In Hong Kong, there’s the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. How about the street protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo and many other cities? What do they have in common? They each trigger the worst four-letter word that starts with “F” in travel—fear. It begs the question—should you go to these destinations during times of crisis? The answer might surprise you.
In 2014, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong to call for political reform and free elections during what is now known as The Umbrella Revolution. The name is in reference to the umbrellas used by protesters to protect themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas fired by police when the protest began.
Liam Fitzpatrick, Senior Editor of Time magazine, saw the events unfold firsthand. “It just kind of erupted and it was sort of underscored as well. A lot of the young people on the street felt themselves to be no longer part of the Hong Kong dream: you get a job, you save up your money, you buy an apartment. Now, property costs so much money that the idea that a young person can leave college and buy an apartment is a kind of a derisory non-starter because people don’t feel like they’re participating in what’s going on around them.”
However, several days after the protests began, police adopted a less aggressive approach when most of the demonstrators left, and the remainder settled peacefully into camps. Believe it or not, the scene became a tourist attraction.
“I can’t tell you how many nights I spent down in Umbrella Square,” Fitzpatrick said. “Nobody is drinking a drop of alcohol. No one is puffing weed. Everyone is just debating and solemn and serious and kind of lovely and wonderful. As a result, the revolution and Umbrella Square, it was a very safe place for visitors to go. Visitors would be impressed by what they saw, which was a self-governing community with thousands and thousands of people who had organized their own waste disposal, study centers, supply posts, and first-aid posts—all kinds of things.”
“It became a must on the traveler’s itinerary,” Fitzpatrick explained. “Get down to Umbrella Square, have your obligatory selfie. There was a lot of local art going up in the square too, so you could kind of tour around and see a whole bunch of installations by Hong Kong artists. The striking thing about popular protests here is by and large its relative safety. It was a big deal here when they fired tear gas in the streets. This was unheard of.”
While the Umbrella Revolution was relatively peaceful, the same cannot be said for much of the Arab Spring. Several years ago, protests and uprisings spread across the Middle East, with people demanding political, economic, and social change.
Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo—and in streets all over Egypt—to protest what they believed to be a corrupt government. Unlike the Umbrella Revolution, these protests in Egypt turned violent and deadly as citizens clashed with the police and military.
The result? Tourism plummeted because people were afraid to visit. But when Peter Greenberg was in Cairo two years ago, he found that with fewer visitors there are a lot of benefits.
While visiting the Pyramids of Giza, Peter spoke with Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. He mentioned to Hawass that he tells people the best time to go anywhere is during the off-season. Right now, all of Egypt is in the off-season.
“It is,” agreed Hawass. “And you know what I tell people also? If you heard of trouble in Egypt, go the next day, because there is more security. And now, there is no one in the sites, it’s not crowded, they can go to the Great Pyramid alone. I always say to the people everywhere: these monuments do not belong to Egypt only. They belong to everyone all over the world. And this is why we need the tourists to come back.”
So the question remains: Should you be afraid to visit destinations during times of unrest?
Here’s some advice. “I’d stay in touch with the news,” says Fitzpatrick. “Follow Twitter. That’s a great place to get breaking news and get caught up on something. I think one of the greatest things about social media is that kind of fact gathering and impression forming. You can do that much more easily too. Social media is a great way of kind of taking in surroundings and seeing if a place feels safe.”
In the end, nothing takes precedence over basic common sense. Read the U.S. State Department advisories. More importantly, read the advisories from the British Foreign Office to their citizens. I think they do a better job. But remember, they’re just advisories—things you need to know before you go. Then, about 9 times out of 10, you’re still gonna go.