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Ask Gadling: Your name/nationality/religion/race makes the locals hostile
In a perfect world, every place would be friendly and welcoming to foreigners, no matter their background or lifestyle. However, history, politics, religion, and just plain ignorance means some countries can be hostile to certain travelers based on race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. While careful consideration should be given before traveling to potentially hostile countries, you may be limiting yourself if you choose not to visit a place for fear of being unwelcome.
Travel is a key part of increasing tolerance and understanding and can make the world a smaller place. Don't let stereotypes, rumors, or the past color your opinions without getting every side of the story and researching the reality of a place. Laws may be loosely enforced, popular sentiment may only reflect a vocal minority, and individual people can always surprise you with kindness.
Just because a country doesn't roll out the red carpet to greet you, doesn't mean you won't be welcome and comfortable. My husband is an American citizen born in Russia, and his passport lists place of birth (his old passport read Leningrad, USSR). While he hasn't set foot in his homeland in over 30 years, just the name on his passport can cause issues with countries with complicated relationships with Russia. On a recent trip to Bosnia, we were detained for several nerve-wracking minutes at Passport Control while they scrutinized his documents and asked questions about our purpose in Sarajevo. The same thing happened in Bulgaria, where they spoke to him only in Russian while he answered in English. Both times, we were eventually let into the country with some semblance of a smile, but any apprehension was soon overcome by the hospitality of the locals proud to show off their cities.
If you plan on visiting a potentially hostile country, there are a few precautions you should take to ensure you are safe and at ease.
Before making travel plans, get a basic historical and cultural perspective by checking out country profiles on the State Department's website, Wikipedia and Wikitravel, and travel guidebooks. Local English-language newspaper websites and blogs can provide more current intel on the political and social environment. Read a few different viewpoints if possible to understand multiple sides of an issue. The more you know about how events have fed into opinion, and how foreigners are treated in real-life scenarios, the better equipped you can be to handle it and make decisions about your trip. Know what topics are considered taboo or contentious so you know what to avoid talking about with locals.
Find a safe haven
While we travel to get to know unfamiliar places, it can be comforting to have a safe and accepting place at the end of the day. Seek out a woman-owned hotel in Morocco, or a gay-friendly guesthouse in Beirut. Some travelers may want to consider an group tour for additional security and convenience, organized by locals and experts who understand the customs and attitudes of the country and how best to navigate them. When you arrive, register yourself with the U.S. Department of State and share your plans with friends and family at home.
Stay under the radar
While in the country, respect the local culture and behave accordingly. While I may not wish to wear a hijab or headscarf, visiting a conservative Muslim country is not the time to protest or start debates about women's liberation. If you are gay, public displays of affection should be discreet or totally avoided, particularly in countries where homosexuality is frowned upon or illegal. If you are a different race than the majority, you may be an object of curiosity or sometimes harassment, but racism towards travelers is generally fairly mild. Keep your passport and travel documents on you at all times and be patient and forthcoming if questioned by any authorities.
Have you traveled to a country where you felt unwelcome? Have you been surprised with the open-mindedness of strangers? Leave us your story in the comments.
[Photo credit: Flickr user Ivy Dawned]