16 OCT 2012: Drugs and guns are a deadly mix. They can have devastating and lethal consequences not only for the unfortunate victims of violence and their friends and families but also for the city or country’s reputation. I recently returned from almost two weeks travelling around two of the supposedly most violent and deadliest countries in the world. This also included what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has named the most dangerous city on earth in 2011 – San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

It may seem strange then to hold the Central America Travel Mart in San Pedro Sula which has more homicides per capita than any other city in the world. It’s a gutsy move when you are inviting tour operators from North America, Europe, South America and Asia as well as international media. Welcome to Homicide central.

It’s also a smart move. One can read the headlines and never really get the full story. Don’t sugar-coat what’s happening in the streets but put things in perspective. You can only get that by actually visiting the destination.

I have never been a big fan of the travel warnings and advisories posted by the Government of Canada’s foreign affairs department. I find some of them very inflammatory and if you are skittish you would never travel anywhere in the world including many cities in Canada. We as Canadians get up in arms when Canada or a certain city or town is disparaged by the international media or foreigner.

Therefore I have some sympathy for other destinations around the world when some of these warnings and advisories are way over the top.

Just quoting a few lines from Canada’s travel advisory on Honduras: “A large percentage of the population is armed. Guns and weapons as machetes and knives are frequently used in robberies. Perpetrators often use violence if the victim resists.” It goes on, “Travellers have been followed and assaulted. Use discretion when discussing travel plans in public.”

Well, sounds pretty scary to me. It details various areas including San Pedro Sula and along the coastal highway and other towns as well as islands where crime occurs.

I travelled in all of these areas both in a group as well as wandered about on my own. Now did I go down dark alleys in the middle of the night in some residential or gang infested districts? No. Why would I?

At no point during my stay in the so-called murder capital of the world did I ever feel unsafe. Frankly the only robbery that occurred was the $38.71 US departure tax – now that’s highway robbery.

I went on the Government of Canada’s travel advisory for the United States. It rates barely a mention about any crime compared to the pages it details with Honduras and El Salvador. Yet in 2011 there were four American cities listed in the top 50 cities for the murders in 2011 – at number 21 was New Orleans (a city I adore and have visited a couple of times), number 30 was Detroit, number 43 was St. Louis, and number 48 was Baltimore.

Americans have one of the highest gun ownerships in the world yet no mention of that in the travel advisory. I love the United States and travel there frequently for business and pleasure but it is interesting (and perhaps political since they are our biggest trading partner) how it is downplayed.

Yet it seems hypocritical with the high murder rate in many American cities Canadians and people from other nations don’t give it a moment’s hesitation in visiting. But at the same time we get up in arms and are afraid to visit other destinations when we hear about any incidents.

I travelled by foot, boat, minivan, air and an old open train car. I went on hikes just with a guide, snorkelling on islands, went to local bars and restaurants and strolled through street markets in many areas the travel warning said don’t go.

I never felt threatened or feared for my safety. And talking with many others at the conference and on the post tours nor did they feel unsafe. At night-time functions we would travel past various neighbourhoods back to the hotel. I never saw anyone with a gun other than some army guy or from the police. I never got a sense the city or the country was under siege.

In El Salvador which also had similar dire warnings I travelled throughout the coastal communities, colonial towns, national parks, mountain roads, and spent some time in the capital, San Salvador – again supposedly a hot bed for violent crime. I carried my camera bag and shot numerous photos along the streets, markets, churches and public areas. You would see tourist police around in the major areas smiling and personable.

What did surprise me was how friendly everyone was and how non-aggressive the vendors were compared to some other destinations. These were probably the least aggressive I have experienced and the majority didn’t mind at all having their picture taken. I was a rare sighting – a gringo. Tourism is still in its infancy there so I stood out but never got hassled.

A fellow journalist and I laughed when we were going on a hike through the Cerre Verde National Park. The guide, journalist and I were escorted by three armed Salvadoran soldiers with semiautomatic rifles. I asked the guide what they were there for - he said they act like a park ranger and in case of a medical emergency can get help. The journalist and I chuckled at that statement. First, they weren’t carrying any first-aid kit. just a rifle, and not once did they tell us about the birdlife and wildlife. It was an overreaction to keep us protected.

Both in Honduras and El Salvador most of the violence is between fellow gang members – not against tourists.

It’s ironic – the heavy police and military presence from their perspective is to help make tourists feel secure. Unfortunately it can have the opposite effect and the tourist thinks the country is so crime ridden they need all this protection.

Frankly I think it’s a make work project since unemployment is high. I believe it’s overkill the military and police presence. Keep some presence but be low key about it.

The question remains. Would I recommend visiting Honduras and El Salvador, two of the most dangerous nations? Yes and without any hesitation. Would I bring my wife and kids on holiday there? Absolutely.

Central America is really a hidden gem of the world – Mayan ruins, vibrant green countryside, friendly locals, colourful Colonial towns, beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, cultural attractions and it is very affordable.

Don’t be deterred by travel warnings. Be alert, cautious and exercise common sense – it’s no guarantee but driving a car or crossing a street in Toronto is far more dangerous.

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Chris Ryall

An industry insider with strong, outspoken opinions that readers enjoy, whether they agree, or take issue with his point of view.

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