had not, including in the sense of national unity and pride we felt as strangers in a part of our own country that was new to us.

So I guess the message is that we should just go forth, be sensible and have a good time.

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