American Otto Warmbier, 22, died last month after visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He’d spent 16 months in custody after being arrested while trying to leave the country with China-based Young Pioneers Tours, accused of trying to steal a poster from his hotel. He returned to the U.S. last month in a coma and died days later. While his death has certainly further complicated relations between North Korea and the U.S., it also brings to the spotlight a recurring theme in travel—when should we heed governmental warnings recommending against travel to certain countries like North Korea and Cuba, and when should we consider them unnecessary?

Back in 2011, I interviewed travel bloggers for an AOL Travel piece on travel warnings. How did they assess which countries were worth the risk? Talk to other travelers who had recently visited the location or, better yet, current expats to get a real-time snapshot of life in that country. Other smart moves: a check of whether Americans in particular are being targeted and careful scrutiny of your insurance policy, as many won’t cover a trip to a country on the warning list.

(stephan), creative commons
Source: (stephan), creative commons

Social psychologist Michael Brein, who calls himself “The Travel Psychologist,” offered in response to a 2007 Wall Street Journal interview that the decision to travel to potentially dangerous countries comes down to four factors that together can be taken as “The Cancun Effect”: type of traveler, danger, confidence level and travel marketing.

There are four types of traveler, according to Brein, ranging from “Mass-Tourists” who always travel in a tour to the “Adrenalin or Danger Junkie” who exposes himself to the most danger. These travelers will have varying barometers for danger, which Brein sums up for most travelers as “excitement and adventure–balanced against the fear of the unknown...Excitement may be defined, then, as coming as close to danger / discomfort / insecurity without actually being in danger.” Confidence may depend on how much travel experience one has, but even then, it might not map to the actual danger inherent in the place to which they are traveling.

Finally, travel marketing presents many places as beautiful, accessible and safe even if they're not. The fact that there might be dozens of tour operators in the location and that the trip comes with a high price tag can give a false sense of protection. And that's really where a whole new thought stream arises--whether you're alone or in a group, as Otto was, doesn't really matter in certain locations.

To be sure, we should avoid victim-blaming in sad cases like Otto's. But as the world--one in which there are new types of terrorism being tested, politics between certain nations are inflamed and the reputation of the U.S. is questionable in certain parts of the world--opens up to the next generation of young travelers, it would be wise to continue the dialogue on how to maintain a balance between safety and wanderlust. 

What type of traveler do you consider yourself to be and where is the “riskiest” place you’ve ever been? 

About the Author

Lauren Fritsky

Lauren Fritsky has written about health, relationships, career and travel for AOL, CNN, USA Today and Weight Watchers magazine.

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