Getting arrested is probably far down the list of most people’s travel concerns. After all, we’re usually focused on checking museums and monuments off our bucket list — not engaging in illicit activity. But seemingly innocuous behavior can get you into trouble in many parts of the world, including things like wearing bikinis and chewing gum.
The British Foreign Office has released a warning about strange foreign laws after a report revealed that nearly a third of Britons seeking consular assistance were arrested or detained abroad. They say many travelers don’t realize that activities that are perfectly legal at home could get you locked up or fined in another country.
A few of the unusual foreign laws they highlighted include:Venice: It’s illegal to feed pigeons here.
Nigeria: Taking mineral water into the country could land you in hot water.
Singapore: Chewing gum on public transit is a big no-no.
Japan: Watch out if you have allergies. A lot of nasal sprays are on this country’s black list.
Wondering what other laws could get you locked up abroad? Here are a few more we rounded up:
Dubai: Kissing in public could land you in jail in this conservative country.
Thailand: Stepping on the local currency — which bears the image of the king — is seen as disrespecting the monarch and could get you arrested.
Greece: Wearing stilettos at archaeological sites in Greece will get you into trouble. The pointy shoes are banned because of the damage they cause to the historic monuments.
Germany: It’s against the law to run out of gas on the autobahn. Stopping unnecessarily on this fast-paced high way is illegal, and that includes those who forget to fill up their tank.
What other unusual foreign laws have you come across?
I’m the kind of person who can conjure up an excuse to visit just about any place. I grew up in Buffalo, America’s most unfairly maligned city, and so I identify with underdog destinations – places with bad weather, crime, ugly people, rude people, you name it and I probably still want to go there.
But there are some places on this planet that even I do not want to visit. Places where you might be taken hostage and have your head chopped off; places where extremists shoot teenage girls in the head because they want to be educated; places where you could be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock; places where terrorists plant bombs in churches, places so polluted the local fish have three eyes.
One can make an anecdotal case against visiting just about any place in the world. As we saw in Newtown, Connecticut, evil can happen anywhere. And today’s hellholes could be tomorrow’s next hot destinations. But you won’t find me in any of these places in 2013.Anywhere Near Somalia
In March, my colleague Sean McLachlan reported that the security situation in Somalia was improving, but I wouldn’t rush right out to your travel agent to book a holiday in what most people consider to be the world’s most dangerous country just yet. Mogadishu made our list last year, but after talking to Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple who were taken hostage at sea by Somali pirates a good 900 miles off Somalia’s coast in 2009, I would avoid a much wider radius than simply “Mog.”
There may have been some improvements in the security situation since the Chandlers were released after a year in captivity, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay away. In January, gunmen kidnapped an American man in the northern town of Galkayo, the same town where an American woman and a Dane were taken hostage last October. In February, the militant group Al-Shabaab, which has been pushed out of Somalia’s cities by the country’s U.N.-backed government but still maintains control of some rural areas, merged with Al-Qaeda.
The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office details at least nine other violent incidents since then in its most recent travel warning on Somalia. If you do brave the risks and visit Somalia, think twice before checking into the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab killed eight people there in a failed plot to assassinate the Somali president in September.
At least five million people were killed in the DRC in what’s been called Africa’s First World War from 1994-2003, and a proxy war, waged between rebel groups backed by Rwanda and the Kinshasa government, continued through 2008. Sadly the situation in the eastern part of the country has deteriorated this year as several armed groups like M23 continue to vie for control of this resource-rich part of the country.
In the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on the DRC, travelers are cautioned against the continued presence of Lord’s Resistance Army thugs and armed groups who are “known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted.” The DRC is rated dead last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index for good reason: it’s a basket case in danger of becoming a full-on failed state. Other than aid workers, diplomats, mercenaries and shady businesspeople, no one in their right mind is traveling to the eastern DRC, and the rest of the country isn’t exactly the South of France either.
Syria, with its ancient capital, said to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, historic souks, castles and impressive archaeological sites, was once a popular destination for backpackers. Now, nearly two years into a bloody civil war, the tourists are long gone with seemingly little hope of them returning anytime soon. More than 30,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has created nearly 500,000 refugees and about 2.5 million internally displaced people. But when peace returns to Syria, the tourists will certainly return to this interesting and hospitable country.
Last year, we recognized Kandahar Province as a distinctly violent, nasty place we had no intention of visiting in the near future but given the fact that nearly twice as many ISAF Coalition troops have perished in neighboring Helmand Province, extremists there could make a strong argument that they were snubbed.
And Helmand isn’t just a dangerous place for Coalition troops. A recent AP story asserted that despite a vigorous effort by the U.S.-led Coalition to rid the province of insurgents, residents are still afraid to go out after dark when bands of marauding criminals roam the streets. The province is a hotbed of poppy production, which finances the insurgents’ campaigns, and many residents support the Taliban.
And if you find yourself in Helmand, perish the thought; don’t expect the police to help you either. In 2012, at least 62 Coalition troops and 86 Afghans have been shot dead by Afghan police or soldiers, including fatal incidents in Helmand in August, September and October. Only a complete lunatic would plan a trip to Helmand Province, but Trip Advisor, God bless them, does indeed have a page entitled “Helmand Province Vacations” under the tab “Helmand Province Tourism” as though such a thing existed. Not surprisingly, there are no hotels, restaurants or things to do listed.
Mali, home to the legendary city of Timbuktu and one of the richest cultural and music scenes in West Africa, took several turns for the worse in 2012 and is now off limits to any traveler hoping to go home in one piece. Mali has had not one but two coups in 2012, and in April, Tuareg rebels declared an independent state called Azawad in the north of the country.
Before you rush out to apply for a tourist visa to Azawad, be warned that the territory’s economy revolves around kidnapping, most of them carried out by the thugs who run the place. There are ten European and three Algerian hostages currently being held in Northern Mali and there have been several other hostage-taking incidents involving tourists and diplomats in recent years, including an incident involving a Frenchman in Southwest Mali in November.
Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, was taken hostage and then beheaded in 2009, and Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French aid worker was taken hostage in neighboring Niger and was then reportedly killed in Mali in 2010. In the north, Islamists are known to administer rough justice. In one case, a police chief sawed off his own brother’s hand, and in July, in the northern town of Aguelhok, a couple was stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.
Mexico gets all the bad press for its drug and gang violence, but on a per-capita basis, Honduras may be even more violent. Tourists flock to Roatán and other safe, idyllic beach getaways in Honduras, but San Pedro Sula ranks first in the world in per capita murders (1,143 murders in a city of just 719,447 in 2011) and Tegucigalpa ranks fifth. The Honduran districts of Yoro – with 110 murders per 100,000 – and Morazán – with 86 per 100,000 – both in the interior of the country, are also plagued by violence.
According to a 2011 UN Report, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. I have a friend who used to teach English in San Pedro Sula in the ’90s and he said that the city used to be reasonably safe prior to Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc on the country in 1998.
Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law, is one of the nastiest terrorist groups in the world. Their late leader, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009 that he believed the earth was flat and said that education “spoils the belief in one God.”
Their targets have included the Nigerian military, the police, opponents of Sharia law and foreigners. Their tactics have included planting bombs in churches, attacking a UN compound in Abuja, taking hostages and engaging in extrajudicial assassinations. Boko Haram militants killed at least 186 people with a series of gun and bomb attacks near their base in Kano in January 2012 alone. On Christmas Eve this year, gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to their church in the northern province of Yobe.
And Boko Haram aren’t the only troublemakers in the region. Another Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group killed two hostages, one from Britain, and one from Italy, in the town of Sokoto in March, and a German engineer that was being held hostage in Kano was killed in a rescue attempt along with five others in May. According to the State Department, criminals have abducted at least 140 foreigner nationals in Nigeria, including seven U.S. citizens, since January 2009.
Intrepid, some would say ill-advised, travelers can now visit Chernobyl, and some hard heads have even returned to live in the off-limits Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan, but the area around the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, called “The Polygon,” remains closed, more than 20 years after Kazakhstan became the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in 1991. The Soviets used the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan to test more than 400 nuclear bombs during the Cold War and to this day, residents of the city of Semipalatinsk (renamed Semey) suffer disproportionately from cancer and birth deformities blamed on continuing radiation.
Although the Polygon itself is technically off limits, it’s an area the size of Belgium with poorly marked boundaries and farmers allow their animals to graze there, according to The Telegraph. Stay away and avoid ordering horsemeat from eastern Kazakhstan if at all possible.
“It’s not that I love grossness itself, but I did come to love many of the polluted places I visited,” he told the New York Times. “And I object to the outright disgust these kinds of places get saddled with, because once that disgust becomes entrenched, we’re more likely to give up on them.”
In his book, Blackwell even defends Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, China, which was named the most polluted city in the world in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, and was subsequently put at or near the top of every top ten most polluted places list all over the net. (Last year, a city called Ahvaz in Iran topped a World Health Organization air pollution list.)
But it turns out that the Blacksmith list wasn’t rank ordered, but rather alphabetized by country, so Linfen was merely one of the ten nastiest places in the world and not necessarily the nastiest. Still, even Blackwell had to admit that the dust and pollution gave him a nasty cough.
“Chronic respiratory disease and even lung cancer must stalk the city’s boulevards and alleyways,” he wrote.
Pound-for-pound the Swat Valley and the seven semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border with Afghanistan might have more ignorant, violent extremists than any other place on the planet. One could fill a large volume with horror stories about bad things that have happened in this part of northwest Pakistan, but exhibit A of the brutality and extremism that pervades this area is the October 9 assassination attempt on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai that wounded her and two others perpetrated by vermin who personify the word evil.
Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on a school bus and is now recovering in Britain, became a target for advocating on behalf of locals girls who want to be educated. In recent years, thousands of Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the northwest and despite the U.S. drone strike campaign, which has pushed U.S. favorability ratings in Pakistan down to 12%, the region is still a hotbed for extremists.
Pockets of ignorance and extremism exist in other parts of the country as well. On December 18 and 19, gunmen shot dead seven people working on a U.N.-backed polio vaccination drive, four were killed in Karachi, and the others perished in the northwest, most from gunshots to the head, fired at close range.
Notes: Special thanks to Jay Dunne and Bernard Londoni, security analysts at iJet, a risk-management firm based in Annapolis, for providing me with intel on some of the locales listed above. A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Mali. He was taken hostage in neighboring Niger.
We live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.
Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites. Asia
China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.
Our lonely planet continues to become less and less lonely. Thanks to the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, users can connect far-flung parts of the world at the tap of a keyboard. This fascinating map (click to enlarge) created by Facebook intern Paul Butler charts the interactions between Facebook users from around the globe, and it shows the unbelievable extent to which Facebook now touches even the most remote parts of the world.
If you’re wondering, the brightly illuminated part of Western Africa is mostly Nigeria, so look out for a friend request from a Prince Abakaliki asking you to wire money to a Swiss bank account. Ignore!
You’ve made your travel resolutions, but how do you keep them? We all know the resolution drill. Sometime around the end of December, in the glow of holiday cheer when all things seem possible, we make a list of how we’ll improve. As travelers, perhaps we leaf through a copy of 1000 Places to See Before You Die and make a list of our own must see places. Or we decide that we’ll travel smarter. We’ll travel greener. We’ll be the best traveler there is.
Then roundabout January 5, the glow is gone and it’s same old same old. Your travel habits are the same they’ve always been except for perhaps a tweak or two.
There are things you can do to break your travel pattern. It has to do with your thinking. Here are 10 thoughts to keep you traveling and happy with your resolutions intact.
1. Be flexible: Let’s say you decide that you really, really, really need that trip to Hawaii. Only that trip to Hawaii will do. But round about February, it’s clear you don’t have the money to get to Hawaii. Flexibility allows you to pick another destination within your financial reach. However, you understand that not going to Hawaii this year doesn’t mean you are never going. This trip could be your pre-Hawaii trip. Voila! Your resolution to make to Hawaii is still intact.
2. Ignore aches and pains: So, you have a bit of a backache. Your joints slow you down. Your feet hurt when you walk a lot. You need a hip replacement. Go on that rafting trip anyway if it’s that once in a lifetime opportunity. Here’s the thing. You can ache at home on the couch, or you can ache in an unusual destination or on that trip you’ve always wanted. This happened to us two summers ago. My hubby’s hip was not doing him any favors but we had an opportunity to go on a group five day raft trip on the Smith River in Montana. We took the trip with my husband as one of the main rafting guides. His hip is now replaced. Six weeks after his operation this year we took a three week road trip through the West. Not to brag, or anything, but if you knew us, if we can do it, so can you.
3. Don’t give up easily: You have a trip planned, but it seems that life is not helping you out one bit. Your car, for example, needs unexpected work. Or you’re toilet on the second floor has leaked enough that your kitchen ceiling has caved in a tad. Mop up the floor, find a mechanic who can fix that car lickety-split and hit the road. Keep saying to yourself that life is not telling you to not go on the trip, but your resolve is being tested. Go, man! Go!
4. If it’s raining–so what? You’ve planned a day at the beach, or you’re heading to Disneyland–or you’re going to visit the Statue of Liberty. This is the one day you can make it to this outdoor destination. Don’t whine about it. Get out the umbrella, wear a pair of shoes that can get wet and head out the door. If you’re going to an amusement park, believe me. There are rain ponchos to be bought there. The beauty of a rainy day is that ride lines are not so long. As for the beach, enjoy the solitude. Also, it may not rain all day.
5. Be delighted with the cheapest thing on the menu— You are on a tight budget and the place you are going is not known for being inexpensive. Go anyway, but aim for the cheapest thing you can do while there. What’s free? Visiting religious places is free. Walking is free. Parks are free. Going in and out of stores is free. Some museums are much cheaper than others. Go to the cheap ones. When eating out, look for the cheapest thing on the menu, it’s yours. The whole time you are on this trip, be happy you are on this trip. Don’t keep saying if only I had enough money to do or buy . . .Be happy, for heavens sake!
6. Nothing is perfect–Don’t aim for a trip to be perfect. If something has to be perfect, you can be derailed before you start. If what you have in mind is not possible, look forward to the surprises you’ll find when the trip is not just the way you wanted it. It could be better. If it’s worse, what a great story you can tell others. People love worse travel stories better than the best times ever stories.
7. Just because you have kids doesn’t mean you can’t travel–The worst advice I ever heard was “Travel now because when you have kids, it all changes.” Harumph! Not true. If you ignore all these other resolutions, maybe that person is right, but kids will travel if you travel. When my son was three months old, we went to Thailand for several days. Once when our daughter was five and she was pulling her pull behind suitcase through Narita Airport in Tokyo, she exclaimed, “I want to travel the world.” We’ve done a pretty good job of it so far.
8. Just because your significant other has different travel likes doesn’t mean you can’t travel— Just because you have a partner, doesn’t mean you’re a salt and pepper shaker set that always has to be together. If you have different ideas about what to do on a trip, pick places that have things for both of you. Meet up at night after a satisfying day. If your partner doesn’t want to head home for the holidays but wants to go to Myanmar instead, don’t see who can get the other to bend first. Do what’s in your heart. You’ll both end up merry and bright.
9. Be open to opportunities–When any one ever says, would you like to go to–or an opportunity you hadn’t thought of before comes up, say yes. This adage has found me in Mexico building houses, on a six-week trip Rotary club trip to Nigeria, on a 7-day cruise to Greece from Venice, at my Danish family’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Denmark and Los Angeles meeting Mark Saltzman, one of my favorite authors.
10. Let the house go for a change–Do not ever not go somewhere because the house is a mess. Sure don’t let it go to seed, but seriously, does the vacuuming have to be done today? Don’t’ let the list of things that need to get done keep you a prisoner. Schedule your must do things, around travel. Keep resolution Number 1 in mind.
Here’s to happy travel in 2010 with your resolutions in tact. It is your life after all.