As travel restrictions finally ease up and we reach for the champagne, you might be wondering: is it really safe to hop inside a plane, ship, train, museum, festival tent or … erupting volcano? (Granted, the volcano is a little extreme, but that never stopped Royal Canadian Geographical Society Explorer-in-Residence George Kourounis.) The answer has everything to do with risk management, which would be helpful if this was something people were actually good at.
Decades of studies have shown our psychological biases constantly get in the way. How we deal with danger is also heavily influenced by culture, superstitions, instinct, experience and media diet (a freshly-squeezed splash of Bucket Listed included). Consider the principle of “if it bleeds it leads.” Fear and disaster always generate more headlines, creating the impression that things are much worse than they actually are. We hear about exceedingly rare and tragic events — a snapping bungee cord, a gondola accident — but little about the vast majority of jumps and journeys that go according to plan.
I’ve picked up a few risk management tricks over the years, a checklist that helps me decide whether cage diving with great whites or saltwater crocodiles is safe. Weighing heavy on instinct, research, attitude and curiosity, it has served me exceptionally well. Kourounis told me his own philosophy: “I always try to keep the risk versus reward scale in mind. I’ve rappelled into numerous active volcanoes around the world, but I’ve never been bungee jumping. The risk versus reward ratio just isn’t there for me. With COVID, however, it’s not just your own risk that you have to absorb, it’s the potential risk to others who you might come in contact with, so the scales tip to err on the side of caution more than usual.”
Kourounis is right, of course, and now I know exactly what to get him for his birthday: a voucher for Great Canadian Bungee.
Our assessment of risk falls on a spectrum. As travel recovers from the pandemic, optimists will reach for their suitcases just as pessimists will reach for the anecdotes and headlines that confirm their darkest fears. “It’s going to be amazing!” is a very different attitude to “It’s going to be a disaster!” Both parties tend to prove themselves right.
If you’re looking for reassurances that it is indeed safe to travel, you’ve come to the right place. We have a brilliant opportunity to rediscover and support our country as it triumphantly emerges from a devastating ordeal. Moods will be buoyant as no one takes anything for granted. But I must add the caveat that anything can happen at any moment. My positive advice offers about the same protection as flip-flops in lava.
Still, common sense always goes a long way: wash your hands often; stay home if you’re sick; don’t fly with a fever. All of which makes it a great time to travel, unless you’re a pathogen. Surfaces are being wiped down like never before with new health and safety regimens. Gone are the days of toddlers chewing crusty plane trays last wiped down in 2006.
Spend a little time digging up statistics about flying or tourism disasters, and you’ll quickly discover that despite the hair-raising headlines, our planet is far more welcoming, hospitable and benign than you might imagine. Seasoned travellers know this; we just don’t hear much about it in the news.
Ultimately, you should just do what feels right for you, and don’t let anyone — especially a columnist — tell you otherwise. In the meantime, I’m going to pop champagne, fully aware that more people die each year from exploding champagne corks than shark attacks.