Continuing with the theme of keeping travel security in perspective that we introduced in the last article I’d like to stress again the need to keep a realistic and practical view of your personal security when traveling overseas and to avoid alarmist perceptions that often follow incidents like the Sarai Sierra case and the sexual assault of the Swiss tourist. Of course it’s equally important to avoid the rose-colored glasses and happy complacency exhibited by some other travelers who may have engaged in risky behavior and done foolish things yet got through it unscathed and then proceed to tell everyone who will listen how safe it is and how important it is not to be paranoid.
So how do we find the middle ground and get as realistic as possible an idea of the risks of travel to a particular place? The first is by conducting open source research on your destination. Corporations and their business travelers can usually access subscription services that specialize in providing travel security information. They also have access to organizations like the US State Department’s overseas Security Advisory Council that provide guidance to the business community. Individual travelers don’t usually have access to these resources so we will look at more available methods. One place to begin is government issued travel advice. For US travelers that can be found at www.travel.state.gov . Other nations also publish travel advice as well. The UK Foreign office information can be found here: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country; Australia’s is here: http://www.smartraveller.gov.au ; Canada’s is here: http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories . By looking at several different nations travel guidance for the same location you can begin to piece together common themes and trends relating to personal security.
One thing that is important to keep in mind when reviewing travel security advise for a location – whether the advice is coming from a government agency or a private sector provider- is that most of this advice is written for a wide audience. That means the guidance is written for the backpacker to the business traveler and everyone in between even though their individual risk profiles may vary greatly. This is why context is so important. For example there may be a problem with buses being hijacked en route between towns in the country where you will be traveling. Maybe the hijackers typically take the passengers off the bus and rob them and sometimes there may be gratuitous violence even when the criminals’ demands are met. While that is a serious security concern in a general sense and may be very relevant to a backpacker or budget traveler if you are planning a business trip to the capital city of that country, will spend the entire time either in your hotel, at meetings or at dinner and you will not be traveling in rural areas, going from town to town or using the bus it may not be particularly significant for you.
When reading travel advice please keep the notion of context in mind. Using the above example of the business trip to the capital city imagine there is also a significant problem with taxi-related crime in that city. In particular there is a problem with the robbery or express kidnapping of travelers arriving at the capital city’s airport. In that case it might be very relevant to your business trip and a risk that needs to be mitigated. You might for example mitigate this risk by arranging for transportation from a known company in advance and establish recognition protocols with the driver (not just a sign with your name on it).
After reviewing several different reports from different governments you should have an idea of crime trends and similar security issues at the location in question. You can pursue this further by conducting internet searches on key words at various news websites to pull up accounts of specific crimes and so forth. This may also provide you more detail and help you to understand common modus operandi. Keep in mind however that in many locations crimes go unreported or don’t appear in the press.
You can also look at various travel websites and forums and see what other travelers and expatriates say about a particular location. CAUTION: It’s very important to use critical thinking when reading or listening to anecdotal accounts from other travelers. There is a great deal of misinformation out there and nothing should be taken at face value. That said this can be a way of building on what you already know. This is especially if you come across recurring themes.
How much effort should you devote to this research? It should largely be dictated by the place you are going to and the circumstances of your trip. A solo female traveler hiking or cycling through Latin America for three months should devote much more time than two business travelers going to Paris for two days. As you begin your research it may also become evident that you need to go further to clarify or de-conflict information that you are finding.
Additionally you should go more in depth with this research when it comes to selecting accommodations, modes of travel and other aspects of your trip. The more you know and the more you plan the less likely you are to encounter a problem and the better you’ll deal with a problem if one should arise.
The important aspect is to maintain perspective when considering security facets of your travel. Understand what threats exist and look at them in the context of your trip. Don’t become unduly afraid of things that don’t pose a real risk to you and don’t be complacent or blind to things that do.