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Keep Calm and Travel On: Staying Safe in Conservative Countries

Conservative countries are too often misunderstood. Between what we hear in the news and personal experiences from friends, we write them off as “dangerous” or “not for me.” But, the reality is, they’re diamonds in the rough.

So, don’t discount them. Instead, educate yourself so you can embark on your adventure with eyes wide open and discover some of the most beautifully complicated and culturally stimulating places in the world.

While every country is different, there are some general safety guidelines to follow when traveling in conservative countries.

Dress appropriately

What’s appropriate to wear differs from country to country and sometimes even from city to city within a given country. Do your due diligence ahead of time so that you can pack accordingly.

As a general rule of thumb, keep your shoulders and knees covered at all times. In places where women commonly wear hijabs, it’s okay if you don’t, with a few exceptions. For example, if you plan to visit a religious establishment, such as a mosque, you must cover your hair. Most places will provide scarves, but it’s not a bad idea to carry your own. You never know what you might stumble upon as you wander.

Don’t walk alone at night

While walking in well-lit, busy areas at night is usually fine, it’s best to stay off the quieter streets, especially if you’re alone. As a tourist you’re already a target for petty crime, so take the proper precautions and avoid making yourself more vulnerable.

Learn some common words and phrases.

It’s always a good idea to know common words and phrases in the native language. This is especially true for conservative countries. You’ll not only be able to communicate more with the locals, but it can also come in handy if you find yourself in a potentially sketchy situation.

It’s also a sign that you respect the people and culture. Chat with locals - waiters, taxi drivers, store owners, fellow diners - they’ll see you’re making an effort to connect and treat you with kindness and respect in return. You’d be surprised at how few tourists take the time to speak with, let alone really acknowledge, locals. So, this small gesture will go a long way for you.

Negotiate taxi prices beforehand

While it’s never too hard to find a taxi or tuk tuk, it is easy to fall victim to creative con-drivers. In some places, it’s best to avoid taxis altogether. You should always know the taxi culture for tourists at your destination beforehand so you’re prepared.

That said, if you’re taking a taxi, make sure to negotiate a flat rate or insist on using the meter before getting in the car. It’s also a good idea to know your route ahead of time and even tell the drive how you want to get to your destination. And, of course, always pay attention during the ride.

Avoid carrying valuables

Leave your passport in your hotel or AirBnB, ideally locked in a safe. If you don’t have that option, make sure it’s securely stored on your person and avoid flashing it. Always make sure your phone is out of sight when you’re not using it, too. If you have a camera, it’s best to secure the strap around your neck and under your arm. For extra security, hold onto the strap at your chest.

Watch for scams

There are several ways to get scammed as a tourist, and they’re not limited to just conservative countries. First, is the chaos theory - choreographed situations that cause confusion and result in a distracted tourist getting pickpocketed. Be weary of these scenarios, and make sure anything your carrying is on your frontside.

Another common scam, is a local offering you to take their photo or to put something on you, henna for example. Tourists often jump at the opportunity for the photo - how cool?! - or politely oblige to the henna sample, forgetting the age old saying “nothing in life is free.” The local will then ask you to pay them for it, and even when you say no, they might continue to badger you.

Conservative countries have a ton of amazing bazaars and night markets to visit, but they’re also a hunting ground for petty thieves and shopkeepers alike. That said, definitely still go, just keep a few things in mind:

Don’t be afraid to say no, and firmly, if necessary. Shopkeepers will try to lure you into their store and pressure you. Avoid these situations by simply saying “no thanks” - in their language - and keep moving.

Always negotiate. There is no such thing as a set price in these shops, so never settle on a price you’re not comfortable with. If the shopkeeper is not meeting you at your price point, walk away. The threat of you not buying anything, usually gets them to your number.

Fake it ‘til you make it

No matter how uncomfortable or worried you might feel, don’t let it show. Pickpockets and scammers go for the easiest targets they can find. Act confident - keep your head up, be aware of your surroundings, acknowledge people - and they’ll leave you alone.

Be prepared if something goes wrong

Before leaving, share your travel itinerary as well as copies of your passport with a family member or close friend so they can. Make sure you, too, have access to an electronic copy of your passport.

We also recommend registering your trip with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), that way the local embassy is alerted of your arrival and can keep you updated with important safety information throughout your trip. They'll be able to contact you or a family member in case of an emergency.

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