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What Are the Safest Countries for Women Who Travel on Their Own?
Peace of mind, especially if you're a first-time solo traveler
What are the safest countries for women?
This is actually an odd question and as feminist discourse would have it, one we shouldn't be asking at all.
Women should be able to travel anywhere, period. I agree. But for now, reality has decreed otherwise. I would love not to have written this page. I would love it to be superfluous, outdated, ridiculous even.
For now, though, women do travel differently than men, especially when we travel solo, and no amount of rebellion or of burying our head in the sand will change that. Our best option (and this is my personal opinion, doesn't have to be yours!) is to acknowledge the differences and dangers, do our best to circumvent them, and keep traveling with a vengeance. Eventually, by being out there, we won't stand out, raise eyebrows or be seen to encourage approaches. Maybe men will change. Maybe society will change. But we, certainly, will change. Our confidence and empowerment will take us where WE want to go, not where anyone else thinks we should go.
Few days go by without my being contacted by women travelers asking about safety and safe destinations. Many of them are first-time solo travelers, older women solo travelers and women who have visited cultures similar to their own and are about to take a big step out of their comfort zones. It's easy for seasoned travelers to sit back and say, bravely, "You can go anywhere you want to!" By and large, this is true, but for a woman contemplating her first steps into the world of solo travel, making a mistake when choosing where to go could be costly, in many ways.
No place is perfectly safe, not even home. It makes sense to put the odds on your side when you travel to places that are foreign, where you don't speak the language, don't know the rules and can't interact appropriately under pressure.
No two places are created equal. Chances are I'll be safer walking down a sophisticated city street than in the middle of a war. Yet as the recent terrorist attacks in European capitals have shown, things can happen anywhere, in the shadow of Big Ben, in a war zone, or at the nearest mall or school.
Nothing can guarantee we'll be safe when we travel. What we can do is choose wisely, do our homework, be cautious - and enjoy ourselves to the max because the rest is out of our hands.
How do you choose the safest travel destinations?
We need to define 'safety'. What makes a place safe or unsafe? Plenty of factors are at play here.
First, there is our personal perception. Do we feel a place is dangerous? I have a friend who won't go to Morocco because it is in Africa - "where there is Ebola". For those of you who don't remember, there was a major Ebola outbreak in 2014 in three West African countries. It was the largest outbreak in history, took two years to stamp out and killed more than 11,000 people. That is a terrifying thought.
Placed in context, the epicenter of the epidemic was 2800 kilometers (1750 miles) from Morocco as the bird flies, nearly twice as far by road. That's quite a distance. But her perception was that because it was "Africa", the danger was everywhere. And so she didn't go. You might react differently, so that perception is of utmost importance in shaping what you understand as a safe place - or not.
Second, we all have different safety levels. You may feel walking high up on a mountain path is a wonderful thing - I'd feel I was putting my life in danger. I have vertigo and tend to be attracted by high ledges next to open spaces.
Third, safety and danger come in different shapes. These situations can make a place unsafe for solo women travelers (or any travelers, in most cases):
- natural disasters, such as frequent earthquakes or cyclones or tsunamis
- other natural threats such as wildlife or extreme isolation or rugged terrain
- high crime, violence or urban threat
- war or a high state of alert, as well as post-conflict countries littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance
- corruption, which makes navigating a country difficult and potentially more dangerous
- discrimination against women, which will blame us for anything that happens, or disrespect towards us, which can lead to assault
- extreme economic differences, with huge poverty and excessive wealth living side by side (under these circumstances, foreigners can be targeted as rich - after all, we were able to pay for our trip, right?)
Fourth, just because there's a problem in a country doesn't mean the ENTIRE country is a dangerous place. The Turkish-Syrian border, as of March 2017, is a dangerous place but plenty of travelers (including myself) still visit Istanbul. Even in the world's safest places, there are some no-go areas - inner-city neighborhoods, deserted roads and countryside or parks after dark, so don't judge an entire country by isolated incidents.
While some dangers are concrete and universal - war, natural disaster - others are more subjective. What is perfectly safe to you - a high mountain, for example - might feel significantly dangerous to me, who suffers from vertigo and could easily fall off an edge.
Every city has its neighborhoods...
Safe travels: how to assess the safety quotient of a place
There is an abundance of resources to help you decide whether a destination is safe before you go.
- The news, taken with a grain of salt. Reporters are only human, and only as good as the information they are given or allowed to see. Use news sources with reliable international bureaux and a strong tradition of international coverage, like The Guardian or Al Jazeera English or the Washington Post.
- Many western countries have government advisories through their foreign ministries or in the US, the State Department. (Here they are for Australia, Canada, the UK and the US). They provide a list of countries with warnings and alerts about safety and security. While they are useful, the last thing a country wants is to mount a rescue operation for a misguided citizen, so they tend to be a bit alarmist. If you use them, compare what they say. but take them with a grain of salt - they are trying to scare you!)
- One way to bypass these advisories and find information in a single convenient place is by checking the Geosure website or downloading their app. Geosure is a new (free) service that scrapes the data from government advisories and many more international, UN and national sources to deliver a safety rating for many countries - and a unique safety rating for women.
- Google. Of course. "How safe is xxx..." You can also sign up for Google news alerts right in your Inbox so you will be notified whenever your destination is mentioned in the news.
- Check Twitter. If something just happened at your destination, it'll be trending quickly.
- There are several expat forums and sites, and some of the most accurate and immediate news you'll get will be from them - Search for "expat blog [country]" or "expat forum [country]".
- Local tourism websites sometimes have news, although the situation would have to be pretty dire for them to warn tourists away. Still, they're usually good for essential local information, like emergency phone numbers and English-speaking tourist police services.
- It's not a bad idea to consult review sites (like Tripadvisor) and travel forums (see my list of good travel forums). When I went to Central Asia the forum on the Caravanistan website kept me informed almost up to the minute about open and closed border crossings.
- Travel blogs, bien sur! If a blogger happens to be on site, he or she may write about it while still in-country.
- Real people are great sources of information - friends, friends of friends who have recently come back from where you're going. If you don't know anyone personally, you can always post on Facebook to your friends and see if they know anyone who has just returned from that country.
- For health warnings, visit the travel sections of the WHO and the CDC, in case there's an Ebola or other deadly epidemic to avoid.
So then... what ARE the safest countries for solo female travelers?
I've scoured the web for opinions and added my own from personal experience, so what follows is an overview of places most women travelers consider safe.
Countries considered among the safest destinations for women
- Northern Europe (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) - Scandinavia consistently ranks among the world's happiest countries, with Iceland leading the Global Peace Index
- Most Western European countries - yes, the Mediterranean region can be a bit more daunting, as men are far more vocal than northern neighbors might be used to...
- Canada and USA (easy for solo women travelers but not evenly safe throughout - think huge empty expanses and dodgy neighborhoods - and wildlife)
- Australia (creepy crawlies) and New Zealand. Melbourne seems to have a great reputation for female safety (I've never been to Australia so I can't confirm but those in the know think so) and New Zealand consistently tops the list.
- Hong Kong and China, both of which I've visited several times on my own safely (my only mishap being the loss of my passport to light-fingered thieves in Beijing, but my fault entirely for keeping it in my daypack on my back
- Bhutan and Singapore
- Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, which I visited recently and felt so safe (other than on some narrow roads) I even stopped thinking about safety
- Dubai and the UAE - perhaps an odd suggestion but no one even blinks at a Western woman traveling solo - there's too much shopping going on to care and everyone is in a car.
- Japan - often your biggest danger is getting lost, due to the lack of English, although there is a risk of natural disasters (tsunami) and reports of grope-happy men on public transport at rush hour
- South Korea - I've just spent two weeks feeling safe but as in Japan, the alphabet and language can be an obstacle
- Panama (an unusual pick but I've rarely felt so secure in a Latin country). Beware though - it's not safe everywhere. Some cities, like Colon, and the outskirts of Panama City's Old Town, are no-go zones.
The Netherlands, like the rest of northern Europe, among the safest places for women to travel
Most of these places are relatively easy to visit, although if you don't speak or read the language, China and Japan can both be a bit of a challenge - but certainly not insurmountable.
Countries perceived as less safe, but mostly fine with a bit of extra caution
- Certain corners of Western Europe (the vast majority of each country would qualify as absolutely safe but there may be a few regions or city districts where you'd have to be cautious)
- Southeast Asia is mostly safe, although there have been a few unsettling incidents of violence aimed at foreign visitors. That said, a bit of alertness and some research before you head off should be enough.
- Morocco (though sexual harassment - usually verbal - is quite common)
- Turkey belongs on this list. Some of the more touristy regions, like Istanbul and Cappadocia, are fine, although in Istanbul, keep an ear open for news of occasional demonstrations or political unrest. I'm more cautious about Istanbul now than I used to be... but I still feel absolutely fine as a solo female traveler. Keep an eye on this country - things could change, but for now...
- The safer and more touristy sites of Africa, those where there is no conflict or imminent danger of terrorism or piracy. Africa may not be for first-time solo travelers but with a bit of experience, it can be an incredibly rewarding choice. I'd be very cautious with large mega-cities like Lagos, Nairobi or Johannesburg, which can be a bit daunting if it's your first time on your own.
I've traveled in all of these on my own and have felt safe. They may not be at the top of the list of safest destinations, but with a bit of research and planning there's no reason a trip to these - slightly more exotic - countries shouldn't be perfectly simple and pleasurable.
Most dangerous destinations for women
- Any country or region at war or in conflict, like Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen or Iraq - no ands, ifs or buts - just stay away.
- Countries in the throes of a natural disaster - Aceh in Indonesia right after the tsunami, Bangladesh during floods (although disaster tourism is a thing and it does exist) - but once the emergency is over tourism actually helps rebuild shattered destinations, as has been the case in Sri Lanka.
- Saudi Arabia (you'll never get a visa unless you're on the Hajj pilgrimage - and the way women are treated should keep you away)
- Pakistan (although I know of women who have traveled there perfectly safely)
- North Korea (a rogue state, but also one where danger could flare up quickly)
Clearly, this list is anything but exhaustive. It is designed to give the cautious solo traveler some information and food for thought and to encourage you to do your homework and be prepared. Safety should always be your primary concern. Know that poor neighborhoods are usually riskier than wealthy ones (if you look foreign), train stations at night more dodgy than the financial district at lunchtime, and that there can always be an exception to absolutely everything I've said so far.
Choosing where you go and preparing well for it may well be the most important decisions you make on the road.
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