We all know that study abroad programs can be extremely rewarding, both for students and for faculty.
There is so much to be said for the distinctive quality of immersing oneself in the actual surroundings where an historic event took place, or to take part in a cultural celebration firsthand; the connection is deeper once we ourselves journey outside of the textbook (or tablet), and directly into the context.
It is important to remember, as we prepare to take on such a journey, that each place has its own living story, its own current context. To that end, if you are a faculty member or study abroad administrator engaged in planning an upcoming study abroad program, it becomes critical to stay informed of current events local to your destination.
Here are just a few ways that your destination’s current events landscape might inform how you plan:
1. Latest customs
How old is that reference guide you’re looking at with suggestions about how to behave when you arrive in Bahrain? Especially nowadays, a lot can change in 20, 10, or even 5 years’ time of a country’s development.
The last thing you want is for your study abroad group to arrive with everyone assuming that certain phrases or gestures are correct or conventional, when in actuality these might be outdated.
Luckily, most people you meet casually during your travels are likely to be forgiving even when you do make these mistakes, in which case a correction and/or some good-spirited laughing-at are probably the worst responses that you incur. Then again, you never know when you might encounter someone who is less forgiving of your ignorance. Worse yet, communication barriers, both in verbal and non-verbal language, might make it difficult for you to tell even when someone is indeed displeased.
- Make sure your reference guides are current. Seek supplemental, current information online.
- Make a connection with someone who lives in the destination, and see if they will be kind enough to offer you some insight. It is easy to do this on the internet well in advance of your trip!
- When in doubt, always listen more than you speak. If you follow the social cues of those around you and pay attention to body language, you are on better footing to make a good impression.
2. The political climate
Make no mistake, international travel and tourism is a giant industry. Many destinations’ local economies thrive on tourist traffic, and in general you are likely to be welcome in most places.
In 2008, Beijing famously hosted the Summer Olympics. Among other public initiatives in preparation for the tourist influx, “Beijing imposed a traffic ban using the same system and took 45 per cent of private cars off the road, relieving both traffic congestion and pollution,” and is repeating a similar initiative for an upcoming summit (source: South China Morning Post).
Local governments are often engaging in initiatives to spur better tourism, such as planning expansion of travel routes in conjunction with airlines and other travel organizations, etc. This week’s article in the Las Vegas Sun delves into the complexity of The State of Nevada’s local government’s discussions about doing just that.
- Be aware of any large events taking place in and around your destination during the time of your travel. If you do not plan to participate in these events, be prepared for potential crowds and, likely, high prices on accommodations and incidentals.
- Be self-aware of the impression that you and your group may give to those around you. Will you automatically be identified as “tourists” based on your appearance? If so, will this open doors for you, or will it invite excessive attention from vendors, or any manner of political hostility?
- Search the news for any local government initiatives to encourage tourism. There may be new flights, tour programs and companies, or other incentives for you and your travel group to take advantage of.
- Consult an unbiased contact at the destination with any questions or concerns you have in advance of travel.
3. Regional or international conflict
What could the United States’s recently-announced commitment to better relations with Cuba mean for you as a U.S. faculty member thinking about leading a trip to visit Havana? As a fresh development, it may be too soon to answer this question. It is important to understand what kinds of controversy may be surrounding developments such as this, and scan for signs that indicate a potential impact on your travel, either positive or negative.
Should you or should you not be planning a trip to Egypt for your student group? A recent article by UK-based Telegraph‘s Richard Spencer explores some of the pros and cons of traveling as a tourist in Egypt at this time when tensions are perhaps not as high as they have been in the region, but still a consideration for many.
- Check your government’s official announcements about the safety of travel in the proposed destination. For travelers from the United States: The U.S. Department of State keeps a list of current information about travel to each country; there is a “Safety and Security” subsection in addition to comprehensive logistical information about travel to and from your destination.
- Search the internet for recent reviews and reports from others who have decided to travel to your proposed destination, recently.
- Consider the difference in travel between a large group vs. a smaller group, and ensure that key logistics such as accommodations, daily itineraries, etc., are kept in mind as you review your references.