Some Americans crave the road less traveled, opting for edgy bites of foreign culture, snubbing even one-star comfort.
And then there are the “anti-tourists” like Jordan Harbinger. “I’ve always been attracted to the forbidden,” said Harbinger, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur who will vacation this August in North Korea. According to a State Department travel warning, “U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea without proper documentation, even accidentally, have been subject to arrest and long-term detention.”
Is Harbinger nervous? Hardly. He’s been kidnapped twice, he said, during past excursions to Mexico and Serbia. “I enjoy going to places other people are afraid of,” Harbinger said, “especially when the media makes a big hubbub about it.” He booked his North Korean trek through a British travel company, must fly in from China, is barred from carrying any money in Pyongyang, and will be constantly accompanied by two military escorts. “I’d like to see it before it’s no longer the Marxist Disneyland I imagine it to be.”
There are some American wanderers who forgo five-star hotels and lounging poolside, drawn instead to the world’s baddest badlands, who consider U.S. State Department travel advisories not a warning whistle to steer clear but a siren song to come and stay.
“Yesterday’s white-knuckle experience becomes today’s memorable travel experience,” said Michael Brein, a travel psychology expert, who coined a term for recreational trips to notoriously menacing places: “macho tourism.” An author of e-books and audio books, Brein has “collected hundreds of pick-pocketing stories from the 1,600 people I’ve interviewed over the years. There’s a notion that you can travel to these countries and bad things won’t happen to you. And chances are they won’t. But they can.”
Indeed, a State Department official said adventure-seeking Americans who “deliberately” head to nations dubbed unsafe “do so at their own risk.” The feds have four “travel alerts” now in place (and one “global alert”) for nations where short-term hazards are considered high for U.S. citizens; the agency also has issued 33 “travel advisories” since last August for countries it suggests Americans avoid due to their long-term instability.
“U.S. citizens are practically free to travel anywhere in the world that they wish, but it is always wise to know as much as possible about a destination,” said Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services. “Should they encounter problems (in countries on our advisory or alert lists), our ability to provide consular assistance is very often limited in these dangerous areas.”
Even in tourist-friendly locales, however, U.S. consulates may be slow to act after Americans become crime victims, said Bob Strang, a security expert who partnered with Beth Holloway — mother of Natalee Holloway — to launch MayDay360.com, a resource for folks who stumble into trouble abroad.
“Beth Holloway very often will tell you stories about the consulate (in Aruba) not responding initially,” Strang said. Natalee Holloway, then 18, vanished in Aruba while on a school trip in 2005. The idea behind MayDay360.com, he added, is to give students, (or their parents), and other non-wealthy travelers a low-cost lifeline and a team of experts to contact in case they encounter overseas peril.
“In many countries the State Department has put restrictions on, there’s no infrastructure to support any kind of emergencies. People just don’t realize that,” said Strang, who co-chaired New York City’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force. Some travelers to those lands “think it’s somehow like the United States, that even though they are taking a big risk by going, if something bad happens to them, they’ll be able to get police assistance or an ambulance to a decent hospital. The fact is that doesn’t exist in a lot of countries.”
But Harbinger and two other veteran travelers who have visited numerous precarious places — including nations listed as sketchy by the State Department — maintain they never take undue risks. They say they simply prefer to tap their own travel savvy rather than rely solely on government advice or listen to blanket safety alerts.
“There is some thrill and excitement to it besides feeling a little apprehensive,” said Mike Choi, a Waterford, Conn.-based engineer who flew to Bahrain in March — about a month after the State Department suggested Americans bypass that country amid its ongoing political and social strife, including weapons fire between protestors and security forces. Choi had previously booked an overnight stop in Bahrain as part of a trip to Nepal — another country with a State Department warning. En route by cab to his room at the Sheraton Bahrain Hotel, he passed through military checkpoints, seeing tanks and soldiers. On his return to the airport the next day, security officials stopped Choi’s taxi to search the cab’s trunk and his luggage.
“I knew if I stayed alert and avoided getting in between the crossfire of protests, I would probably be fine,” Choi said. “If the situation was really bad, I would have slept in the airport ...
“I definitely think there’s some attraction (to spots of unrest) because it’s seen as forbidden from a safety aspect,” Choi said. “Remember when you were a little kid and your parents told you not to go in the attic or in the woods because it’s not safe — but you went anyway to see for yourself? It’s almost like that feeling.”
Fellow globetrotter Maria Rychlicki has spent time in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Columbia when all were on State Department alert lists. Her March 19 trip to Libya was canceled after war broke out there but she vows to reschedule that visit.
“I will get to Libya,” said Rychlicki, a municipal government worker in the Los Angeles area. “I hope the people will have found some peaceful healing before I get there ...
“I must admit, I often pick my trips deliberately knowing they are on the advisory list,” she said. “Visiting countries on the advisory list means I am not spending money to meet other American tourists. I have often felt I am a good ambassador of the American people. I have been, at times, the first American that people (in a foreign land) have met.”
For some international travelers, that kind of “first” is worthy of a Facebook mention. In fact, according to Brein, the travel psychology expert, social media is likely driving more Americans to unstable places just so they can post their dicey status to their friends.
“It’s the bragging rights,” Brein said, “that come from the old notion: ‘Look ma, no hands.’ ”
“It's not bragging rights,” Harbinger responded, “as much as it's an experience that others won't have had — and it's much more authentic that way.
“It may be macho, but I think ‘anti-tourism’ is [the better word]. It's not like I was getting shot at in Bosnia. But I was making friends with people who formerly really hated Americans,” he said. “I pissed in a minefield, yes, but then went to drink tea for the rest of the day at a mosque cut into the side of a mountain.”
Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.”