Between sun-seared shrubs and the collapsed remains of Istanbul’s Byzantine city walls, police found the body of an American tourist, Sarai Sierra, 33, in February 2013.
Sierra, a first-time traveler abroad, had disappeared after near-constant contact with her family back in New York for two weeks. A homeless Turkish man was convicted in late June of her murder by an Istanbul court, and sentenced to life in prison.
This was not a case of wrong place, wrong time. Sierra was not wandering off the beaten path. She was not engaged in risky behavior. She was on a trip hoping to practice photography, according to news reports. This is a terrifying case of what can — and does — happen to female travelers.
The risk of an attack may seem ever-present for female travelers almost anywhere in the world.
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But what is the reality of violence against women now — and should whole cities or areas be avoided because of this risk? What is the actual risk for women traveling abroad compared with the perception?
Experts I spoke to say they cannot know whether attacks on female tourists are actually increasing. Reliable numbers are difficult to come by.
But a number of experts said it is possible that violence is on the rise in part because more women than ever are traveling alone and venturing farther off the beaten path.
Dina Deligiorgis, a spokeswoman at U.N. Women, said there had been increasing attention to violence against women and girls in the past five to 10 years. Every expert I spoke to, whether in India, Mexico, Brazil or elsewhere, said that cases of violence against international female tourists were not only more likely to make the news but also more likely to see justice than cases involving local women.
A Dutch citizen, Rachel de Joode, lived in Mexico last year and said she felt there was a reason to be more cautious as a woman “just because of what I heard in the media and around me.” She said she would never go anywhere alone after 9 p.m. without knowing the area and using a “safe cab” (one called from a reputable company, not hailed off the street).
Mexico City has taken recent precautions, creating women-only buses in 2008 — women-only subway cars were already in place — on which a number of female tourists, including de Joode, said they felt safer. And while de Joode said she had been grabbed at in the mixed-gender subway a few times, she had experienced that and worse on the streets of Berlin and Amsterdam.
Lonely Planet, a travel guide for the slightly more intrepid backpacker set, also seems to fall on the not-as-scary-as-it-appears side: “Despite often alarming media reports and official warnings, Mexico is generally a safe place to travel, and with just a few precautions you can minimize the risk of encountering problems,” it states.
So what kinds of precautions can a concerned traveler take? Minimizing risk, whether in a foreign city or a local one, whether you are a woman or a man, is common sense.
One easy way to do that is to check the State Department’s website at travel.state.gov for travel warnings. For more women-specific updates, there are many “What can I expect?” message boards out there, including ones by Lonely Planet. Also, it never hurts to carry the telephone number for your hotel and the local police.
The question then, in the end, is: Should all this violence — real or amplified — stop us from seeing the world?
Summing up what seems to be the underlying sentiment of many female travelers to whom I spoke, Jocelyn Oppenheim, an architectural designer in New York who has trekked extensively through India, said: “Bad things can happen, but bad things can happen when you get in a taxi in New York.”
Seattle Times travel staff contributed to this report.