Sunday, February 27, 2011

Revolution of Egypt: Travel when you have the chance!

The revolution in Egypt has many lessons for geopolitics. For travelers, it's to go when you have the chance.
Revolutions don't wait for your retirement trip or the "gap year" between college and work. World heritage sites and natural wonders lie within the borders of corrupt police states and benign democracies alike.
In the best of times, whether we choose to travel some place is a matter of conscience. When uprisings like those sweeping North Africa occur, the choice is made for us. A door to part of the world closes, at least for a while.
Maybe things will calm down in Egypt and the throngs will be back at the pyramids by autumn. Or maybe the 160,000 foreigners who fled the country in panic might be the last tourists into Cairo for a long time.
"Are we witnessing Tehran 1979 or Berlin 1989?" Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times. Repression or liberation?
Travel is just a small piece of that question, but for millions of people in Egypt and around the world, it's an important piece.
This has all played out before. Countries and regions rise and fall off the tourist map. The killing fields of Cambodia are now fertile with tourists. The onetime hippie backpacker haven of Afghanistan is a war zone. South Africa was good to go after apartheid ended. The "naughty but fun" border towns of Mexico are ravaged by drug violence.
I have been around for a while. Let's just say I'm very late Eisenhower administration vintage. I've seen the State Department's "go/don't go" travel-advisory list flip many times.
I had a high-school friend who spent a summer in the late 1970s in Tehran, Iran, as part of an American Field Service exchange. I doubt there are many American parents who would let their children go unaccompanied to Iran today. Yugoslavia was a hot spot in the Cold War, a communist country not under Moscow's thumb. Then the Cold War ended, and the region ripped apart in civil wars. But today the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia and the Swiss-like scenery of Slovenia are bringing visitors back.
Tour groups tolerated dictators in Zimbabwe and Myanmar until their grip slipped a bit and their lands seemed too out of control for the tour buses headed to Victoria Falls or cruising the Irrawaddy River.
Tanzania and Kenya were safari hot spots that cooled markedly when they were hit with terrorist bombs a few years ago. Now they have come back as curiosity over seeing lions and elephants outstrips fears of an al-Qaida affiliate bombing.
One thing I have learned is overall, the trend has been for the better. Look at all the places that were off-limits that are now open to visitors. I visited a divided Berlin, bleak and gray in 1989. A year later, it was on the mend. There is an east Berlin and a west Berlin, but no longer an East Berlin and West Berlin.
Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi and Phnom Penh went the capitalist route, if not enacting parallel democratic reforms. Prague and Budapest were Warsaw Pact stars that stepped from behind the Iron Curtain. Even Havana, though officially off-limits, teems with Americans who find ways around the porous travel restrictions. Short of Pyongyang in North Korea, "red" is dead when it comes to tourism.
Communism's fall in Europe was paralleled by the ouster of the generals in South America. Argentina and Chile shed decades of repression to open their cities and mountains to tourists from around the world. Civil war in Nicaragua and El Salvador cooled and now surfers and other adventurers head there. Colombia, once the world's great narco-state, is still iffy, but Cartagena welcomes cruise ships. Northern Ireland mostly put aside its "troubles" and turned in its guns, finding a stable peace — at least for now — between Catholics and Protestants.
The lesson to be learned in all this is to go to all the places I listed as soon as you can. Because times change. Will Moscow still be friendly to the West in a decade? What about Jordan, with the great dwellings at Petra?
Egypt has been on my travel "to-do" list. But it always seemed there would be a better time somewhere in the future for my first visit. Now, like everyone, I will have to reset the clock and wait to see what emerges.