So, where should we all travel when the world opens up?
If you’re like me, you’re thinking about that bucket list adventure — that epic vacation you’re going to take just as soon as it’s right for you.
If you’ve never traveled alone before, finding the right place to go is the priority. And, if you’re like most solo female travelers, you rank safety extremely high on your list.
So it makes sense that you might head to the great Google and type something along the lines of “safest places for women to travel”. And, fortunately for you, there are hundreds — thousands — of results. Apparently more people than you have been thinking about this.
If you’re a woman thinking of traveling by yourself for the first time, lists like these are so appealing. It makes everything so easy. Pick one of the countries at the top of the list and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have an epic experience. You’ll feel a whole lot safer, and your family and friends will too, because solo female travel is dangerous to begin with.
The thing is, lists like this are extremely problematic for a number of reasons.
They make enormous deductions about large swaths of society, laying heavy emphasis on the experience of white Westerners. And they ignore important criteria for women of various intersecting identities, while taking tourism away from communities that may need it.
But first: let’s stop telling women that solo travel is dangerous in the first place.
Let’s Stop Scaring Women Away From Solo Travel
I’ve talked at length about how much we love to scare women into the narrative that solo female travel is dangerous and dark.
Articles like this one, which are literally titled “20 Most Dangerous Places For Women Travelers,” feed into that hunger for fear-based clickbait. They perpetuate an extremely unhelpful perspective while simultaneously casting a dark shadow over entire destinations.
And, of course, there’s my favorite article that came out in 2019 in the New York Times about the “perils” of solo travel for women (spoiler alert: it’s not my favorite article).
Is solo female travel dangerous?
There are certainly things every solo traveler needs to consider to travel safely. And the experiences of women traveling alone can differ greatly from solo men.
But the stereotype that solo female travel is a “peril” causes more harm than good.
It’s also why lists that simultaneously applaud whole countries for being “female-friendly” while punishing others perpetuate dangerous biases that don’t help anyone.
You Can’t Rank an Entire Country (or Even City)
First of all, let’s just put this out there. Even without all the other reasons listed below, you can’t rank an entire country. It simply doesn’t make sense. Imagine trying to compare the safety of a major city like Chicago or Los Angeles to that of rural Maine or Hawai’i.
Even within a region there are “more” and “less” dangerous places. How could you paint a whole country with any one broad stroke?
Lists like these encourage us to homogenize entire countries, glossing over differences between cities and regions. These lists generalize and encourage stereotypes to outweigh nuance and variation within large geographic areas. And, in consuming and trusting these types of lists, readers end up completely missing out on places that might not be ranked highly, despite being perfectly safe. The ranking is wholly inaccurate and unfair.
At worst, we fall victims to our own misconceptions if we predicate our travels on these lists. We write off entire continents because they are lumped into a category without context or nuance.
We can’t do that. We are smarter than that.
Related: Travel is a Political Act
Safety Is Not Just Physical
What does safety actually mean, anyway?
Many of these lists draw from one singular statistic: a global safety ranking cited from sources like the Global Peace Index.
We’ve already talked about how ranking a whole country is problematic, but there’s more than just that.
While this index is great for understanding overall safety reports (access to weapons, homicide rates, and violent demonstrations are three of the things they measure), it does little to explain how this is relevant to a traveling audience, especially one that will only be there for a few days at a time.
Some of the statistics, like prison population rates, may have less to do with immediate danger and violence and more to do with governmental policy and systemic racism.
Many of the factored elements also focus very specifically on physical safety. They fail to take into account laws centered around gender equity, “non-violent” acts like street harassment, and microaggressions that you may experience on the regular during your visit. Just because you’re in a statistically safer place doesn’t mean you will be free from oppression or inequities.
Spotlighting a place’s physical safety through statistics can create false confidence in the entire travel experience.
Your Bias Is Showing
Let’s dive into one of the biggest problems here: Many of these lists are steeped in personal experience, bias, and racism, and have little information about the demographics of the people polled.
Some of the most problematic lists rely on personal experience alone to inform their answers. These may be interviews with individual travelers or small groups of women, or major surveys with entire communities, where they’re asked to rank countries based on how they’ve felt while traveling there.
One example of this is a commonly used question of how safe women feel walking alone at night in different cities. This question is a breeding ground for stereotypes centered around race and class and may have nothing to do with the actual reality of that city. This question often leads to automatically flagging lower-income communities, which tend to also be communities of color.
These questions also leave out important information about the demographic makeup of the people polled. Because they focus on more macro trends, they tend to ignore important issues that may be faced by smaller populations.
For example, acts of anti-Black racism in parts of the US can be overlooked in these surveys while the emotions and “feelings” of the dominant surveyed audience carry greater weight.
The question may also be ranked more heavily — in Asher & Lyric’s Women’s Danger Index, the overall feeling of safety (which was initially taken from a 2018 Gallup poll) is double weighted, skewing the results even further into the space of bias.
Related: How to Practice Anti-Oppression as Travel & Culture Content Creators
We Are Not All White Westerners
Do you follow more Western cultural norms or speak English? No? Then you’ll want to take with a heap of salt any list that includes in its criteria how friendly the locals are or how much English is spoken.
These criteria automatically raise the profile of Anglo-centric and Western countries, and especially predominantly white communities. This insinuates that the whiter a country is, the safer it will be for travelers. This is problematic in a number of ways, not to mention that it completely ignores the experience of travelers of color.
This list from Mapquest highlights 13 cities, where all but one (Tokyo, Japan) are in Western, predominantly white countries.
But Mapquest isn’t alone here. Just about every article in Google’s top ten list of search results features predominantly white, Western countries, with just a handful of non-Western countries for good measure.
Many of these lists ignore safety concerns in these same Western countries, like overlooking the poor ranking the US frequently receives from the Global Peace Index while simultaneously identifying similarly ranked countries as being dangerous.
Cultural familiarity on the part of the list creator promotes biases and condones stereotypes. Diverse experiences and identities get overlooked when list creators (and their surveyed communities) give preference to the white Western narrative.
Don’t forget other intersections
If you’re LGBTQ+, it may be more important for you to know what countries criminalize your identity.
If you have a physical disability or are traveling with an infant, cities that aren’t accessible could be much more of a safety concern for you than other factors.
France regularly tops the list of safest places for women. But, if you’re Muslim, you might have second thoughts about traveling there, not wanting your choice of clothing to be the subject of national scrutiny.
Safety looks different for everyone. While these lists can seem helpful, they may be more harmful than we initially realize.
Forget the Safety Lists
If you wrote one of these lists, this is a great time to check your own bias, assumptions, and sources — or consider deleting your list altogether. Make sure to download our free anti-oppression toolkit to make sure your language and key points are inclusive and thoughtful of all intersections.
If you’re a traveler looking for safety tips, remember that every place is someone’s home. Getting local feedback and advice might be your best route to getting realistic, helpful information.
Are you a Travel and Culture Content Creator?
Download the free Anti-Oppression Toolkit
Here are some alternative ways to ask about safety in a specific place:
Visit multiple sources that talk about a destination and read articles from local travel bloggers who can speak about their home.
Don’t write off a whole country without good reason.
Connect with locals directly through Wanderful’s member community. You can ask questions in advance of a trip, meet up with someone for a cup of coffee, or even stay in her home through our global hosting network.
Use platforms like ViaHero to collect direct advice from locals themselves through custom itineraries.
And finally, stay away from lists that rank places — especially countries — on safety. If you absolutely must surrender to the clickbait, make sure you read those articles with a critical eye. Think about which places are listed and what they have in common. Consider why they might have made the list and who might be left out because of those reasons.
What do you think of these lists of safe countries? Let us know in the comments.
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