When August Reiger – an 18-year-old Oklahoman on vacation with his parents – disappeared while walking on a popular hiking trail in Baños, Ecuador, CNN quoted his father as follows:
“Everyone’s baffled, because it’s not a dangerous place. There’s no rebels or something like that who kidnap people. I can’t come up with a scenario that could make sense.”
The elder Mr. Reiger’s bafflement is understandable. The Safety & Security page on the U.S. Embassy website highlights no safety concerns in Ecuador generally or Baños in particular. Google “Baños, Ecuador” and you will find page after page of exciting “Things to Do” information, but no warnings about safety.
The day after the news about August’s disappearance broke, I stumbled upon the following Facebook post by Kim Willis, an American who was traveling in the vicinity just a day or two earlier:
When I read that it happened in Baños near the Lookout I was equally shocked and relieved it was not me. Friends who traveled there before me said to make sure I did not go to the Lookout alone as it was very dangerous (rapes, kidnappings, etc.)
I immediately reached out to Ms. Willis, a 43-year-old consultant who was traveling in South America to research how people are using new digital resources on the road. I wanted to include her in an article I was writing about the challenges of researching Third World travel destinations. In a conversation on Facebook, Ms. Willis said, “If you read guidebooks, they don’t mention current safety issues. I’m on the ‘gringo trail’, so to speak, so travelers share info. I also spent a bit of time with locals to get further advice on safety. This info can be difficult for regular travelers to access.”
Seven months later, August remains missing. As I write this, I see on Facebook that his 19th birthday passed this week. I mark such dates faithfully, as do all the families of The Missing Americans Project.
How Big A Problem? No One Knows, and THAT’s The Problem
When I talk with journalists about the problem of Americans and others who disappear while traveling outside their national borders, they inevitably (and correctly) want to know exactly how big a problem it is. They want to know how many people disappear in a particular country per year and if that number is growing or shrinking.
I tell them I don’t know. Nobody seems to.
It is a real problem, but one so ill-defined and poorly quantified that governments behave as if it doesn’t exist – at least not to a degree that requires serious attention and action. No government keeps credible or reliable track of how many of its citizens disappear while traveling abroad annually or how many foreign nationals disappear while traveling in its country.
This information deficit has major implications for the global traveling public. In the absence of timely, credible news, data, and analysis, how can travelers make informed decisions? How can media contextualize “missing abroad” stories as to whether they are anomalies or symptoms of a larger problem? How can governments craft policies accurately reflect threats to their citizens?
I am particularly interested in this failure to communicate as it affects my efforts on behalf of families whose loved ones disappear or are murdered abroad, but the ramifications are farther reaching. Failure of governments and the media to treat travel/tourism like a “real” industry and communicate about it accordingly affects all travelers’ ability to ensure that their travel decisions are safe and ethical.
An Invisible Economic Behemoth
In economic terms, the travel/tourism industry rivals oil, energy, finance, and agriculture. It generates $3 billion in business every day and employs about one out of every 10 people around the world. In Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, journalist Elizabeth Becker writes:
In 2005, frequent-flyer miles were worth more than all of the American dollars in circulation…. Thailand is the world’s biggest exporter of rice, yet tourism is its number-one money earner.
And yet it is one of the least-regulated industries and one that receives little serious attention from the non-trade media. Unlike the oil industry, which is heavily scrutinized and reported on, travel journalism has very much become an extension of the industry it purports to cover. Becker writes:
“With few exceptions, travel writing and travel sections share the singular goal of helping consumers spend their money pursuing the dream of a perfect trip. They seldom write critical reviews; only articles about what to do and what to buy and how to experience a destination. This “feel-good” approach is rare, even in lifestyle journalism…. Imagine if movie reviewers only discussed their favorite films…. That is what travel writing has become.”
Due in large part to the fact that most travel “journalism” is directly or indirectly subsidized by interested entities, most reporting serves to promote the industry, rather than subject it to informative, critical analysis. Safety and security represent only a tiny fraction of the coverage that does occur.
“Murder Capital of the World”
Honduras – with a population of just about 8 million and approximately 20 murders per day – is widely recognized as the “murder capital of the world.” Google “Roatan” (the name of an increasingly marketed destination in Honduras’ Bay Islands) and you could be forgiven for believing the island is no part of the same country as San Pedro Sula – the most dangerous city in this most dangerous country. In fact, most travel stories go out of their way to describe Roatan as “not really part of Honduras”.
I had never heard of Roatan until my brother began visiting there a few years ago and became part-owner of small tourism business on the island. Like so many ex-pat business owners, Joe adopted the “it’s not Honduras; it’s Roatan” mentality that sells the island to tourists and prospective retirees as a safe, inexpensive piece of paradise. It wasn’t until Joe disappeared in 2009 that I learned directly of the challenges faced by families who lose a loved one abroad – and, more to the point, how government policies and media practices contribute to and exacerbate those difficulties.
When it comes to Roatan, all information is anecdotal – and those anecdotes reflect the experiences and motivations of the people sharing them. If you are among those who have lost a loved one, been the victim of an assault or real estate scam, or learned the hard way that legal recourse is as nonexistent there as anywhere else in Honduras, you see one picture. If you are one of the ex-pats who have found happiness and success there, you become one of the island’s champions and cheerleaders. If you are a native islander, your voice simply doesn’t make it into the public narrative.
The problem is that no solid data exist to mediate these perspectives. Conversations about crime, corruption, and safety occur only “inside the family” through private social media groups.
Much the same is the case throughout the developing world.
One would hope U.S. embassy websites would be a trove of useful safety information; all too often, however, embassies counsel the sort of “common-sense measures” one should take anywhere (“Don’t walk alone at night”, “Don’t accept rides from strangers”, “Remain alert”, “Hide jewelry and electronics”), but provide little detailed, timely, local intelligence.
As a result, victims are routinely dismissed as people who failed to exercise common sense. Such criticisms ignore the fact that common sense is highly context- and information-sensitive.
No Data, No Problem!
The absence of current and credible data on people who disappear or are murdered abroad makes it impossible to gauge the extent of the problem, examine and address its root causes, or even to say with any certainty that a problem exists. For example, based on the limited information available, I see very strong resemblances between the disappearance of August Reiger in Ecuador this year and that of David Gimelfarb in Costa Rica in 2009. I am fully aware that I may be connecting unrelated dots, and that I also may be doing so with regard to several other disappearances that occurred in the region between 2009 and 2011.
Insufficient attention paid by governments and journalists to these cases makes it impossible to say with any confidence whether patterns exist that could lead to answers and justice for families of the missing and murdered.
It’s Not Just About Numbers
As critical as good numbers are to informed decision making, they are only part of any good analysis. For example, defenders of a particular destination often will compare the necessarily anecdotal crime or safety numbers for their locale with the harder numbers that are available for a major U.S. city and say, “See that? It’s much safer here than there!”
Let’s leave aside the fallaciousness of comparing made-up numbers about, say, a small Caribbean island with a population in the thousands to real data about an economically and demographically complex metropolitan region with a population in the millions.
More important questions are:
In the event of a crime, do police or other reliable investigative resources exist? Is there a functioning judicial system?
If you went missing in the wilderness or at sea, what resources would be deployed to search for you? What practical or bureaucratic obstacles would stand in their way?
If you were injured or ill, would you want to use the local health-care system? If not, how would you get to a doctor or hospital you would trust?
These are fundamental questions that too few travelers consider when planning a trip. Most of the answers are not easily obtained from an internet search.
It’s Not Just About Crime
Costa Rica is widely perceived as an island of safety in an otherwise insecure region – so much so that it is one of the most popular destinations for high-school Spanish classes and church youth missions. The country aggressively markets itself to these groups on the basis of its perceived safety and security.
And yet, according to the Tico Times newspaper, on average one person drowns every 3.5 days in Costa Rica. The country’s treacherous riptides are well documented. Drowning is so common that people like Michael Dixon – a British citizen who vanished while visiting Tamarindo, Costa Rica, in 2009 – often are presumed to have drowned, whether or not they were even seen in or near the water.
One might reasonably assume a country whose tourism-based economy relies heavily on two coastlines would invest heavily in beach safety. However, at any given time only 130 lifeguards are active on Costa Rica’s beaches. One has to question whether parents would be as comfortable sending their teens in the numbers they do if they were aware of how little safety infrastructure exists there.
Similarly, when a boatful of young people was lost for four days between the Honduran islands of Utila and Roatan in June 2013, media attention focused exclusively on their dramatic rescue. None of the coverage mentioned the fact that these inexperienced sailors (American, Canadian, and Honduran – most under 18 years old) were able to rent a speedboat with no life vests, flares, radio, or GPS, and not enough fuel for the inter-island excursion.
The experience of these young people hit very close to home, as they were adrift in the same waters where my brother disappeared in 2009. It took us 72 hours to get the U.S. government to deploy two Blackhawk helicopters from Joint Task Force Bravo in Soto Cano, Honduras, to join our search – the same choppers that ultimately found the boat that was missing this past June. I have no doubt that my family’s experience and our outreach to advise the families of the “Utila 8” contributed to the happy conclusion of their ordeal.
It’s Not “Just About Us”
I have taken more than a little grief – some of it from myself – for focusing so much attention and energy on helping tourists and ex-pats and so little on the challenges faced daily by the people who live in the countries on which I try to cast a safety spotlight. Don’t I realize that these are poor countries and the light I’m shining could hurt their livelihoods?
I certainly am aware of this. Early in my family’s ordeal, I realized that what was a tragedy for us was business as usual for people throughout Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and beyond.
I think of the Belizean lady who told me, “I am feeling so sorry for your family. I lose my son the same way.”
I think of the dehydrated Nicaraguan whose dorey drifted into Tobacco Key, Belize, the day the U.S. military stopped searching for Joe. This gentleman had been adrift in the same waters as Joe for at least 11 days after his boat had been swamped off La Ceiba, Honduras, and he lost his oars. No one had been looking for him.
I think of the four people – none of them my brother – who were rescued through our self-funded efforts.
I think of all the families who have, in desperation and frustration, turned to the internet to look for help and found The Missing Americans Project when their own governments could not or would not help them.
And I wonder, if a bunch of “rich Gringos like us” have so much trouble getting help, attention, justice – what hope do any of these folks have?
The spotlight I try to shine is on all their behalf. The attention and action I seek for travelers and ex-pats can only help the people who live in these countries by bringing them into a more global community of legal, practical, and cultural norms. They will be the primary beneficiaries of better legal systems, improved law enforcement, and the creation of basic search/rescue infrastructures.