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Laughing – and dying – in the face of danger

Image: Tourists are reflected on a mirror
Tourists are reflected on a mirror as they tour the San'a', the ancient city in Yemen. Al-Qaida attacks elsewhere in Yemen have damaged a fledgling tourism industry.Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

When it comes to travel, there’s adventurous and then there’s just plain asinine.

Take the deaths of seven Spanish tourists last summer at the hands of a suspected Al-Qaida suicide bomber. The horrific incident happened in a part of central Yemen known for its lawlessness, where about 100 foreigners have been kidnapped since the 1990s. What were these visitors doing there in the first place?

Believing perhaps that the terrorists had called it a day, two Belgians vacationed in Yemen again earlier this year. But they were wrong. When suspected Al-Qaida gunmen opened fire on them in Sanaa, they were among four people killed.

You don’t have to venture that far to meet your maker, of course. Just a few weeks ago, an Austrian tourist died after being repeatedly bitten by a shark while diving near the Bahamas. The sea had been baited with bloody fish parts to attract the predators, and the diver — who, it is prominently noted in the report, was a lawyer — was in open water without a cage or similar protection.

There’s always been a fine line between taking a calculated risk and foolishly gambling with your life. At a time when more tourists are coming home in caskets, that line is becoming increasingly faint. A vast majority of travelers know that shark diving with only a law degree for protection isn’t the smartest move. And vacationing in a Middle Eastern country known to be a hotbed of terrorist activity? Let me hear a Yemen.

But what do you tell the family of a woman sunbathing on her boat in the Florida Keys recently, who was killed when a stingray leaped from the water? No one saw that one coming. Was she taking her chances? How about the American who went zip-lining on the Caribbean island of Roatan, and plunged to her death? Was that too risky?

No one knows why random things like ray attacks and zip-line snaps happen. You would need a mathematician — or a theologian — to wager a guess. Why are more people taking their chances on vacation, even when you take chance out of the equation? The answer, say experts, is we don’t know danger when we see it anymore. We can’t tell the difference being brave and being stupid.

It’s almost as if visitors, and even authorities, are out of touch with reality. It took the recent murder of a 15-year-old British girl to finally get authorities to crack down on crime in the picturesque Indian state of Goa, where at least 126 foreign nationals have died in the past two years.

Put differently, I could have stood at the airport with signs that said, “Don’t Goa There!” No one would have paid attention.

“Many people are seeking authentic experiences,” explains Josh Calder, an analyst with Social Technologies, a Washington consulting firm. “And real danger delivers. Most thrill-seekers settle for simulated dangers such as bungee jumping, but there is a small minority that want actual peril.”

Calder ought to know. He recently went gorilla trekking near the Rwandan border, in a place where rebels killed tourists just a few years ago. But he took precautions, including bringing along guards armed with automatic rifles. “Also, we had knowledgeable people check the situation for us,” he says.

We live for thrills, according to surveys. And it isn’t just 20-something guys with Indiana Jones fantasies. A study (PDF) by Santa Fe, N.M.-based Xola Consulting found more young people and families are going for adventure-themed vacations, and they’re willing to go to the ends of the earth to get it. Literally.

“Traditional holiday destinations are changing,” says Richard Culver, the senior director of security services for the American division of International SOS. So are people’s perceptions of risk. Culver cites the example of whitewater rafting. “More people die white water rafting than whitewater kayaking,” he says. “But people feel safer in a raft because they are with others and it is a large flotation device. Therefore, they tend to take on bigger risks whereas in a kayak you’re more exposed and don’t feel as safe.”

That might go a long way to explaining the Spanish and Belgian tourists who reached the end of their road in Yemen. They were part of groups, and probably felt as if no one could hurt them. Same thing applies to the many people who visited Goa, and even the lawyer who was attacked by sharks. All of these dead tourists suppressed the little voice in their head that said, “That’s dangerous” with one that reassured them, “You’re part of a group. What could possibly go wrong?”

I expect to see more travelers murdered, blown up and eaten by undersea predators in the near future.

Why? A little bit of everything. More people are traveling. More people are traveling as a group — tours are an increasingly popular way to see a destination on the cheap. And more people are looking for a far-flung adventure.

For them, laughing in the face of danger may be a thrill. Dying isn’t.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, for daily insights into the world of travel.