Last week I went to see the Roman ruins in Baalbeck, Lebanon. I had wanted to visit Baalbeck ever since I arrived in Beirut two months ago, but had hesitated about going because I’d heard that the security situation there was dicey. Last year, seven Estonians were kidnapped in while cycling near Baalbeck, in the Bekaa Valley. Last month, the US Embassy in Lebanon sent an emergency message warning Westerners not to travel to the Baalbeck area because of clashes between the Lebanese authorities and local criminal groups. The latest clash erupted only last week, when three Lebanese Army soldiers were wounded during a shootout early Tuesday in the town of Baalbeck itself.
Browsing online, however, I came across various traveller’s bulletin boards that told a slightly different story. One tourist noted, on 14 March, that they were with some friends in the Baalbeck ruins early the previous Sunday morning, when suddenly they heard lots of automatic arms fire in nearby, and also “heard what sounded like something whizzing across the sky above us, which was followed by a few very large explosions.” However, it seemed to start up and die off quickly and all at once so they assumed it was a military drill of some sort. The travellers didn’t seem that scared.
It’s important to take reporting bias into account when reading newspapers and searching online for security information. Journalists don’t file reports saying “nothing happening round here,” and tourists are far more likely to post something online when they hear gunshots than when they don’t. So it’s hardly surprising that a Google search for “Baalbeck warnings dangers” will turn up a bunch of scary stories.
One way of getting a better idea of the security situation somewhere new is simply to ask people who’ve been there recently. This way, you avoid giving too much weight to the self-selecting sample of those people who go to the trouble of writing about stuff. So last week I asked everyone I knew in Beirut if they had been to Baalbeck recently, and whether they thought it was dangerous. The overwhelming consensus was that it was fine.
Weighing up all the evidence I had gained from newspapers, online reports, and gossip, and taking into account the various biases that might distort these sources, I tentatively concluded that my chances of being shot or kidnapped in Baalbeck were minimal – low enough to constitute an acceptable risk. So my sister and I headed out there in one of the rickety minibuses that are the cheapest way of getting around in Lebanon, and for a few hours the following morning, we had the ruins to ourselves.