Between sun-seared shrubs and the collapsed remains of Istanbul’s Byzantine city walls, police found the body of an American tourist, Sarai Sierra, 33, in February 2013. Sierra, a New Yorker and a first-time traveler abroad, had disappeared after near-constant contact with her family for two weeks. What happened to her is still a little unclear, but a Turkish man has reportedly confessed to killing her after supposedly trying to kiss her.
This is not a case of wrong place, wrong time. Sierra was not wandering off the beaten path. She was not engaged in risky behavior. She was on a trip hoping to practice photography, according to news reports. This is a terrifying case of what can – and does – happen to female travelers abroad.
Whether it is on a bus in New Delhi or at a resort in Acapulco, Mexico, the risk of an assault may seem ever-present, if recent high-profile attacks are indicative of a general state of danger for female travelers.
But what is the reality of violence against women now – and should whole cities be avoided because of this risk? What is the actual risk for women traveling abroad compared with the perception?
Experts I spoke to say they cannot know whether attacks on female tourists are actually increasing. Hard numbers are difficult to come by.
But a number of experts tell me that it is possible that violence is on the rise in part because more women than ever are traveling alone and are venturing ever farther off the beaten path.
Dina Deligiorgis, a spokeswoman at UN Women, said there had been increasing attention to violence against women and girls in the past five to 10 years for a number of reasons, including the passage of various resolutions in the United Nations and the start of the U.N. secretary-general’s UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign.
Every expert I spoke to, whether in India, Mexico, Brazil or elsewhere, said that cases of violence against international female tourists were not only more likely to make the news but also more likely to see justice than cases involving local women.
A Dutch citizen, Rachel de Joode, lived in Mexico last year and said she felt there was a reason to be more cautious as a woman “just because of what I heard in the media and around me.” She said she would never go anywhere alone after 9 p.m. without knowing the area and using a “safe cab” (one called from a reputable company, not hailed off the street).
Mexico City has taken recent precautions, creating women-only buses in 2008 – women-only subway cars already were in place – on which a number of female tourists, including de Joode, said they felt safer. And while de Joode told me that she had been grabbed at in the mixed-gender subway a few times, she had experienced that and worse on the streets of Berlin and Amsterdam.
Lonely Planet, a travel guide for the slightly more intrepid backpack set, also seems to fall on the not-as-scary-as-it-appears side: “Despite often alarming media reports and official warnings, Mexico is generally a safe place to travel, and with just a few precautions you can minimize the risk of encountering problems,” it states online.
So what kinds of precautions can a concerned traveler take? Minimizing risk, whether in a foreign city or a local one, whether you are a woman or a man, is common sense. One easy way to do that is to check the State Department’s website for travel warnings before you head out; the site is regularly updated and includes cautions about things like carjackings in Mexico and gender-based violence in and around protest areas in Egypt. For more women-specific updates, there are many “What can I expect?” message boards out there, including ones by Lonely Planet. Also, it never hurts to carry the telephone number for your hotel and the local police with you.
The question then, in the end, is: Should all this violence – real or amplified – stop us from seeing the world?
Summing up what seems to be the underlying sentiment of many female travelers I spoke to, Jocelyn Oppenheim, an architectural designer in New York who has trekked extensively through India, said: “Bad things can happen, but bad things can happen when you get in a taxi in New York.”